Clerkenwell Green has been a cauldron of radicalism ever since the Peasants Revolt was extinguished there in 1381. A reminder of its revolutionary history is the Marx Memorial Library. The building is where in 1902-03 Lenin edited and published several editions of his Iskra journal, which was smuggled into Tsarist Russia to stir revolutionary fervour. It is said that in 1905 in a nearby pub, the Crown Tavern, Lenin had a drink with Joseph Stalin, on a visit to London on party business in 1903, though this has never been confirmed.
But the Marx Library is sitting on a deeper secret. The building which commemorates the author of the slogan “Religion is the opium of the people” actually stands on the site of a medieval religious building – Saint Mary’s Nunnery, which dates back to the 12th century. In the basement of the library are the remarkably well preserved remains of a crypt or cellar which looks as though it extends much farther.
(Photo courtesy of the Marx Memorial Library.)
The nunnery was situated on the opposite side of Clerkenwell Green from Clerkenwell Priory, home of the Monastic Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem – warrior monks who protected pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The gatehouse of the monastery is still very visible as is the well preserved Norman crypt underneath the ground.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, much of the stone from the priory was hijacked by the dreadful Lord Protector Somerset to build his palace on the Strand, Somerset House. Justice took its revenge. He was executed before the palace was completed.
The previous 27 instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London series can be found here. His book of London poems can be bought here. Make a £50 donation to the On London Crowdfunder and you can join Vic on a wander round some Lost London sites and have a drink on On London founder Dave Hill. How can you resist?