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Original Skin

A few weeks ago, I plucked up the courage to take a walk around the area of Westminster. Courage is probably a gross exaggeration, but it's never been one of my favourite areas and I didn't have much in the way of background knowledge apart from the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.


As I had feared it was a bit of a zoo. Protesters spaced out along Whitehall, many trumpeting conspiracy theories with bizarre claims and the good old political lobby, the most recent incarnation, playing the theme tune to the Muppet Show over and over outside Parliament. Add to that the heaving mass of tourists wandering aimlessly around, pausing for the inevitable selfies with phone boxes and the Elizabeth Tower in the background. I really shouldn't grumble about them, they're my target audience after all, but I do have to grit my teeth now and again. A middle aged couple draped themselves around the plinth of Churchill's statue for possibly the hundredth selfie of that morning. "Who's this guy? Ah he's one of their Kings I think" I'll stop here and get on with the main topic of the post.


Having moved away with less tooth enamel than before I crossed the road towards Westminster Abbey and walked straight into my own D'oh! moment.

I'd passed the Abbey countless times on foot or bus and probably paid it scant attention after the first few views. Right in front of me, behind the abbey railings was a church! How long's that been there I wondered, I can't remember clocking it before. Goes to show you don't always see what you're looking at.







It's not even a small church, it has quiet a large tower attached to it, should have gone to Specsavers (other opticians are available). It's known as St Margaret's Westminster. I was slightly confused to why there was a separate church within the Abbey grounds. This was definitely a two pint problem, so I adjourned to a local pub and did a bit of Holmesian sleuthing.


The first Abbey on the site dates to around 1040, with the Benedictine Monks who founded it being in situ on what was then known as Thorney Island since the mid tenth century. It appears that as the Abbey grew in size and status it became a magnet for the local population to worship in.


The peaceful and ordered life that the monks enjoyed was disrupted by the dirty smelly local peasants, and so to get them out of the Abbey, the monks built the church in the Abbey grounds in the twelfth century and dedicated it to St Margaret of Antioch.


St Margaret's was rebuilt from 1486 to 1523, at the instigation of  Henry VII, and the new church, which largely still stands today, was consecrated on 9 April 1523. It is said to have been the last church in London to have been decorated in the Catholic tradition during the reformation. It was nearly demolished in in the 1540s as Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset had his eye on the fine stonework and wanted to use it for building his home on the Strand, Somerset House.

The church has a link with the red telephone box, much beloved by the selfie takers. In 1878 the interior was refurbished to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott, who also designed the K1 & K2 telephone kiosks.

During Scott's preliminary work on the interior several old doorways were discovered that had been bricked up. These doors appeared to be overlaid with what was believed to be human skin. After doctors had examined this skin, but before publishing their findings, Victorian historians theorized that the skin might have been that of William the Sacrist. He was based at the cathedral at Bury St Edmonds and he was in charge of the area where the priests kept their robes and it was his job to dress the priests prior to services being conducted.


In 1303 William along with some clerics and a wool merchant named Richard of Pudlicott, devised a plan to break into the treasury of Edward the first. The treasury was housed in the Abbey and they were helped by several of the Abbey's Clergy. The raid was successful and the gang got away with coin and valuables somewhere in the region of £100,000 back then. It's difficult to calculate how much that is know, but it's in the tens of millions. It was said at the time, that the haul was in fact greater than a years taxation throughout the whole country.


At the time the King and his council were away on a military campaign and it was only when valuable artifacts, gems and plate began to turn up in pawn shops, brothels and some netted from the River Thames that the authorities checked the treasury to find it depleted.

Dozens of people were rounded up and jailed in a wide and indiscriminate manhunt, which eventually lead to one of the biggest trials of the Middle Ages in England. Richard and William pleaded guilty to the theft, Richard testifying that he had acted alone so as not to incriminate the clergy who had masterminded the inside job, and William because he had been caught with a bag full of valuables.

Richard is said to have been flayed alive and then hung, his skin nailed up on the door of the Abbey as a warning. William was thought to have met the same demise and it was, so the Victorian historians theorised to a willing and febrile press, his skin that was found on the doors uncovered in St Margaret's.

If only these learned men had exercised a modicum of patience they could have spared their own blushes. After weeks of articles and speculation in the press the medical opinion was published, the skins were of Bovine origin.


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