Staple Inn and Gray’s Inn are not the only old-world souvenirs to be found in prosaic Holborn. A little further east, on the lefthand side as one strolls towards the City, lies another sordid street whose name is redolent of Elizabethan romance.
Hatton Garden, named after the queen’s handsome chancellor and now the haunt of the diamond and pearl merchant, and also of organgrinders and ice-cream vendors, is built on the site of the gardens of Ely Palace, the town house of the Bishops of Ely whose story is noted on another page. Round the corner is Ely Place, the most astonishing little square in London.
If you pass this spot on the stroke of the hour after ten o’clock on a summer’s evening, you may well rub your eyes and wonder if time has been rolled back and you are suddenly living in the London of two centuries ago. For the iron gates of the little place are closed, and out of the tiny porter’s lodge in the middle comes an important person with a gold-laced hat, who solemnly makes the tour of the square, crying five or six times, “Past ten o’clock and all’s well! ”
The crying of the hours by the night watchman is not the only custom of this old-world corner, so carefully guarded by the commissioners in whose hands the rights of Ely Place are vested. The little square, now given over to law offices and business premises, was once a “sanctuary,”a place where law-breakers could take refuge and where the civil authorities had no right of arrest. To this day the caretakers who form the bulk of the resident population of Ely Place are inordinately proud of the fact that they are independent of police protection, having their own standing army of three porters, who take eight-hour turns in guarding the tranquillity of their self-contained domain.
They even have a public-house of their very own, for in the tiny passage that connects Ely Place with Hatton Garden is a dim little inn of dubious antiquity, that takes its name of the “Mitre “from the carved stone mitre set in the facade which once formed part of the old palace of the bishops of Ely. The innkeeper is very proud of the remains of a Methuselah of a cherry-tree now incorporated in one corner of the house. You can see the whitewashed remains of the tree that may have shaded good Queen Bess if you peer through the left-hand corner window.
At ten of the clock the iron gate leading into Hatton Garden is duly fastened, and the “Mitre “is closed to the outside world.
I have kept the best and most amazing of the treasures of Ely Place until the last.
Walk down the left-hand side of the square to the far corner, and you will find your way into one of the most beautiful things in London, -a thirteenth century chapel practically intact. It is so beautiful that if it were necessary to pay a high entrance fee or write for cards of admission, it would probably be the Mecca of every artist and antiquarian. But since it is in London, prodigal of such treasures, and anyone may walk in and look at its beauty undisturbed at any hour, St. Etheldreda’s Chapel is only known to a few people.
It was built in the last decade of the thirteenth century by a certain Bishop de Luda, as the chapel for Ely House, the town residence of the bishops of Ely.
John of Gaunt took refuge here and must have heard mass within these very walls. Shakespeare reminds us, in Richard IL, of John of Gaunt’s death in Ely House, and it was in these cloisters that Henry VIII. first met with Cranmer. Queen Elizabeth’s chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton, worshipped here till his unlucky tenancy of Ely House was ended by his death in 1591, and so did his nephew’s imperious widow, the famous Lady Hatton who married and flouted Sir Edward Coke, the great lawyer and rival of Bacon for her hand.
It was at “Elie House in Holborne “in the reign of James I. that the last mystery play was represented in England, before the Spanish Ambassador Gondemar, who was a next-door neighbour to Ely Palace. The later history of the chapel may be briefly told. When the bishops finally sold the property to the Crown in 1772 and betook themselves to Dover Street, it was bought by an architect who preserved the chapel for the use of the residents of the houses he built in Ely Place. Afterwards it passed through several hands, being finally bought by the Fathers of Charity from the Welsh Episcopalians in 1871. When the work of restoration was finished, St. Etheldreda’s, the only preReformation place of worship restored to the Roman Catholic Church, was reopened on St. Etheldreda’s Day, the 23rd of June, 1876.