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Where was Prince Rupert’s House?

Re-post of an article originally for

A watercolour of Prince Rupert’s Palace in Beech Street, Barbican, from the garden (1796). © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

I knew that after fleeing into exile in 1644 Prince Rupert had a naval career before returning to England after the Restoration, but was surprised to find that one of his private houses survived into the 19th century.

Or did it? This was meant to be a post about the building’s location and architecture, until I started digging a little deeper …

Biographies record that Rupert lived in Westminster and Windsor Castle after he returned to England in September 1660, though online sources (mostly from 18th and 19th century texts) mention him living in Beech Lane/Street (the name seems to fluctuate on maps from this time) near the Barbican. A number of surviving images, mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, purport to show a three-storey, bay-windowed property, such as the watercolour above, variously titled ‘Prince Rupert’s Palace’ or ‘Prince Rupert’s House. This set me off comparing maps to find exactly where the house had stood (the Layers of London site is an excellent tool for this).

Having some idea of the rough location, I stopped to consider a wider set of written sources, looking more carefully through my Rupert biographies. This stopped me in my tracks. Neither Maurice Ashley, Frank Kitson or Charles Spencer mentions Beech Lane/Street, and none of their descriptions of Rupert’s arrival in London indicates where the prince initially resided.

I was leaning towards thinking that ‘Prince Rupert’s Palace’ (or Prince Rupert’s House) was actually a Victorian misattribution, when I found this reference from a 1910 book on mezzotints:

It was at Drury House, his ivy-grown gabled Elizabethan mansion, in quiet Beech Lane in the Barbican, off Aldersgate Street, that Prince Rupert received John Evelyn on March 13. 

Old English Mezzotints, Malcolm C. Salaman (1910)

It’s well-known that Rupert dabbled in mezzotint printmaking, but more useful is the reference to Evelyn’s diary; all would be confirmed if it linked Rupert directly to Beech Lane. As the complete diary text is freely available online, I searched for Rupert’s name. It appears five times, twice in 1661 with reference to him teaching Evelyn mezzotint (the other later entries are irrelevant), on 21st February and 13th March (as mentioned in the Salaman extract, above): 

21st February, 1661:
Prince Rupert first showed me how to grave in 
mezzo tinto.

13th March, 1661 (Evelyn visits Lambeth in the morning, which I have omitted here):
This afternoon, Prince Rupert showed me, with his own hands, the new way of graving, called mezzo tinto, which afterward, by his permission, I published in my History of Chalcography; this set so many artists on work, that they soon arrived to the perfection it is since come to, emulating the tenderest miniatures.

Our Society now gave in my relation of the Peak of Teneriffe, in the Great Canaries, to be added to more queries concerning divers natural things reported of that island.

I returned home with my Cousin, Tuke, now going for France, as sent by his Majesty to condole the death of that great Minister and politician, Count Mazarine.

But no mention of Beech Lane. However another later source which also mentions Evelyn’s visits to Rupert suggested another primary source (highlighted):

Beech Lane, Barbican, where Prince Rupert resided, and worked on his chemical experiments and his mezzotint plates, was probably so called, says Stow, from Nicholas de la Beech, Lieutenant of the Tower, who was deprived of his office by Edward III. Stow, whose clue we ever follow, describes the lane, in Elizabeth’s time, as stretching from Redcross Street to Whitecross Street, and adorned with ” beautiful houses of stone, brick, and timber.” An old house in Barbican belonging to the Abbot of Ramsay was afterwards called Drury House, from the worshipful owner, Sir Drew Drury, also of Drury Lane. This was the house Prince Rupert afterwards occupied; and parts of the mansion were in existence as late as 1796. Here lived the fiery prince, whom Time had softened into a rough old philosopher, fond of old soldiers, and somewhat of a butt at Whitehall among the scoffing Rochesters of his day, who were all à la mode de France. Here Evelyn visited Rupert. In the parish books of St. Giles’s, Cripplegate, a guinea is set down as payment to the ringers on the occasion of Charles II. visiting the prince at his Barbican house. In Strype’s time the street had lost its gentility, and was inhabited by clothes-salesmen, and on the site of the old watch-tower fronting Redcross Street, stood an ignoble watchhouse for the brawling Mohocks of the day.

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally re-published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London (1878).

