Covent Garden is home to the world-renowned Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet and the London Transport museum – as well as some of the best shopping, food & drink and street entertainment in London. This post is about the foundation of Covent Garden.
Covent Garden was originally a medieval orchard and garden, belonging to the Convent of the church of St Peter at Westminster (Westminster Abbey today) about a mile away. With the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536, King Henry VIII gave the land to one of his supporters (and the ‘n’ of Convent got lost along the way). The new owner of the land was the 4th Duke Bedford (John Russell).
In 1630, the Welsh architect, Inigo Jones was commissioned to build a residential square (probably following the fashion set in Paris ten years earlier at Place des Vosges). This was to become London’s first high-end residential square. In 1670 a Royal Charter was given to the Earl of Bedford to open a fruit, vegetable and flower market – to ‘hold forever a market in the Piazza on every day in the year except Sundays and Christmas Day for the buying and selling of all manner of fruit, flowers, roots and herbs’. The market was a welcomed addition in its early years, but from 1740 the area went into decline – first becoming the heart of London’s artistic community and later the favoured haunt of drunks, the very poor and prostitutes – there was even a guide for the latter (1757-95) called Harris’s Covent Garden ladies. The circle turned and regeneration started in 1830 when a Victorian market was built – and it still stands today as the large stone central market, only closing in the 1970’s.
St Pauls Church, Covent Garden was built by Inigo Jones in 1633 and consecrated 1638. The Duke of Bedford (not being a religious man) said ‘it should be no more than a barn’. Jones replied, ‘the handsomest barn in England’. In fact, it’s modelled on a Roman temple – the first English church of that style, and only 100 years after the Reformation. It has seen the baptisms of JMW Turner and WS Gilbert and owing to its proximity to ‘West End’ it’s earned the nickname the ‘Actors Church’. The Portico was the setting for GB Shaw’s Pygmalion (My Fair Lady).