One of London’s many delights to visit is Canonbury Tower, a rare surviving part of a grand Tudor domestic house and a pretty eccentric one at that. The building itself is an interesting curiosity and the stories about its inhabitants – real or apocryphal – can only add to its appeal. A gunfight between Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon? An heiress being lowered from the tower in a basket to elope with her lover waiting below?
The tower was in the North-East corner of Canonbury Manor which belonged to the Canons of the Priory of St Bartholomew for nearly 300 years. Rahere, the founder of the Priory of St Bartholomew also founded St Bart’s hospital, now celebrating its 900th year as a hospital on the same site. St Bartholomew had apparently appeared to Rahere in a dream or a vision and told him to build the hospital by Smithfield Market, the last market in London still on its original site but is sadly moving this year. The only problem with Smithfield is that it was the place where most of the live animals who walked to London were slaughtered to be sold on as meat and on top of that it was a place of execution throughout the Middle Ages and into Tudor times so it was fairly smelly and noisy place to have your Priory. Canonbury Manor was on a peaceful hilltop a short ride from the Priory but surrounded by countryside with running water and beautiful views, very much the Prior’s country retreat. Prior William Bolton who was a great builder, responsible among other things for completing the grand Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey. Bolton knocked down the medieval house that had stood there and replaced it with a large Tudor mansion in 1509.
However Canonbury Tower itself was probably built by a subsequent owner, John Spencer who bought Canonbury Manor in 1570. Originally a cloth merchant, he made such a great fortune from money-lending and property dealing that he was commonly known as Rich Spence. He made a number of alterations to Bolton’s manor house including probably building the Tower. One story is that he built it to entertain Queen Elizabeth I who is said to have visited Canonbury Manor in 1581. She would certainly have got great views from the top of the tower over the countryside to the City of London and the old St Paul’s cathedral. The view today still allows a glimpse of Wren’s St Paul’s although the countryside in between has long gone. The tower was built of brick, a novelty at the time and seen as exotic as well as making houses much warmer than traditional stone.
It was John Spencer’s only daughter Eliza who was said to have eloped from the tower. Her beloved, Lord Compton, had not endeared himself to Spencer by borrowing money from him and failing to pay it back. The story goes that he locked Eliza in the tower to stop her seeing Compton by the but that she escaped by being lowered in a basket to her lover waiting below dressed as a baker’s boy. They got married and had a child but Spencer disowned his daughter. However, Queen Elizabeth apparently had a soft spot for Compton and asked Spencer to stand sponsor to the first offspring of a young couple who had been disowned. Sir John complied, honoured by the royal request and saying no probably wasn’t an option. The queen suggested that his surname be used for the Christian name of the child. The ceremony over, Sir John declared, as he had discarded his undutiful daughter, he would adopt the boy as his son. The queen then told him the truth, and the old knight, to his surprise, discovered that he had adopted his own grandson.
Well it’s a good story whether or not there is any truth in it. When Spencer died Lord Compton inherited his great wealth. He was made Earl of Northampton by King James I in 1618 and the tower has been in the Northampton family ever since.
Over the years the tower was leased out to, among others, Francis Bacon, then Attorney General. There are some mysterious bullet holes in the decorative wooden paneling in one of the rooms. Sir Walter Raleigh was a friend of Bacon’s and one story is that they were the result of a row between the two of them one night. The author Oliver Goldsmith who wrote ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and The Vicar of Wakefield also stayed there, apparently in an attempt by his publisher to keep him away from the gambling dens of London to which he was rather addicted. Later the American author Washington Irving who wrote Rip van Winkle came to stay at the tower in search of the muse of Oliver Goldsmith but was seen off very quickly by his landlady who gave tours of the tower and insisted on including a view of the author at work to her visitors.
The tower is still privately owned by the Northampton family. The Marquess of Northampton kindly allows Islington guided walks to show people around this fascinating building twice a month. The visit includes a number of rooms in the tower where you can hear more about its history, see the wonderful Tudor wooden paneling (complete with bullet holes) and, weather permitting, go out onto the roof to admire the view.
The next tour is on Wednesday 25th October at 2pm. Tickets for all tours can be booked here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/canonbury-tower-tour-tickets-475150296327?aff=oddtdtcreator