The Belle Sauvage is one of the best remembered of London's Coaching Inns. It stood on the south side of the moat around the Fleet Prison and opened onto the north side of Ludgate Hill at number 37. It was at various times in its career an Inn, a Playhouse, Hotel, Coffee House and Coaching Inn. It survived until the railway viaduct between Holborn and Blackfriars was constructed in 1873.
A great deal of speculation has gone into the origin of the later name of the famous Belle Sauvage Inn. The commonly believed story was that the name was derived from an old French romance which was once popular in London and whose heroine was known as La Belle Sauvage. It was suggested in a nineteenth century issue of The Spectator that an ancient landlady, was a Mrs Isabel Savage who, in time, became confused with the heroine of the old romance. However, it has now been identified as the building previously known as Topfeldes Inn or Toppesfeld's Inn which is first heard of in 1322 and described as running from Ludgate Hill (then part of Fleet Street)to the moat of the Fleet Prison. There is a record from 1380 which records that a certain William Lawton was sentenced to an hour in the pillory for trying to obtain, by means of a forged letter, twenty shillings from William Savage, Fleet Street, in the parish of St. Bridget. This establishes that Savage was the name of a citizen of the locality at this time. In 1453, a clause roll notices the bequest of John French to his mother, Joan French, widow, of Savagesynne alias Le Belle on the Hope (Hoop) in the parish of St. Bride's. In 1568 a John Craythorne gave the reversion of the Belle Sauvage to the Cutlers' Company, on condition that two exhibitions to the university and certain sums to poor prisoners be paid by them out of the estate. A portrait of Craythorne's wife still hung in Cutler's Hall at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1584 the inn was described as Ye Belle Savage. In 1648 and 1672 the landlord's tokens displayed an Indian woman holding a bow and arrow and in the early eighteenth century he sign was a savage man standing by a bell. It is therefore most likely that the name and its variants refer to the family which acquired it from Topesfeld sometime after 1322.
The Inner Court
Originally the inn had two courts, the outer one of which was accessed through an from Ludgate Hill. The inn stood round an inner court, entered by a second archway over which and facing the outer court was the sign of The Bell and all round the interior ran those covered galleries, so prominent a feature in old London inns. Before the construction of theatres in the late sixteenth century, travelling players used to entertain in the courtyards of inns. The eventual design of theatres was heavily influenced by the layout of these inns with their central yard surrounded on all sides by upper and lower galleries. The Belle Sauvage was
"a favourite place for these performances. There was also a school of defence, or fencing school, here in Queen Elizabeth's time; so many a hot Tybalt and fiery Mercutio have here crossed rapiers, and many a silk button has been reft from gay doublets by the quick passadoes of the young swordsmen who ruffled it in the Strand. This quondam inn was also the place where Banks, the showman (so often mentioned by Nash and others in Elizabethan pamphlets and lampoons), exhibited his wonderful trained horse Marocco, the animal which once ascended the tower of St. Paul's, and who on another occasion, at his master's bidding, delighted the mob by selecting Tarleton, the low comedian, as the greatest fool present. Banks eventually took his horse, which was shod with silver, to Rome, and the priests, frightened at the circus tricks, burnt both Marocco and his master for witchcraft". In the mid sixteenth century, it was in the yard of the Belle Sauvage Sir Thomas Wyatt's rebellion came to an inglorious end. He and his followers were attempting to prevent the marriage of Mary to Phillip II of Spain. At the head of a large following from Kent, he marched on London but found London Bridge closed against him. He then made the long detour to cross the river at Kingston intending to enter the City through Ludgate. During the march his followers became disorganised and and at each stage more and more were cut off from the main body by the queen's forces, until, by the time he reached Fleet Street, he had only some three hundred followers. Froud, in his History, wrote that
"He passed Temple Bar, along Fleet Street, and reached Ludgate. The gate was open as he approached, when some one seeing a number of men coming 'up, exclaimed, 'These be Wyatt's antients.' Muttered curses were heard among the bystanders; but Lord Howard was on the spot; the gates, notwithstanding the murmurs, were instantly closed; and when Wyatt knocked, Howard's voice answered, 'Avaunt! traitor; thou shalt not come in here.' 'I have kept touch,' Wyatt exclaimed; but his enterprise was hopeless now and he sat down upon a bench outside the Belle Sauvage yard. That was the end. His followers scattered in all directions, and in a little while he was a prisoner, on his way to the Tower and the block."At one period the outer court certainly contained private houses. In the late seventeenth century, the carver Grinling Gibbons lived at number 11 and was here discovered by John Evelyn who brought his work to the attention of Charles II. Horace Walpole has left it on record that,
as a sort of advertisement, Gibbons carved an exquisite pot of flowers in wood, which stood on his window-sill, and shook surprisingly with the motion of the coaches that passed beneath. No man before Gibbons had ever given to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, or linked together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species.Perhaps Gibbons' most skilful piece was an imitation point-lace cravat, which he carved at Chatsworth for the Duke of Devonshire. Petworth House in West Sussex, also contains excellent examples of his carving amongst which are representations of fruit, flowers, and dead game.
The notorious quack, Richard Rock, also once had lodgings in the Belle Sauvage Yard. This quack, into the hands of whom and his like Goldsmith declared all fell unless they were "blasted by lightning, or struck dead with some sudden disorder", was described as a
"great man, short of stature, fat, and waddled as he walked. He was "sually drawn at the top of his own bills, sitting in his arm-chair, holding a little bottle between his finger and thumb, and surrounded with rotten teeth, nippers, pills, packets, and gallipots."The Inn was altogether closed during the Great Plague, when its host issued advertisements that
all persons who had any accompts with the master, or farthings belonging to the said house, might exchange them for the usual currency. Like many other taverns, the Belle Sauvage, then had its own tokens with which customers could purchase its services. The inn was a very busy place in the later seventeenth century and a handbill from this time claims that it had forty rooms and stabling for 100 horses. In 1684, the Inn introduced the novelty of:
a very strange beast called a Rhynoceros lately brought from the West Indies, being the first that ever was in england. It could be viewed daily by members of the public for a small fee.
The Cambridge coach leaving the outer yard
As a coaching Inn, The Belle Sauvage was the starting point and terminus for coaches to and from Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester and Salisbury. In 1852, John Cassell moved into numbers 6-9 in the outer yard and began his printing operations. From then the Inn slowly disappeared as his printing works expanded and it was finally demolished in 1873 to make way for the railway viaduct connecting Blackfriars station with Holborn. The coming of the railway had by then destroyed the coaching industry. At the end of the nineteenth century, the site was occupied by Cassell's printing works and
"a railway parcel office huddled up in the left-hand corner".
The railway viaduct itself disappeared in 1990 and the associated archaeological excavations uncovered a large part of the foundations of the Belle Sauvage as well as one of the refuse pits which it used. This contained much broken pottery and many bottles from the 17th and 18th centuries as well as a large number of clay tobacco-pipe fragments. The entrance to the outer yard is today represented by the entrance to Lime Burner Lane on the north side of Ludgate hill opposite the new City Thameslink railway station.
Find the Belle Sauvage on the Map