The King’s Head at Chancery Lane End

A farthing token issued in the name of the King's Head Tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, London

A farthing token issued in the name of the King’s Head Tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, London

The above copper farthing token measures 16.1 mm and weighs 1.63 grams. It was issued in the name of The King’s Head Tavern which was located on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street in the City of London.

The design of the token may be formally described as follows;

Obverse: .THE.KINGS.HEAD.TAVERNE , around the central depiction of a the facing head and shoulders of King Henry VIII.
Reverse: .AT.CHANCERY.LANE.END. , around a triad of initials comprising T | .K. | .A

The King’s Head is first recorded in 1472. It was one of the forty permitted taverns (as opposed to inns or the later introduced “ordinaries”) fully licensed to operate within London under an Act passed in 1553. From his diary entries (1663-69) we know that Samuel Pepys was familiar with at least 10 of these earlier listed taverns including the King’s Head. Despite the fact that his travels to and from the Navy Office and Whitehall would have taken him past the King’s Head on a regular basis Pepys only records two visits to the tavern during the six years he was writing his diary.  These are reproduced (in part) below.  The reference may be to a separate establishment of the same name in a different part of the city as Pepys refers to the establishment as an “ordinary” as opposed to a tavern. There were discreet differences between taverns, inns and ordinaries and it is doubtful that Pepys would have confused the two definitions. The King’s Head at the southern end of Chancery Lane was a well-known city tavern and land mark.

21th June 1665

“Up and to White Hall with Sir J. Minnes, and to the Committee of Tangier, where my Lord Treasurer was, the first and only time he ever was there, and did promise us £15,000. for Tangier and no more, which will be short. But if I can pay Mr. Andrews all his money I care for no more, and the bills of Exchange. Thence with Mr. Povy and Creed below to a new chamber of Mr. Povy’s, very pretty, and there discourse about his business, not to his content, but with the most advantage I could to him, and Creed also did the like. Thence with Creed to the King’s Head, and there dined with him at the ordinary, and good sport with one Mr. Nicholls, a prating coxcombe, that would be thought a poet, but would not be got to repeat any of his verses. Thence I home, and there find my wife’s brother and his wife, a pretty little modest woman, where they dined with my wife.”

2nd April 1668

“Thence with Lord Brouncker to the Royall Society, where they were just done; but there I was forced to subscribe to the building of a College, and did give £40.; and several others did subscribe, some greater and some less sums; but several I saw hang off: and I doubt it will spoil the Society, for it breeds faction and ill-will, and becomes burdensome to some that cannot, or would not, do it. Here, to my great content, I did try the use of the Otacousticon, —[Ear trumpet.]— which was only a great glass bottle broke at the bottom, putting the neck to my eare, and there I did plainly hear the dashing of the oares of the boats in the Thames to Arundell gallery window, which, without it, I could not in the least do, and may, I believe, be improved to a great height, which I am mighty glad of. Thence with Lord Brouncker and several of them to the King’s Head Taverne by Chancery Lane, and there did drink and eat and talk, and, above the rest, I did hear of Mr. Hooke and my Lord an account of the reason of concords and discords in musique, which they say is from the equality of vibrations; but I am not satisfied in it, but will at my leisure think of it more, and see how far that do go to explain it. So late at night home with Mr. Colwell, and parted, and I to the office, and then to Sir W. Pen to confer with him, and Sir R. Ford and Young, about our St. John Baptist prize, and so home, without more supper to bed, my family being now little by the departure of my wife and two maids.”

The location of the King's Head Tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, London (c.1720)

The location of the King’s Head Tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, London (c.1720)

Three separate sets of tokens (two farthings and a half penny) were issued in the name of the King’s Head tavern by three successive landlords. Each of these sets of tokens carries the initials of their respective issuers. While none of the tokens  are dated it is possible to arrange them in a chronological issuing sequence as their respective issuers have been identified and their tenancies approximately date as follows;

T.K. & A.K. – Thomas Kent and his wife (Anne?) who ran the tavern from 1630 to 1660

L.W. & H.M. – The partnership of Lewis Wilson and Henry Morris who ran the tavern between 1660 to c.1662. After which Henry Morris appears to have left the partnership.

W.M. & K.M. – William Mart and his wife (Katherine?) who ran the tavern between 1666 to 1682. Prior to this the couple had run the Queen’s Head in Fleet Street where they also issued trade tokens.

The farthing token illustrated above is one of those issued during the tenancy of Thomas Kent and his wife. This is indicated by the triad of issuers’ initials displayed on its reverse side. Thomas Kent’s name first appears in the St. Dunstan’s list of vintners in 1630 and remains on it until 1660. In the Lambeth Tithes list of 1638 his rent is accessed as £70. A poll list of 1660 includes a reference “Mr. Thomas Kent, vintner, has been warden“. In a further parish list of the same year Kent’s name is replaced by those of Henry Morris and Lewis Wilson (1).

