For much of the 17th century, Britain was engaged in making her writ obeyed across the globe from India to America. But, curiously, kings and queens failed to get their laws obeyed in key parts of London. One of the most notorious of these “liberties”, where people could take refuge legal authority, was Alsatia, which took up much of the land between Fleet Street and the Thames.
Alsatia’s curious name was derived from Alsace, a disputed land both France and Germany laid claim to which was well known for its lawlessness. Alsatia was the most famous of the dozen or so legal safe havens in London. It was occupied by the Whitefriars monks until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Residents enjoyed immunity from arrest, claiming ecclesiastical privileges dating back to the time of Edward the Confessor. The Whitefriars monastery has long been pulled down, but parts of it can still be observed.
The connection between Alsatia’s monastic origins and its state of lawlessness was but one example of the tradition of areas around monasteries not being subject to cannon law or ordinary civil law – one that continued after the dissolution. When Henry was divvying out the confiscated monasteries to his cronies, he gave the Alsatian lands to his physician Dr William Butts, under whose neglect they degenerated into a self-governing slum.
Filled with criminals and bankrupts, Alsatia became a no-go area for police and provided the location for one of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels – The Fortunes of Nigel – and appeared in other literary works, such as Thomas Shadwell’s 1688 play The Square of Alsatia. Shadwell observed that England had conquered Ireland, subdued Wales and united Scotland, yet “there are some few spots of ground in London, just in the face of the Government, unconquer’d yet, that hold in Rebellion still”. He thought it strange that “places so near the Kings Palace should be no parts of his Dominions”.
Among those who took refuge in Alsatia was Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, who apparently escaped to it in 1692 after being pursued by the authorities for writing seditious material.
In 1608, King James I had actually confirmed the privileges of the liberties in a formal charter, and those rights remained until 1697, when they were abolished by an Act of Parliament. Even so, like other liberties, Alsatia maintained its disreputable character for long afterwards.
One of the extraordinary things about Alsatia was that some of the shops along Fleet Street had back doors which, when unlocked, opened into it – an alternative world of lawlessness whose shelter rogues being pursued by creditors could escape into. That is probably what is happening in Hogarth’s print show above. It is believed to be set just off Fleet Street in Hanging Sword Alley.
In 1581, a widow called Pandley was accused of having “a backdoor into the white fryers, and for receiving of lewd persons, both men and women, to eate and drinke in her cellar…” The famous Mitre tavern in Fleet Street (later part of the site of Hoare’s Bank) had a door which led into Ram Alley (or Hare Court as it was later called) “by means whereof such persons as do frequent the house upon search made after them are conveyed out of the way.”
It sounds more like a virtual reality game than real life. But that was Fleet Street in the heady days of Alsatia.