The Ghost Of Thomas More's House In Chelsea - Part1

Written by Nika Garrett on .

The Ghost Of Thomas More's House In Chelsea - Part1

‘More’ wrote Erasmus, ‘hath built near London upon the Thames  a commodious house, neither mean nor subject to envy, yet magnificent enough; there he converseth with his family, his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, his three daughters and their husbands, with eleven grandchildren…’

In fact it appears that Erasmus never visited his friend in Chelsea, but Thomas More’s residence must have been comfortable enough to accommodate such a big household.  Nobody knows for sure what the residence and the land around looked like but a famous Knyff/Kip view of Chelsea shows the house and the gardens that once belonged to Thomas More. This image of 1690s identifies it as ‘The House  att Chelsea … of the Most Noble &Potent Prince Henry Duke of Beaufort…’ More’s former estate looks carefully planned with vast gardens where he would keep a small menagerie that  included rabbits, a monkey, a fox, a ferret, and a weasel and exotic birds. As it is often said, he was fond of watching their habits.

In the Kip’s View one can see a wide path leading down to the riverside where the first noble resident of Chelsea had his private landing stage with a flight of steps from the river. It seems it was somewhere where Battersea Bridge now joins the Embankment. At the time when only rough tracks led to London from Chelsea, it was quicker and safer to travel by boat. More kept his own barge and so must have Duke of Beaufort . We can see one by the river steps.

Among many visitors to the place was the king himself.  Indeed Henry VIII was a frequent visitor and on one occasion arrived unexpectedly for dinner. William Roper (More’s son-in-law) watched the two of them strolling together; Henry with his arm affectionately around his chancellor’s neck.

It is possibly the most well-known and yet most startling conversation the father-in-law and son-in-law had later on. When Roper comments how high the king keeps More in his esteem, the chancellor replies:  ‘I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France, it would not fail to go.’ Little did he know how close he was to foretelling his fate. The Old Chelsea church still contains the tomb where More wanted to be buried with his two wives. He composed his own epitaph a few years before his death: ‘Oh! Could religion and the fates agree,/Together happily might live all three!/The tomb shall join us, may we meet in heaven!/ And thus by Death, what life denied, be given.’

 Thomas More was executed in 1535 and his estate became the crown’s property only to change its owner for a number of times. Ironically, it was Sir Hans Sloane, one of Chelsea’s greatest benefactors who decided to pull More’s house down in 1740. Beaufort Street runs now across what was once More’s estate, Roper’s gardens are named after his son-in-low, More’s chapel in the Old Church still stands, while his statue looks towards the embankment and the river. Nearby Crosby Hall which was transplanted to Chelsea from the Bishopsgate in the City (where it used to be a part of Crosby Place) was once More’s property, though it is unlikely he lived in it. Finally, should you happen to be in the Chelsea Old Town Hall, you may also notice a copy of the painting by Hans Holbein who visited More’s estate and portrayed him and his family.

Is there anything else left that would remind us of Thomas More’s Chelsea and his estate? Look carefully at the left upper corner of the Kip’s View again… Flanked with trees on the both side and with small buildings to the north there is a small plot, and if you strain your eyes a bit, you will see a horse…

There is still that hidden corner in Chelsea that was once the stable yard with stables that belonged to More.  If you visit it now, you won’t see a horse there, but a green plot with four fig trees planted in the middle. It may take a while before you discover that the place is in fact a burial ground, though you may occasionally notice people running around and playing football. In fact, in late 1960s you would have seen here a real lion doing exactly the same. It was the famous lion called Christian who got a special permission (or should I say his Australian owners did) to use the plot so that he could get some exercise.

 The place you happen to be in is a Moravian burial ground.  Moravians were founded in the area of Moravia and Bohemia in Europe, and when they broke away from the Catholic church, they ended up being prosecuted for many years.  Some of them settled in England and in 1751 Count Zinzendorf bought Lindsey House (part of which is now occupied by Mick Jagger and Abramowich) and some land at the back of it. This is how Thomas More’ stable yard was converted into a burial ground, while the stables into a chapel. Parts of the wall enclosing the place still contain some of the original Tudor brick.

Every time I visit the place, it feels so emotional to be able to stand on what was one’s part of More’s estate. At the back by the wall, a long beam shows a peculiar timeline of the house that once stood by the Thames. It shows the coats of arms of its owners starting with More himself and finishing with Sloane. The beam is decaying and the paint getting fader and fader.  Finally, though it has nothing to do with the More himself, every time I visit this place, I also go to that corner by the wall to see if I can still find the grave of 'Nunak, the Eskimo boy'…

Is there anything else left from the Thomas More’s estate to be found? Well, there is but it is no longer in Chelsea…

To be continued…

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