Sunday, 25 October 2015

Unofficial London: The Grizzly Story of Bunhill Fields

“Elizabeth Hare, lately condemned for high treason in clipping his Majesty’s coin, was according to her sentence, burnt alive in Bunhill Field”. Diary of Narcissus Luttrell October 30th, 1683
This one sentence is intriguing as it yields up not one story but three: Elizabeth Hare, coin clipping, and that of the place called Bunhill Fields.
The entrance to Bunhill Fields Memorial Gardens in the modern day
In a forthcoming post on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog, I discuss the crime for which Elizabeth Hare is condemned: Coin clipping. In this post, let’s investigate the intriguing mention of “Bunhill Fields”. (Oh, and in case I forget to mention it later, isn’t the diarist’s name fantastic: Narcissus.)

The Long History of Bunhill Fields
Had you heard of Bunhill Fields, London? I hadn’t, so I was keen to find out more.
Intriguingly Bunhill Fields is linked to two more famous areas; Smithfield and Moorfields, which warrants a brief digression
·          Smithfield Market: Since the 13th century Smithfield hosted a market, traditionally a trading place for livestock. It was also a place of execution (like Bunhill) and was the Scottish hero William Wallace met his end.  Also “Smith” was a derivation of “Smooth” meaning flat, so the area was originally named for being a flat field.
Smithfield from a made circa 1720

·         Moorfields (which gave its name to the famous Moorfield’s Eye Hospital, London – although this is now on a different site) was an open patch of ground within the city walls. It was to Moorfields that many Londoners fled to as a place of safety during the Great Fire of 1666.
Detail from a map of Moorfields circa 1550

In the 12th century Bunhill Fields, Smithfield, and Moorfields belonged to the Manor of Finsbury. The area has been used as a burial ground since Saxon times. In this context the name “Field” came to mean an open piece of land to be used for communal purposes other than the cultivation of crops. Some of the activities that went on there include grazing animals, bleaching linen cloth in the sun, archery practice and other such activities that required space.
Old Saint Paul's Cathedral
Note the churchyard in the foreground
The area was managed by the Corporation of London but between 1514 and 1867 ownership passed to the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our area of interest was known as Bone Hill – because it was literally a dumping ground for bones. Any hollows in the field were filled in with rubbish such as rags and bones from Smithfield shambles. Indeed in 1549 St Paul’s Cathedral had a clear out in their Charnel House and over one thousand cartloads of human bones were taken to “Bone Hill” for disposal.
The ruins of Old Saint Paul's as it appeared
around 7 years after the Great Fire of 1666
The Charnel House had become full as a result of moving dead Londoners buried in St Paul’s Churchyard, out of the graveyard after a certain period of time. After burial, a respectable amount of time was left to let the flesh rot away, and then the bones were dug up and moved into storage in the Charnel House to await resurrection. However, by 1549 the Charnel House was full to overflowing hence the unceremonius move to Bone Hill.

These measures managed the problem of space for burials for about a century, but by 1665 the graveyard at St Paul’s was once more full. So Alderman Sir John Robinson entered into an agreement to use land at Bone Hill as an extension of the cathedral’s burial ground.
William Blake's gravestone
in Bunhill Fields graveyard
Indeed, Bunhill, as it was now know, was home to the graves of many great or famous people such as John Bunyan (died 1688) Daniel Defoe (D.1731, author of Robinson Crusoe) and William Blake (D.1827) Of course, it also seems the area of Bunhill Fields was also used as a place of public execution, such as for Elizabeth Hare.

And in the modern day? Bunhill Fields still exists, but as a public park managed by the City of London.  Around 2,000 monuments and head stones still remain, but the grizzly spectacle of public executions has long since finished. 


  1. Hello Grace! Warm greetings from Montreal, Canada! You and I share the same surname...Elliott. (although mine has 2 l's and 2 t's). My father's parents were born in Kent, England. You have a lovely blog.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Greetings to a fellow Elliot(t)!
      Do you ever visit England to see where your grandparents came from?
      Thank you for visiting and the super comment about the blog.
      Grace x


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