The eyes of the world are on Westminster Abbey, the pivotal location in the history of royal London, England and Britain for over 1000 years. So old is the Abbey that England did not exist when it was founded in the era of Mellitus, Bishop of London from 604-619. It was built on an island that is no longer extant, known as Thorn Ey or Thorney Island, created by the dissipating channels of the now-buried Tyburn river. Fancy a dip in the Tyburn today? It’s water tip into the Serpentine, site of open-water swimming at the 2012 Olympics and open to the public for bathing during the summer months.
The Abbey’s handsome west towers, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1722 and 1745, are one of the more recent additions to this Gothic wonder that, rightly, ranks highly on most London tourist itineraries. Like other icons of the capital, many Londoners pass by frequently, vowing one day to brave the crowds, then never do. They’re missing a treat. Monarchs like Henry V, Richard II and Elizabeth I are interred here, along with Chaucer, Newton, Kipling, Handel and Dickens. An afternoon in the company of the greats of Britain can only be a fascinating one.
Sir Walter Besant, Victorian novelist, historian and a great Victorian who lived all but one year of his life (1836-1901) under the Queen’s reign, had plenty to say about London, and Westminster received special attention in his 1895 book of the same name.
A review of his biography of Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington noted “Mr Besant is an enthusiast about London, and revels in its archives, its traditions, its historic associations and its literary memories. He loves the town, not exactly as Dr Johnson loved it, but somewhat in the manner of Leigh Hunt or Charles Dickens.” That’s not a bad epitaph.
I’ve tried and failed to find a digitised copy of Westminster online, but found one at a second hand book sale and hid it from a lurking old man with a beard who was admiring it. That, reader, is how I have it now and how I can bring you this marvellous anecdote from it. I should point out that I did, at least, pay for it.
Inside is an anecdote which reaches through the centuries from 1303. At the turn of the fourteenth century Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots and the man who built the Eleanor Crosses along the route of the funerary procession of his wife Eleanor of Castile was King of England and had just signed a peace agreement with France which allowed him to focus on whacking those north of the border. His treasure trove, the Royal Treasury, was kept at Westminster Abbey, and was a pretty hefty hoard, having been built up to pay for his Scottish campaigns.
Things were not going quite so well for Richard de Podelicote, a merchant, “probably”, Besant notes “an unsuccessful trader in foreign wares.” Unsuccessful, but not without cunning. Besant picks up the story:
“…he observed that the small gate in the wall which led from the Palace to the Abbey (at the door now by Poet’s Corner) was unwatched and neglected. At this time the King himself with a great army was on his way to Scotland: the palace was therefore deserted…the strictness of the rules about watching those who entered or went out was relaxed.”
Podelicote broke in by placing a ladder against the Chapter House windows and, possibly with the assistance of whatever night-watch was in place as an accomplice let himself into the Cloisters. He proceeded to pilfer silver cups from the Refectory and, having reversed his route, hid for the rest of the night simply walked out of the Palace-Abbey complex the following morning. He spent the proceeds and came back hunting for a greater prize.
A bag of swag from the Refectory was one thing, but the Royal Treasury was, as Besant notes, “a far more serious job…the Treasury was a chamber with stone walls of great thickness, cemented firmly, only to be dislodged by being taken away piecemeal with infinite labour: and to carry out whole sacks and hampers full of treasure was impossible for one man unaided.” Then again, given the ease with which he pilfered the Refectory it can’t have been too hard to rope others in.” Besant goes to lengths to question whether the monks of the abbey were involved, and though there’s no evidence it would be remarkable, given what he was up to if he hadn’t at least paid a few of the residents off
This grand theft took place over several nights at the end of April 1303, exactly 708 years ago, the climax of months of diligent work to access the Treasury. His confession noted some of the booty: “pitchers, cups with feet and covers…a pitcher with stones…three pouches full of jewels…a great crucifix and jewels…two little pitchers of silver….spoons, saucers, spice dishes of silver, crowns, girdles and other jewels.” He took all this “out of the gate near St Margaret’s Church and left nothing behind within it.” And nobody stopped him!
As is sometimes the case, the facts of the discovery of Podelicote’s brazen theft of the finest treasure in England is not clear. Edward Longshanks, it can be assumed, was far from happy when he learnt about it in June. It must have been an interesting task for the messenger who broke the news to one of the most fearsome monarchs in history to do so.
Westminster suggests that “many of the criminals were caught in actual possession of the spoil.” but also says “the history of this wonderful case is unfortunately incomplete. The fate of the ringleaders is unknown…it is, however, quite certain they were hanged, most likely with pleasing additions to hanging which prolonged the ceremony and gave it greater prominence.” A load of monks were sent to the Tower of London.
With that, the doors of history slam shut and Podelicote exits stage left. Perhaps Princess Kate should watch that his ghost doesn’t whip the tiara off her head.