According to one reference only the first and second floors of the ancient four-story building on the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane were devoted to housing the King’s Head tavern. Amongst other rooms the tavern possessed a dedicated dining room plus a music room (2). The Hearth Tax return for Fleet Street in 1666 indicates that during the tenancy of William Mart the King’s Head possessed 20 hearths.. The building’s ground floor housed shops. One was a grocery which was run by the father of the famous 17th century poet Abraham Cowley another a book shop run by Thomas Maxey from where he printed and sold the first edition of Izaak Walton’s “Complete Angler”. Luckily for all the tradesmen that operated from this ancient building the Great Fire of London (1666) stopped just short of its location on Fleet Street.

During Samuel Pepys’ time the King’s Head tavern was known as a “Protestant House”. Between c.1675 and 1683 it was the meeting place of the Green Ribbon Club (3) . This notorious group comprised lawyers, city politicians, and MPs alarmed by what they perceived to be a drift towards “popery” and arbitrary government under King Charles II together with the prospect of Charles’ brother, the Duke of York (later King James II), inheriting the throne.  The club took its name from the green ribbons which its members wore in their hats and which subsequently proved to be a useful means of recognition in street brawls. The choice of this emblematic badge was derived from the similar ribbons attached to the clothes worn by the Levellers. The Levellers were a pre-eminent political group that rose to prominence during the English Civil Wars and which had a significant following with Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army as well as within the general populace of the city of London. Many of the club’s members had extreme protestant views and were supporters of Titus Oates and his anti-Catholic rantings. They were also associated with the Rye House Plot and the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. According to the playwright John Dryden, drinking was the chief attraction of the club and the members talked and organized sedition over their cups.

Prior to 1679 the club’s had been known as the King’s Head Club, after the tavern where they met. The tavern’s trade sign depicted of the head of King Henry VIII (as per that used on its tokens). As Henry was Britain’s first protestant ruler it made this already well-known Fleet Street tavern the ideal meeting place and emblematic home of the club.

Included amongst the club’s most notable members were the Duke of Monmouth, the Earl of Halifax, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. The latter famously harangued Samuel Pepys, during his early parliamentary career, accusing him of being a Roman-catholic in an attempt to undermine him.

In 1680 and 1681 the club organised pope-burning processions on the anniversary dates of Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne. These ended by the lighting of huge bonfires in front of the King’s Head tavern and proved an effective means of inflaming the religious passions of the populace.

William Hogarth's depiction of a street celebration in April 1653 outside the King's Head tavern in Fleet Street applauding the dissolution of the Rump Parliment by Oliver Cromwell.

William Hogarth’s depiction of a street celebration in April 1653 outside the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street applauding the dissolution of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell.

A near contemporary image of Fleet Street looking west towards Temple Bar Gate can be found in an engraving by William Hogarth. The vantage point for this view is at, or very close to, the street frontage of the King’s Head tavern. This image was commissioned as part of a set of prints to illustrate an issue of Samuel Butlers poem “Hudibras”. The content of the print is that of a street protest against the “Rump Parliament” which was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell on 20th April 1653. Its depicts members of the public roasting rump steaks on an open bonfire together with full size effigies of members of parliament being hung from shop front signs. This possibly fictitious scene will know doubt have resembled the actual events which took place outside the King’s Head tavern in 1680 and 1681 when the Green Ribbon Club’s pope-burning processions reached their climactic finale.

In the late 17th century Robert Hooke and other fellows of the Royal Society are noted by one source (4) to have regularly met at the King’s Head Tavern. As President of the society from 1684 to 1686 Samuel Pepys was probably amongst those notable members who attended such meetings. No doubt the meetings of the Royal Society members were less rowdy and quieter affairs than the earlier meetings of the Green Ribbon Club.

A late 18th century painting of the building which once housed the King's Head Tavern

A late 18th century painting of the building which once housed the King’s Head Tavern (by William Alexander 1767-1816).

 A late 18th century image of the building is preserved in a picture by the artist William Alexander. The tavern’s distinctive trade sign, which depicted the head of King Henry VIII, is no-longer visible in this picture which confirms its was painted after the tavern had ceased to operate. The tavern was demolished in 1799 af the widening of Chancery Lane (2). Today the site of its original location is occupied by George Attenborough & Son (jewellers at 193 Fleet Street).

References:

1) Berry, G. - Tavern Tokens of Pepy’s London. (London, 1978).

2) Wheatley, H.B – London: Past and Present: Its History, Associations and Traditions. (London, 1891).

3) Shelley, H.C. – Inns and Taverns of Old London. (London, 1909).

4) Jungnickel, C. & MacCormmach, R. – Cavendish. (Philadelphia, 1996).

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