Today (March 14) in London History – the bird in the wall

London Walks has been described as a bunch of bonhomous Brits extending the hand of welcome to the strangers in their midst. And yes, that’s happening here in this podcast. But these next few days that hand is also reaching out for help. Not reaching out for money – just a few seconds of your time, that’s all. The breaking news is We’ve got all of Yorkshire wanting to stick it to London – get their man, a Yorkshire ghost walk guide, over the line ahead of us in the Tourism Superstar 2022 Competition. Please help us see them off. Please vote for us. It only takes five seconds. Go to – right at the top of the page you’ll see the legend VOTE NOW for London Walks at the Tourism Superstar 2022 Awards. Click on that link – that’ll bring up the ballot – it usually takes a second or two before it surfaces – put your curser on the circle in front of thewords London Walks Guide Team, tap your curser to put your mark on the ballot and then hit the Vote now! button and hey presto just like you’ll have done London Walks a power of good. A much-needed power of good given the icy fingers of Covid that have been at our throat for the last 24 months. Thanks very much.  Oh, and a postscript. Please Share. Please spread the word. Ok, Here’s today’s podcast.

Today in London? You can’t go wrong with the Bankside Gallery. At least not for the next few days.

It’s the Royal Watercolour Society’s Open 2022 Exhibition. Runs to March 20th. So much colour. What a great way to see out the winter. 

I love that little gallery – just two rooms. Its exhibition room and its divine little bookshop. And that’s not to mention its situation. It’s directly behind London’s best-positioned pub, Founders Arms, there on the Bankside, with those stunning views across the Thames to St Paul’s and the rest of the City of London skyline. Which means of course that it’s practically next door to the Tate Modern. Let you in on a secret: the Bankside Gallery is like a decompression chamber for the Tate Modern. 

Ok, that’s Today in London. Time now to time-travel: hang on, here we go: Today in London History. 

No question about it, the obvious one to do is today is Karl Marx. He died, in London, on March 14, 1883.

But hey, we’re London Walks. We take you places you wouldn’t find off your own bat, show you things you wouldn’t see, tell you things you didn’t know. So we’re going to give Karl a miss. Instead, we’re going to see the bird in the wall. To do so we have to drill down much deeper into London history. Go a whole lot further back. To 1554. March 14, 1554.

We’re at a house in Aldersgate Street. 

Elizabeth Crofts – she’s an 18-year-old serving maid – hides herself behind a false exterior wall.

Once she’s concealed herself she starts to chant it out – anti-Catholic propaganda. 

A lot of the people who hear it think it’s maybe an angel or an invisible spirit speaking to them.

People start calling the mysterious voice “the bird in the wall.”

Then she ups the ante. She blows a whistle a couple of times, as if to signal “now comes the main act.”

And then sure enough, it does come: she speaks heresies and treason against Queen Mary, King Philip and the Catholic church. 

Some of her onlookers respond. They say, “God save the Lady Elizabeth.” The Lady Elizabeth they want God to save is Queen Mary’s half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth, who is, of course, a protestant. When the onlookers say “God save the Lady Elizabeth” the mysterious voice – the bird in the wall – responds, “So be it.”

From just a few passersby in no time at all there were thousands of people crowding in, straining their ears to hear the bird in the wall.

Now look, I normally guide about three times a week. My best guesstimate is that six years of guiding would add up to about 17,000 walkers.

By the next morning, Elizabeth Crofts’ message had reached an audience of 17,000 people.

Let’s get that into perspective. 

The population of London at the time was about 100,000. So 17 per cent of Londoners heard her. And when you take away from the potential audience the old and infirm and housebound and desperately ill and tiny children it must have been nearly a third of Londoners able to hear her did so.

It took a few days but the imposture was finally discovered. The wall was pulled down. Elizabeth was arrested. They put her in Newgate prison. And then moved her to a lock-up in Bread Street.

She was a very lucky young woman. Speaking heresies and treasonable utterances – those were capital crimes. They could get you hanged. Or even worse, burned at. 

In due course – the next summer – Elizabeth Crofts was frogmarched to Paul’s Cross – outside St Paul’s – to answer her accusers and atone for her sin.

She ‘fessed up. Owned up to offending God and the Queen’s Majesty. With much of London looking on, she said she was a gazing stock to the whole world to my great shame.”

And she sang like a canary. She denounced her accomplices. Or they may have been her corrupters. We don’t know. She may have just been an impressionable young woman who was persuaded to be the invisible spirit and say what she said. Or she may have been paid. We don’t know. For that matter, we don’t know what her religious views were. 

Having confessed and hung down her head in shame – and named names – she was taken back to prison. But not for long. She was soon released. 

And indeed it looks as though her collaborators also got off lucky. One of them was pilloried. But that was getting off lightly. He and his fellows easily could have earned themselves a death sentence.

Young Elizabeth – the bird in the wall – was never held fully responsible for her actions. She was 18 years old. She was just a kid. Londoners wanted to believe that she had been led astray. Or perhaps was mad.

And that’s all we know about Elizabeth Crofts. Her doing her bird in the wall number on March 14th and March 15th and then fessing up on that day in July, that was, to use Andy Warhol’s term, her fifteen minutes of fame. 

But the episode is important to historians because Aldersgate was a part of London that had a significant reformist population. The public response to what was a pretty obvious attempt to undermine the church and the crown is a measure, for historians, of how widespread those feelings were in the capital, how deep they ran, how much purchase they had.

How did I know you’d prefer going back to the 1550s and meeting Elizabeth Crofts to taking part in Karl Marx’s deathwatch – a little bird told me.

And on that note, good night from London. See you tomorrow.  

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