This source is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it names the St Giles, Cripplegate, parish books as documenting a visit by Charles II to Rupert in Beech Lane. Conversely, it feeds my suspicions by suggesting that at the time Rupert was meant to have lived there, the street was part of an area that had declined in status since Tudor times (‘Strype’ is a reference to John Strype, the historian who published a detailed survey of London in 1720, so a good few decades later than the supposed royal visit). When Rupert returned to England in 1661 he was a divisive figure – surely he would been accommodated in crown property for his own safety, rather than in a declining street inhabited by traders?

Following-up the reference to the Charles II visit (and unable to access parish records from St Giles, Cripplegate, online) I found more useful references, though this time from the early 20th century. These extracts from John Badderley’s History of Cripplegate (1910) give the building a more specific location, but again cast doubt on the veracity of whether Rupert actually lived in Beech Lane. This first extract provides extra details on the house’s location:

On the south side of Beech Lane is the shadow of the residence of Prince Rupert, so memorable for his transactions in the reign of Charles I. About 1830 a handsome building (which stood until 1865, when a larger building was erected) was built by a Mr. William Bassingham, who had resided and carried on his business of a gas engineer here for several years before that time, being rated for his old house in 1820 at 12. This stood at the south-east corner of the south side of the lane (with a frontage in Whitecross Street), on the site of, or in close vicinity to, the spot where Prince Rupert’s house mentioned above was probably situated. Glovers’ Hall Court stands nearly 100 yards further westward, and in 1840 contained houses of a very poor character; a tenement, shed and stables were valued as little as 12. In 1850 the assessment on seven houses in the lane was 121, in which amount the above house (assessed at 60) was included. These old houses were soon after demolished, and three warehouses now standing on the south side erected, which run back to and are also lighted in Glovers’ Hall Court. (p.208)

While the second extract repeats the claim that Charles II visited Rupert at the same address and again mentions the St Giles records: 

The house of which an illustration is given (below) stood in Beech Lane, a street running between almost the northern end of Whitecross Street and Barbican. Particulars of Prince Rupert’s life in this house are given in the chapter devoted to ” Men of Note.” It was here that his cousin Charles II often visited him, and took part in his scientific experiments. An entry in the parish books of St. Giles records the payment of a guinea to the ringers of the church bells on the occasion of a visit of the King to Prince Rupert.  (p.208)

In the same book the ‘Men of Note’ chapter as referenced above repeats some of what we already know, but crucially differs from other sources in suggesting that Rupert was living at Beech Street not on arriving in England, but towards the end of his life (he lived another 22 years, dying in 1682):

In the house at the corner of Whitecross Street and Beech Lane, inhabited in the early part of the seventeenth century by Sir Dru Drurie, lived this brilliant Cavalier. As is well known he took a great part in the Civil War, and after the Restoration occupied many important public positions, the last being First Lord of the Admiralty in 1679. Little is known of the last years of his life; probably much of his time was taken up in the various scientific experiments he conducted in the above house. His cousin, King Charles II, shared his tastes and visited him at his laboratory, where he devoted much attention to improvements in war material, inventing a method of making gunpowder of ten times the ordinary strength, a mode of manufacturing hail-shot, a gun somewhat on the principle of the revolver, and a new method of boring cannon. He is said to have invented “Princes-metal,” a mixture of copper and zinc. He studied the art of engraving and engraved with his own hands. (p.293)

There’s lots to go on here, with a previous owner and Rupert’s involvement with what would become the Royal Society suggesting that more useful evidence might be found in archive sources. However there’s another revealing passage about Beech Lane which, while referencing the supposed home of another 17th century figure, reflects my own suspicions about ‘Prince Rupert’s House’ at this stage (of what admittedly has been a limited search). Badderley also goes on to say:

Upon an old water spout, there is the date 1653, which in all probability is that of its erection. It stood within a few yards of the site of the old mansion called Whittington’s College in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub Street. It has been stated that General Monk lived here, when planning the Restoration, but there is no proof of this. It may be that he occasionally occupied the house during that eventful time; at any rate, it was known as General Monk’s House for many years before its demolition.

This post was meant to pinpoint the exact location of the Beech Lane house and describe its architecture though surviving images, but the research above now has me doubting whether the building was occupied by Prince Rupert at all. Should I find better evidence to that effect I’ll write a ‘part two’ looking at the building and its location in more detail.

To be continued!

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