Canonbury Tower

Canonbury Tower

A little way to the west of Canonbury Square, at the junction of Alwyne Place and Canonbury Place, is a square brick tower with many windows set on a diagonal, indicating the presence of a rising staircase inside. Passers-by are often intrigued by this building and its staircase which apparently goes nowhere. Those who investigate further discover that it is possible to join a guided tour of this building on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  I have had the good fortune to lead some of these tours and have been fascinated by what I have discovered and by what remains unknown of the history of this tower. The tower is 66 ft high and 17 ft square and contains nothing but the staircase and a small room on the top floor from which further steps lead to the roof. From the roof you can look down on the surrounding buildings and out over London, with unobstructed views in all directions.

Canonbury takes its name from the community of priests known as Canons based at St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield.  In 1253 Sir Ralph Berners, who owned large parts of modern Islington, gifted land here to these Canons so that the area became known as Canonbury. Initially the Canons simply collected the rents but at the beginning of the sixteenth century their prior William Bolton built a large house here. He was perhaps more builder than priest, his biggest achievement being Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. He quite literally left his mark here and in St Bartholomew’s in the shape of a rebus or visual pun showing an arrow (or bolt) transfixing a barrel (or tun). But in the 1530s King Henry turned hungry eyes on the vast estates with which the piety of earlier generations had endowed the monasteries and priories of the land. With the enthusiastic help of his chief minister Thomas Cromwell, no friend of the monks, he ordered a survey of all such institutions and, to no one’s surprise, came to the conclusion that they were all corrupt or redundant or both. St Bartholomew’s was among the last to go in 1539. There was little protest due perhaps to the generous pensions awarded to the dispossessed monks. And of course it was the King, now head of the English church, who benefited. Thomas Cromwell was rewarded with titles and gifts of land including the house at Canonbury. But it was easy to offend King Henry. Very soon the king turned against Cromwell, who was convicted of high treason by a compliant court and beheaded. His offence was ostensibly his part in arranging the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The real reason we may never know. But it is ironic that the income from the estate at Canonbury later formed part of the divorce settlement awarded to Anne. 

We have no picture of the Tudor house at Canonbury and we don’t even know if the tower was an original part of it or a later addition. Distinctive Tudor brickwork has been found in Canonbury Place to the south and in Alwyne Place to the west and there are two summerhouses, one of them bearing Bolton’s rebus, surviving in Alwyne Villas and Alwyne Place, marking what must have been the extent of the gardens to the south. These are the surviving traces of a large house comprising four ranges of buildings enclosing a courtyard. The one thing that does not fit with this picture of a Tudor mansion is the surviving tower in the northeast corner. The tower provides access to rooms in the buildings which abut on its west south and east sides, but the top of the staircase rises above these rooms, terminating in a landing from which a trapdoor gives access to the roof and a fine view.

A tower like this is not a usual feature of a Tudor mansion, so which of its owners might have constructed it? Many were rich enough to afford the cost but it is a puzzle to understand the motive. It must have been constructed as a piece of ostentatious display, perhaps designed to impress an important visitor, but who by? If you want to make your own guess, here is a list of the principal candidates with their approximate dates of ownership:

  • Prior Bolton 1509 to 1532.
  • Thomas Cromwell 1539 to 1540.
  • John Dudley, Earl of Warwick 1547 to 1553.
  • Lord Wentworth 1557 to 1572. 
  • Sir John Spencer 1572 to 1610.

The last of these, Sir John Spencer, a wealthy City merchant, is a strong contender for the honour. He is believed to have lived in the house from 1599 and there is a story which links him with Queen Elizabeth. According to this story his only daughter Elisabeth fell in love with the dashing but impecunious Lord Compton. Her father disapproved and had her locked up in Canonbury Tower, from which she escaped by being lowered from a window into the arms of Lord Compton, disguised as a baker’s boy, complete with bread basket and cart. The two married and the furious father disinherited his daughter. A reconciliation was engineered by no less a person than Queen Elizabeth, who went to Sir John with a story of a couple in love left destitute by a father’s cruelty and now expecting a child. Sir John’s heart was melted and he offered to be the child’s godfather and undertook to make it heir to his vast fortune in place of his disobedient daughter. All was revealed when everyone met at the church for the christening. Sir John kept his word and on his death the Comptons inherited. This last part of the story at least is true and the tower still forms part of the Compton family estates . It is thanks to their generosity that Islington Guided Walks can take people into the tower today. 

The tower has continued to accumulate stories over the ensuing 400 years and there is lots more to tell. If you would like to hear more, go to Eventbrite and book a place on an upcoming tour.  For more information please contact the author of this post, Peter Hayes.