Today (August 23) in London History – the first head on London Bridge

William Wallace, the great Scots patriot, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield on this day, August 23rd, 1305. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


It’s cobwebbed with history.

Square foot for square foot there’s more history in this little acre than anywhere else in London, including the Tower of London and 10 Downing Street.

It’s even in the name. Smithfield. I say even in the name – actually that’s par for the course for London. London place names are often an x-ray of the past. Or if you prefer, a  place name will yield up the DNA of a district. Smithfield’s not named for Captain John Smith or some other other distinguished personage named Smith. It’s a corruption of the phrase, “the smooth field.” And because it’s level – smooth – and just outside the London wall, immediately to the north of London, stuff happened in Smithfield. Happened aplenty. Knights jousted there. Tournaments were held there. There’s a reminder of that in the name of the street that leads up to Smithfield from the Old Bailey, the famous criminal court. The Old Bailey stands where Newgate, the infamous prison stood. Newgate prison was named Newgate prison because over the gate was a lock-up. That lock-up was the progenitor of the infamous prison. Anyway, knights would ride through Newgate – the gate not the prison – ride up that track to the Smithfield where they’d joust. They’d be fully kitted out in their armour. If it was a fine day – the sun out in all its glory – the sun would seem to gild the spurs of the knights. Ergo the name: Giltspur Street. And that’s just the beginning of the parade of historical events Smithfield has played host to. The Peasants’ Rebellion climaxed in Smithfield. The first protestant martyrs were burned to death at the stake in Smithfield. That wasn’t a couple of one-offs. Smithfield was a principal execution site in London. Smithfield’s the site of Barts, the oldest hospital in the United Kingdom, the second oldest hospital in Europe. It’s fictional rather than hard-fact historical but it’s so real it feels historical – it was at Barts, in Smithfield, where Sherlock Holmes first met Dr Watson. And uttered the immortal line, “You have been in Afghanistan I perceive.” Smithfield was the site of Bartholomew Fair. It was London’s cattle market. Husbands sold their wives at Smithfield. The hospital wall is pock-marked with shrapnel damage from bombs dropped by a Zeppelin in World War I. The list just goes on and on. 

But I’m going to focus on one shard of Smithfield history. Yes, an execution. It’s attested to to this day by a plaque. A plaque that often has bouquets placed on the pavement beneath it. And not just flowers, flags as well. Flowers and flags remembering an execution that took place there over 700 years ago. As stars go in the night sky of history, that’s one of the brightest.

And we’re going to have a guest appearance for the rest of this podcast. I’m going to call on the late, much-missed, great Londoner, writer, radio and television presenter Jeremy Beadle – he’s told the story better than anyone else could do.

It’s the story of the execution of the Scots patriot William Wallace. It took place – here at Smithfield – on this day, the 23rd of August 1305. So those flags at the base of the commemorative plaque – those flags are white and blue. They’re Scottish flags.

Jeremy Beadle begins by reminding us that William Wallace was the first person to have his head adorn the ramparts of London Bridge as a warning to other wrongdoers.

Here’s the tale.

“After apparently being betrayed by his own countrymen, William Wallace was captured and, on 22 August 1305, taken to London. Early the next morning he was taken to Westminster Hall where, to fulfil his boast that one day he would wear a crown in Westminster, a laurel crown was mockingly placed on his head. As an outlawed thief the law allowed him no defence: his trial and judgement were mere formalities and the sentence carried out immediately. He was stripped naked, then drawn on a hurdle by two horses to the gallows at ‘Smoothfield’ (now King Street in Smithfield). En route he was pelted with offal, garbage and dung and struck with whips and cudgels by the bloodthirsty Londoners. [It was the Twitter, the Cancel Culture of his day – that’s me, David, not Jeremy \beadle]Still naked, he mounted the scaffold and was hanged by a halter but let down still alive. Next his genitals were cut off and then a deep gash made in his belly; the executioner then ripped out his intestines, liver and lungs, holding each aloft for the crowd to see before consigning them to the fire before Wallace’s eyes. Then the executioner reached into the chest cavity to tear out Wallace’s still beating heart; finally, mercifully, his head was cut off and his trunk cut into four pieces. His head was dipped in pitch to delay putrefaction then spiked and placed on London Bridge. His quarters were later displayed at various towns: his right arm at Newcastle upon Tyne; his left arm at Stirling; his right leg at Berwick; and his left leg at Perth. The total cost of the butchery was sixty-one shillings and tenpence.”


You read that – or have it read to you – you feel badly in need of a good long shower. And some soothing music.

Restored, healed – well, the Today in London recommendation would be, I think, to go to Smithfield, see the plaque, and its neighbours, see the shrapnel damage, and then go into Barts, sit in the peaceful little garden there and then maybe visit the Hospital Museum.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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