The heart of London is full of strange old places with unusual names and odd stories, but there is one place that for a very long time was not a true part of London at all. Ely Place, just to the north of Holborn Circus, was until relatively recently considered to be a part of Cambridgeshire. For centuries, it was an enclave – an area of land physically located in the City of London but not under its jurisdiction. Instead, it was privately owned by the Bishops of Ely, and even today the street has its own gatehouse and beadles.
Ely Place was described by Walter Thornbury in 1878 as follows:
To the public it is one of those unsatisfactory streets which lead nowhere; to the inhabitants it is quiet and pleasant; to the student of Old London it is possessed of all the charms which can be given by five centuries of change and the long residence of the great and noble.
There have been many “great and noble” people, to use Thornbury’s turn of phrase, who have made Ely Place their home (or one of their homes) over the centuries. The first powerful residents, the people who gave the street its name, were the Bishops of Ely. In the late 13th Century, John de Kirkby became Bishop of Ely, and as he owned some land to the north of Holborn he established a town house there which became the official London residence of the Bishops of Ely.
But why would the Bishop of Ely even have a palace in London in the first place? Like many other bishops, the Bishop of Ely had a seat in the House of Lords, and his parliamentary duties meant that he would have spent a part of the year in London. Therefore it made sense to maintain a home in the capital. It was, however, often the case that considerable efforts would be made to ensure that these residences were not subject to the laws and – most importantly – taxes of London. By establishing a site as an enclave, Ely Place was legally a part of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire despite its London location. A magnificent gatehouse separated the enclave from the London streets beyond. Rev. Stephen Eyre Jarvis, in a 1911 visitor guide written about Ely Place and the church of St Etheldreda, describes the status of the bishops’ residences in London:
In former times most of the Bishops had seats, in or near London, in which they resided during their attendance on Parliament. Within the precincts of these residences they retained their jurisdiction as in their own dioceses. Some of these episcopal residences, with their enclosures, were exempt also from the ordinary civil jurisdiction, so that taxes could not be levied there. Hence they were called Liberties. Ely Place, besides being a Liberty, was also a Sanctuary, where persons pursued by the law for certain offences could not be arrested by the civil authorities. (pp3-4)
A private chapel was built alongside the Bishop’s palace, and it was dedicated to St Etheldreda, the woman who founded the first religious house in Ely in the 7th Century, and the saint to whom Ely Cathedral was dedicated. The chapel dates from the late 13th Century and is one of the only buildings in London surviving from the reign of Edward I. Today, the chapel is the only surviving remnant of the Bishops’ palace – unlike so many City churches, it escaped the flames of the Great Fire in 1666, although it was severely damaged following an air raid during the Second World War.
The land owned by the Bishops of Ely extended far beyond modern-day Ely Place, to approximately Leather Lane in the west and Saffron Hill in the east – and in the palace grounds orchards and vineyards were planted. Ely Place became famous for these gardens, particularly the strawberries grown there, which were immortalised in an exchange between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Ely in Shakespeare’s Richard III:
When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there
I do beseech you send for some of them
Probably the most well-known of Ely Place’s inhabitants was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of King Edward III. John’s vast palace of Savoy on the banks of the Thames was burnt down during the Peasants’ Revolt uprisings in 1381, and after this event John moved to Ely Place and used the Bishops’ palace there as a residence for the rest of his life – he died there in 1399. It’s not known exactly how John of Gaunt was able to secure a move into the palace after the Savoy was destroyed, but it has been speculated that from time to time the Bishops of Ely let it out to wealthy tenants, perhaps as a source of income.
John of Gaunt’s time spent at Ely Place also earned the enclave a place in the work of William Shakespeare; in Richard II, it is while at Ely Place that John of Gaunt utters the famous lines:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This Earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England.
Another famous name associated with Ely Place is Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton took out a lease on parts of Ely Place in in 1576 – the Bishop of Ely at the time had not been keen to lease him the lands, but pressure from Queen Elizabeth I – Hatton was one of her favourites – forced him to agree terms with Hatton. Hatton built himself a magnificent new residence, Hatton House, on the site. No trace of this building now remains – it was demolished in the 1650s when Hatton’s grandson, another Sir Christopher Hatton, got into financial difficulties and turned the old mansion and its gardens into a number of streets and houses. One of these streets is the present-day Hatton Garden, now famous for its jewel trade.
Through a narrow passage off Ely Place a tiny, hidden pub can be found. Ye Olde Mitre has been in existence since 1546. It was built on the orders of Bishop Thomas Goodrich, the first Bishop of Ely who submitted to the King’s authority over the Church in England after Henry VIII’s Reformation. The current building dates from about the same time as the townhouses that now grace Ely Place itself. Owing to Ely Place’s previous status as an enclave, the pub’s licence was issued by the Cambridge authorities until as recently as the 1960s.
In 1772, the estate was sold to the Crown and the old palace, now in a ruinous state, was demolished.
The handsome rows of townhouses that now stand on either side of the street were built in the same year.
The chapel of St Etheldreda was for a time used as a school, before becoming the base of a Welsh-language church for a number of years in the 19th Century. The fabric of the building was deteriorating and it was in real need of restoration by the time that it was bought at auction by the Roman Catholic priest William Lockhart in 1873. Father Lockhart launched an appeal for funds and with this money the building was restored. During restoration, many of its medieval features were found to be intact behind later additions, including the stunning 13th Century roof.
In 1878, the church’s restoration complete, mass was celebrated at St Etheldreda’s for the first time since the eve of the Reformation. A precious relic – the hand of St Etheldreda – had survived the destruction of the Reformation (when the shrine of St Etheldreda at Ely Cathedral had been destroyed) and was gifted to the newly-restored church at Ely Place.
Bombs dropped in air raids during the Second World War damaged a considerable amount of the church’s fabric, including its stained glass windows. These were replaced in the 1950s by the designs seen by visitors today. The church remains a popular venue for baptisms, weddings and other events, with the church’s spacious crypt often being utilised as a reception space.
Although no longer the property of the Bishops of Ely (whose new London residence was established in Mayfair), Ely Place continued to be governed separately. In 1842 an Act of Parliament was issued to establish a group of commissioners responsible for the maintenance and security of Ely Place. Today, it is still a private street, with beadles guarding the entrance and barriers preventing unauthorised traffic from entering. Pedestrians can pass through, but are warned by a sign that they must abide by the rules of the Commissioners of Ely Place.
Ely Place, with its rich history and unusual governance, continues to attract interest to this day. Its status as a former part of Cambridgeshire often awards it a spot on the many walking tours that take place around that part of the city, and Ye Olde Mitre pub is a popular entry in lists of London’s “hidden” and historic pubs. Today its buildings are mostly occupied by prestigious legal firms, but its colourful array of former residents are still celebrated and its history has very much been kept alive.
References and further reading
Rev. Stephen Eyre Jarvis – A history of Ely Place: of its ancient sanctuary and of St. Etheldreda, its titular saint: a guide for visitors, St William’s Press, 1911 https://archive.org/details/historyofelyplac00jarv
Walter Thornbury, “Ely Place”, in Old and New London: Volume 2 (London, 1878), pp. 514-526. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp514-526
John Timbs – Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis; with nearly sixty years personal recollections, J C Hotten, London, 1867 https://archive.org/details/curiositiesoflon00timbiala
History of the Church – St Etheldreda’s Church http://www.stetheldreda.com/index.php/history-of-st-etheldredas/
Vitali Vitaliev – “Things that go bump on the map”, Daily Telegraph, 4th January 2003 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/726471/Things-that-go-bump-on-the-map.html