Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Savoy Palace

The Savoy Palace from The Thames
I found myself lately revisiting Anya Seton’s ‘Katherine’, the romantic story of the convent educated girl who became John of Gaunt’s third Duchess after being his mistress for several years and bearing him four children.

Katherine, as governess to the Duke of Lancaster’s daughters, spent a lot of time at The Savoy, his palace on the Strand. I have always been fascinated by in England’s ‘Lost Palaces’, those royal residences that were once the centre of court life, but with little today to mark they ever existed.

The Savoy is just such a palace, though the hotel of that name tells me pretty much where it once stood, fronting the north of The Strand and a little to the west of Somerset House. I have passed the Savoy Hotel many times, but not until now did I realise the statue above the front entrance was of Earl Peter of Savoy, uncle of Queen Eleanor wife of King Henry III, whose name was given to the original palace that stood there.

Peter of Savoy's Statue
The lands were granted by King Henry III to Peter of Savoy, Earl of Richmond and uncle of his queen Eleanor of Provence, ‘on condition of yielding yearly at the Exchequer three barbed arrows for all services.’  Eleanor's four sisters were all Queens-Margaret, the eldest, Queen of France; Sanctia, Queen of the Romans; Beatrix, Queen of Naples; and Johanna, Queen of Navarre.

Peter bequeathed his palace to a religious community, but Queen Eleanor purchased the site and gave it to her second son, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster. This gift was confirmed by letters patent by the earl's elder brother, King Edward I in his twenty-first year, and "from that time the Savoy was reputed and taken as parcel of the earldom and honour of Lancaster."   

The Strand formed part of the principal ceremonial route between the City and the Palace of Westminster, where the business of parliament and the royal court was transacted. To have a water frontage on the Thames meant noblemen’s homes were relatively free of the stink, smoke and social clamour of the City of London downstream and downwind to the east, and its constant threat of fires.

John, the French king, was lodged here in 1357 as a captive of the Black Prince after the battle of Poitiers. King John The Good, and nineteen knights from his personal guard dressed identically to confuse the enemy, but in spite of this precaution, John was captured. Edward III and his queen visited him there, and it was referred to as ‘the fairest manor in England.’

The Treaty of Brétigny (1360) set John's ransom at three million crowns. Leaving his son Louis of Anjou in English-held Calais as a replacement hostage, he was permitted to return to France to raise the funds. In July 1363, Louis escaped, so John announced that he would voluntarily return to captivity in England, where he again took up residence at the Savoy, leaving France without a king. Soon afterwards he fell ill of 'an unknown malady' from which he did not recover. [Poisoned by a disgruntled countryman maybe?]

Funeral Procession of King Jean II
Stow's ‘Chronicles,’ says: ‘The 9th day of April, [1364] died John, King of France, at the Savoy; his corpse was honourably conveyed to St. Denis, in France.’

During the 1300’s the Strand was paved as far as the Savoy and became the London residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who, as the country’s power broker, was the richest person in the kingdom famous for collection of tapestries, jewels and ornaments. 

Inside the palace precincts, the rule of law was known as the Liberties of the Savoy and subject only to the Duchy of Lancaster, i.e. someone being pursued for a debt in London could stay in the Savoy without fear of arrest by those acting under the authority of The Crown.
John of Gaunt 1st Duke of Lancaster

In 1377, the Savoy was almost demolished by a London mob after John of Gaunt supported Wickliffe at a synod held in St. Paul's Cathedral. The Bishop of London, on hearing of the riot, hurried to the Savoy, and averted the danger. Then four years later, in 1381, John of Gaunt was blamed for the introduction of a poll tax, payable by every individual regardless of their financial status. A mob led by Wat Tyler marched on London and demolished the Savoy and all its treasures, while John of Gaunt had to run for his life. 

Tyler maintained his followers were not thieves, so everything that could not be destroyed or burned was thrown into the river. Jewellery was smashed with hammers, and it was said that one rioter found to have kept a silver goblet for himself was executed.

Thirty two rioters got drunk on the wine stocks in a cellar, while another group threw gunpowder onto the fire they had set, which demolished the palace and surrounding houses. The drunken rioters were subsequently trapped under the rubble, and perished, but only after they had been heard calling for help for several days. 

For over a hundred years, the palace stood a heap of blackened ruins until Henry VII resolved to rebuild it as a hospital for the poor, but when this was completed in 1512, very little of the former palace of Duke John was left.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales while working at the Savoy Palace as a clerk where he lived under the protection of John of Gaunt and his first Duchess Blanche, Here he met his future wife, Philippa, a lady of the Duchess's household, and sister to Lady Katharine Swynford. One entitled 'Chaucer's Dream', is an allegorical history of the loves of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, and of his own marriage with the Lady Philippa.

The Peasants' Revolt Attacking The Savoy Palace
At the formation of the Thames Embankment, to mark the site of John of Gaunt’s Palace, and of the poet Chaucer, is a space laid out as a garden, where green shrubs and pleasant flowers delight the eye of Londoners.