Bishopsgate Street ran north from Cornhill Street to the southern end of Shoreditch Street at the city boundary. South of Cornhill, the road became Gracechurch Street, and the two streets formed a major north-south artery in the eastern end of the walled city of London, from London Bridge to Shoreditch. Bishopsgate Street was one of the original Roman roads in the city of London.
The street is named after Bishopsgate, the gate in the northern city wall through which it passes. The gate also gave its name to Bishopsgate Ward.
Just inside the gate on Bishopsgate Street was the church of St. Ethelburga, which was built in the middle ages. St. Erkenwald, who, as legend has it, rebuilt the Roman gate, was her brother (Smith 24). The church in her name on Bishopsgate Street is "the only church in England dedicated to Erkenwald’s sister" (Bebbington 48). Two other churches stood on Bishopsgate, St. Helen and St. Botolph.
During the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, several wealthy merchants had homes on Bishopsgate Street. These rich residents included Sir Thomas Gresham, Sir John Crosby, and Sir Paul Pindar. Gresham in particular left his mark on the street and the city in its entirety when he left his house as the location of Gresham College (Weinreb 67, Stow 1:76).
There were two more buildings of historical and literary importance on Bishopsgate. The first of these is Bethlehem Hospital. Located just outside the city walls, Bethlehem, commonly corrupted to the short form -bedlam, was a mental hospital. Bethlehem Hospital is the origin of the nickname Jack o’ Bedlam or Tom o’ Bedlam, a common literary and dramatic name for a madman.
The second important site on Bishopsgate Street was the Bull Inn, where plays were performed "before Shakespeare’s time" (Weinreb 67). The Bull Inn’s early staging of plays is historically significant because one of the actors, Burbage, "obtained a licence from Queen Elizabeth to erect a building specially designed for theatrical performances" (Weinreb 67). This licence would permit the creation of the Theatre, which was the first playhouse in London, and the one with which William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became associated.
Bishopsgate Street led to Shoreditch Street, where Burbage’s Theatre stood. Close by was another theatre, the Curtain, which the Lord Chamberlain’s Men rented when Burbage lost the lease on the Theatre in 1597. Anyone passing out of the city to see a play by Shakespeare at the Theatre or the Curtain in the 1590s would have travelled along Bishopsgate Street.
Bishopsgate Street still exists, and now consists mostly of Victorian era office blocks (Weinreb and Hibbert 67).
- Bebbington, Gillian. London Street Names. London: B.T. Batsford, 1972. Print.
- Smith, Al. Dictionary of City of London Street Names. New York: Arco, 1970. Print.
- Stow, John. A Survey of London. Reprinted from the Text of 1603. Ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908. Print. [Also available as a reprint from Elibron Classics (2001). Articles written before 2011 cite from the print edition by volume and page number.]
- Weinreb, Ben, and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983. Print. [You may also wish to consult the 3rd edition of The London Encyclopedia (2008). Print.]
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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