One of the many things I love about London is the way that the stories of it’s people are piled up layer, upon layer, like multiple coats of paint on an old front door, ready to be discovered with a little careful scratching of the surface.
I first learnt about Sir Thomas More’s life in Chelsea when I moved there about 15 years ago. The longest standing resident in our Victorian block of flats was a rather cross-looking, middle aged, woman who regularly warned us of the dangers of leaving the front door unlocked and complained about uncollected junk mail. When she realised Steve and I weren’t just passing through like many others she warmed to us, particularly when she noticed our budding interest in gardening, as we attempted to tame the small space between the building and the pavement. During one of our gardening chats, she told me that our home was built on the site of Sir Thomas More’s orchard and incredibly, the lone, gnarled tree in our communal garden was his last surviving mulberry tree.
Wandering around the streets surrounding our block of flats, there’s only a little evidence of Chelsea’s Tudor history. The most obvious looking building is a red herring, a huge red brick mansion built in the late 1990’s in the style of Hampton Court by a property developer, not quite finished and long since abandoned when the money ran out. Over the road from this folly, is a black and gold statue of More outside Chelsea Old Church. The plinth he sits on gives his dates on the front, the other three sides inscribed with one word each, STATESMAN, SCHOLAR, SAINT. I wonder how he would have felt about being remembered outside an Anglican Church?
The more you look, the more signs you see, from the smart mansion block, called More’s Garden, to the small Peabody-era social housing estate named after Sir Thomas, with a singing Irishman in seemingly permanent residence on it’s front wall and a non-descript block of flats called Mulberry Close. More was a keen gardener, and his orchards were famous. Silk was a rare and expensive commodity in Tudor England, usually imported from China. During this period, a shipment of mulberry trees was brought to England by an enterprising person who hoped to make his own silk. What he didn’t realise, was that silk worms only live on white mulberry trees, not the red ones, so many of the gardens of the time ended up with the useless red mulberries, including Thomas More’s. More loved his orchard, reputedly sitting under a tree to write his philosophical treatise, Utopia. I like to think that ‘our’ mulberry tree was the one he sat under, fanciful perhaps, but not impossible.
Apart from our mulberry tree there is one other direct link to More in this small corner of Chelsea, a Catholic seminary. As well as being a scholar, More was also Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and a deeply religious man. He refused to support Henry’s plans for a new Church of England, saying that he would rather die than renounce his faith. The seminary is a lasting memorial to More’s steadfastness, creating new Catholic Priests over 500 years after he was beheaded at the Tower.
Statesman, scholar, saint. He was all these things, but for me, Sir Thomas More is inextricably linked with picking mulberries from the venerable tree outside my bedroom window. They were sweet, soft and fragrant, impossible to eat without sticky juice running down your arms.
This post was inspired by Josie at Sleep is for the Weak ‘s writing workshop