William Walworth is remembered chiefly as the man who slew Wat Tyler in an impetuous and possibly unnecessary show of concern for the safety of a fourteen year-old king, Richard II. It earned him an immediate knighthood, on the spot, at Smithfield. That was in 1381.
Ten years earlier, the Carthusian House of the Salutation of the Mother of God, had had less dramatic but nonetheless genuine reason to be grateful to Walworth. He had provided money towards the construction of the first cell for a choir monk.
The establishment of a Carthusian monastery just outside the walls of the City of London was an unusual project. Carthusian houses were traditionally built in isolated locations. But, the idea of a house of constant prayer alongside the place where so many victims of the 1348 plague lay buried was a popular one. It had the approval of the then king (Edward III). The Priory of St Bartholomew donated the land. The next thing that was required was money to start building. And so began a fund-raising campaign among the wealthiest Londoners.
The driving force was Sir Walter Manny, a courtier and member of the royal inner circle. He had been Queen Philippa’s Esquire Carver and the Keeper of her Hounds. After many bureaucratic delays, Sir Walter recruited William Walworth to be a donor of funds. Walworth was, at this point in his life, on the up and up. He had prospered as a saltfish merchant and member of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and had recently become Member of Parliament for the City of London.
Manny and Walworth pooled resources and in 1371, construction began on a cell for the monastery’s first Prior. Not, perhaps, the kind of monk’s cell you might imagine. More like a little two-storey cottage. That became known as Cell A, now lost, thanks to the depredations of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent repurposing of the site. The following year William Walworth paid for another cell to be built; Cell B, of which remnants - its doorway, tiled threshold and food hatch - have survived in what is now The Charterhouse. The floor tiles are Flemish, as was Walter Manny. Perhaps he gave his friend Walworth some decorating suggestions?
The monastery took 60 years to complete and during that time Walworth sponsored a further four cells, either directly from his own wealth or by persuading acquaintances to leave bequests.
At the end of May 1381, with the population in revolt against a poll tax and Wat Tyler’s band of Kentish protestors heading to London, young King Richard bolted to the safety of the Tower. William Walworth, at that time Lord Mayor of the City, called out the City Guard, but the men of Kent pressed on and, on June 15th, assembled at Smithfield to make their demands to the King.
The meeting seemed to start well. The King was amenable. What happened next is contested. Did Wat Tyler become over-familiar with the King? Did he spit, disrespectfully, in his direction? Did one of the King’s entourage respond by insulting Tyler? In a heated moment someone made the first move, perhaps Tyler, perhaps Walworth who had ridden out to Smithfield with the King.
According to one version of the story, William Walworth despatched Wat Tyler immediately with the thrust of a dagger. Another version is that Tyler, seriously wounded, was carried into St Bart’s hospital, but was soon dragged from there by Walworth’s men and publicly executed. Whatever the actual timeline, Tyler perished and his dispirited followers went home. It was effectively the end of the revolt.
Was Walworth a dagger-happy oppressor of working men or a good citizen and brave defender of his monarch? Whatever the truth, he was rewarded with a knighthood and a pension and is today counted as one of London’s worthies. The north-eastern pavilion on Holborn Viaduct, linking the viaduct to Farringdon Road by stairs, is named after him and bears his statue.