Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Unofficial London - Knightrider Street.

The winning entry in the 2004
'Places on Maps That Relate to David Hasselhoff'
Today's blog post considers how medieval Knightrider Street and Knightrider Court, got their names. The etymology of these intriguing streets was mentioned by Stow:
"So called…of Knights well-armed and mounted at the Tower Royal [Tower of London] passing from thence and through that street, west…and hence to Smithfield ….there to turney, joust or to show activities before the King and states of the realm."

Knightrider Street as it appears today.
In other words, this was the route taken by knights on their journey from the Tower of London to Smithfield, to take part in tournaments. The above explanation is doubted by many experts- who fail to offer an alternative explanation!
According to Louis Zetterson in his 1917 book "City Street Names", it certainly seems a street Knyghtriderstrete existed in 1322 but the reason behind the unusual name was already lost even then. Interestingly, on a 1560 map there is a continuation of Knightrider Street, called Giltsword Street and it is hypothesised that this name originated from the golden spurs worn by knights attending the Smithfield jousts.
Here I'm standing in Knightrider Court with my back to
the Thames, facing towards St Pauls Cathedral.
Within sight of St Pauls Cathedral is Knightrider Court, and the story goes that as a mark of respect knights were expected to dismount here to proceed on foot past the holy building. Again, the truth behind this myth is lost to us.
With my back to St Pauls, walking in a straight line from
Knightrider Court, I'm standing on the Millenium Bridge
looking to my left over at The Shard.
Staying in the same area, Ben Johnson's London: a Jacobean Place Name Dictionary, by Prof. Chalfont, sites a road near Knightrider Street, charmingly called Do-Little Lane. This thoroughfare once ran north from Knightrider Street to Carter Lane, just off St Pauls - which is today occupied by Knightrider Court and Sermon Lane.
Again, Stow describes the street in his commentary:
"A place not-inhabited by Artificers, or shop keepers…but serving as a passage from Knightrider Street to Carter Lane."
Another reference is found in the work of the Jacobean playwright, Middleton, "Family of Love", where a character praises a physician as neither:
"The wise-woman of Pissing Lane, nor she in Do-Little Lane, are as famous for good deeds as he."

I'm standing in the same spot as the photo above, but looking right instead of
left, towards Tower Bridge.
All of this set me wondering about the origin of Knightsbridge, that exclusive part of London which is home to Harrods, Harvey Nichols and 275 listed buildings. Apparently in medieval times there was indeed a bridge here, over the river Westbourne (which now runs underground) but agreement ends there.
There are two main theories as to how Knightsbridge got its name. The first involves two knights getting into a fight passing over the bridge, falling in the river and drowning, and the second theory is that the area was synonymous with highwaymen and that it was not safe to pass without a knight as chaperone.
Whatever the explanation, is it me or do street names not have the same resonance these days?  
With thanks to
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  1. Wonderful article. I've met and interviewed Hasselhoff a couple of times and Rebecca Holden, the young lady who played the mechanic in the first couple of years of Knight Rider is a friend.
    Your articles are so interesting. You should do more and offer them in a book.

    1. That must have been interesting, interviewing the Hoff!
      I'm ashamed to say, as a series Knight Rider largely passed me by but even so I'm aware of it as part of popular culture.
      Thank you for the kind comment, much appreciated.
      G x

  2. London street names are wholly fascinating with their references to the past. Even when derivation is lost, speculation has its rewards. Unlike the Aboriginal names so much in use in Australia, whose meanings are unknown or debatable and not exactly euphonious! EVen our western historical names are taken from the British politicians of the day.

  3. I really enjoyed this, thank you! I found your post while trying to find out why Knightrider Street in Maidstone was given its name, partly to satisfy my own curiosity and partly because I plan to include it in a talk I'll be giving to our group in November. However, not finding anything locally I cast my net wider and found you! Our Knightrider Street leads towards All Saints Church and Archbishops Palace, so it is possible that Knights would ride along it in the past ... if I find out, I'll let you know! Thank you for a very interesting post. (Linda Weeks, Hon.Secretary - and other things - to Maidstone Area Archaeological Group)

  4. Great Knightrider Street was, of course, the location of Doctors' Commons - the "inn of court", if you will, of the canonists (or ecclesiastical lawyers) of mediaeval England, which continued to function until the later mid-19th century. This does not assist with the etymology, of course, but it does guarantee a number of references to it in legal literature across the ages.

    Middleton's "Family of Love" was an interesting play. The Family of Love did actually exist (I have at least one ancestor - a great x10 grandfather - who was a Familist) and Christopher Marsh has undertaken some masterful scholarly research into Familism. Familist influence in Elizabethan Court circles was disproportionate to the size of this introverted and little-known sect, and Middleton's play is a grotesque cariciature (not unlike "The Puritan" in this respect) which was expected to be played to audiences who were weall aware - and quite possibly resentful - of Familism and Familists at large.

    Jeremy Burrows (legal historian, canon lawyer, family historian, and direct descendant of Familists)


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