Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Sir John Crosby and Crosby Place, Bishopsgate, London

by Toni Mount

In 1466, wealthy city grocer Sir John Crosby took a 99 year lease on a buildings adjacent to the Priory Church of St Helen in Bishopsgate, London, paying the prioress, Dame Alice Ashfield [or Ashfed] £11 6s 8d per year in rent. However, he demolished the old buildings and began to build his beautiful new house. Contemporaries noted that it took years before the place was finished and habitable and the unfortunate Sir John had little time to enjoy its luxuries before he died. Indeed from around 1475 Crosby Place became the London town house of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s (later King Richard III). In my new Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery novel, The Colour of Bone, much is going on at Crosby Place. This grand mansion – scene of feasting, entertainment and dark deeds in my novel, was centuries later, moved stone by stone across London to Chelsea.

The Great Hall of white stone is the only remaining part of Sir John’s Crosby Place [the rest is 20th century]  

The church of St Helen's Bishopsgate still stands in what is now the heart of the financial centre of the modern day city of London. Inside St Helen’s Church, there is a superb monument tomb of Sir John Crosby and his first wife, Agnes. He is in armour with a Yorkist Suns-and-Roses collar and she wears a fashionable late fifteenth-century headdress with her lap-dogs at her feet. Agnes predeceased Sir John in 1460 and he designed their joint tomb.

Sir John was knighted by Edward IV in 1471 for taking a leading role in the defence of London against Thomas Neville, known as the Bastard of Fauconburg, who attempted to take the city on behalf of the Lancastrians while Edward was away fighting in the South-West of England. Sir John openly supported the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses yet he wasn’t primarily a soldier but a wealthy merchant and member of the Grocers’ Company. He died in January or February 1476, leaving his second wife, Anne, a widow and owner of their luxurious mansion, Crosby Place, but it was far too large for her and she rented it out to the Duke of Gloucester as his town house. Most noblemen, archbishops and bishops had their own private residences in London but Gloucester didn’t, perhaps because he spent little time in the city before he became king. Once he was king, he had the Tower of London and Westminster Palace to live in but it’s thought he continued to rent Crosby Place, maybe using it as first class guest accommodation.

The tomb of Sir John and Agnes Crosby in St Helen’s Church [GRM 2022]

Sir John also bequeathed 500 marks to St Helen’s Church, money which was used to redesign the interior of the nave. A row of arches and a screen shielded the nuns from the common folk but Sir John’s bequest was used to build taller, more elegant arches and a new screen in 1480. [This rebuild is the first crime scene in The Colour of Bone.]

Sir John’s four new arches viewed from the Nuns’ Choir [GRM 2022]

Meanwhile, Crosby Place was at the centre of the action when the Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III in 1483. In his play on the subject, Shakespeare has the mansion as the setting where Gloucester is offered the crown, although this more probably occurred at Baynards Castle, the Duchess of York’s London property down on the riverside. Shakespeare certainly knew Crosby Place as he lived in St Helen’s parish for some time, appearing on a list of rate-payers. Some sources suggest that Gloucester had bought the property outright, rather than leasing it, but this seems unlikely because after his defeat at Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor seized all his possessions but not Crosby Place. Such a desirable residence wouldn’t have been overlooked, so it must have reverted to Crosby’s relatives after King Richard was killed.

The mansion again became the focus for royalty in 1501 when Katherine of Aragon arrived in London in November to marry her first bridegroom, Prince Arthur. Crosby Place was then the home of a wealthy goldsmith, Alderman Bartholomew Rede, who would serve as London’s Lord Mayor the following year. Katherine spent two nights in the luxurious mansion before the wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 14th November.

The Great Hall of Crosby Place much as Katherine of Aragon and Sir Thomas More would have seen it.[i]

A later famous occupant was Sir Thomas More although documentary evidence suggests he held the lease for a few months only and it’s uncertain whether or not he ever actually lived there. John Stow described Crosby Place in 1598, in his Survey of London as ‘of stone and timber, very large and beautiful and the highest in London’, so it was still impressive more than a century later.

If you want to know what’s going on at Crosby Place, in the Duke of Gloucester’s household in 1480, you can follow Sebastian Foxley’s new adventures in the my medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Bone. 

[Some parts of this article and photographs first appeared in Tudor Life magazine]

Toni Mount earned her Master’s Degree by completing original research into a unique 15th-century medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library in London. She is the author of several successful non-fiction books including the number one bestseller, Everyday Life in Medieval England, which reflects her detailed knowledge in the lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages. Toni’s enthusiastic understanding of the period allows her to create accurate, atmospheric settings and realistic characters for her Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mysteries. Toni’s first career was as a scientist and this brings an extra dimension to her novels. It also led to her new biography of Sir Isaac Newton. She writes regularly for The Richard III Society Bulletin and other magazines and is a major contributor of online courses to 

[i] Crosby Place is known today as Crosby Moran Hall and stands on Chelsea Embankment, by coincidence just a stone’s throw from More’s Garden, once the site of Sir Thomas More’s fine house in Chelsea. The medieval hall was all that remained of Crosby Place when, in 1910, it was moved, stone by stone, from Bishopsgate in the city of London to its new site on the north bank of the River Thames. It has been sympathetically restored and greatly extended since 1988. It’s in private ownership.


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