In November, 1888, with the horrors of the Whitechapel murders being reported almost daily in the newspapers, and many of the press reports being couched in a distinctly Gothic horror format, John Francis Brewer spotted the opportunity afforded by the Jack the Ripper crimes and released a chiller of a book entitled, The Curse Upon Mitre Square AD 1530-1888.
THE CURSE UPON MITRE SQUARE
This “very remarkable little booklet”, to quote from a review of it, which appeared in The North Devon Gazette on Tuesday, 6th November, 1888, told “the sensational historical story of a startling tragedy perpetrated at the high altar of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Aldgate, as far back as 1530; the story of a horrible murder and mutilation of his sister by a monk on the exact spot which so recently weltered with the gore Catherine Eddowes.”
Fanciful as the narrative was, there was most certainly some historical truth in Brewer’s sensational storyline in that there most certainly was a Priory on the site of Mitre Square throughout the Middle Ages.
Indeed, The Holy Trinity Priory, also known as Christchurch Aldgate, belonged to the Austin Canons, also known as the Black Canons, and was founded in the early 1100’s by Queen Matilda, the wife of King Henry 1st.
The monastery was dissolved in February 1532, and its land and buildings were handed over to King Henry the Eighth. They were subsequently sold off to courtiers and various City of London merchants.
So, at least the story is rooted in historical fact, which is more than can be said for a large number of the books that have been published on the Jack the Ripper mystery since!
Indeed, it is still possible to see a few ragged remnants of the Priory inside the modern office building that stands on the south-west corner of Mitre Street.
However, the publishers of “The Curse Upon Mitre Square, to help readers get an idea of what the Priory was like at the time of the events from which the curse originated, very helpfully provided a detailed illustration for the book’s front piece.
A WEALTHY FOUNDATION
Brewer begins his novella by giving us a brief insight into the wealth and power of the foundation where the curse is about to be enacted:-
“It was curious that, notwithstanding their power and wealth, their well-acknowledged munificence, and their good fortune in other respects, the monks of Holy Trinity Church, Aldgate, were but ill at ease in the year of grace 1530.
All that monks wished for they possessed.
The Priory was, with the exception of Westminster, the most superb monastic institution in Middlesex.
In its revenues were included the whole ward of Portsoken, four parish churches acknowledged its authority, and its privileges far exceeded those of any institution of the like kind, with the one exception named above.”
And then, we are introduced to Brother Martin the neophyte whose behaviour and subsequent actions will bring the curse down upon the location:-
“In the year before this narrative commences a young man of great promise entered the Priory of Holy Trinity.
His appearance attracted attention, and when he conversed he infatuated his hearers with the eloquence and charm of his discourse.
Of spare frame, though not short, he looked delicate, but the head bespoke great power, and told of strong passion, and no unusual capacity for good or evil.
Martin, for such was his name, was very dark, with thick black hair, eyebrows that met and gave to the face a somewhat sinister look, which was partly corrected by the perfectly straightforward-looking blue eyes, which is occasionally seen in very dark persons.
The nose was aquiline, but too thin, and the mouth, the worst feature in the face, firmly closed and not unfrequently hidden by the hand. This was the more curious, as Martin possessed the whitest teeth imaginable, beautiful in their regularity and perfection.
When not conversing Martin’s appearance gave the impression of an intellect debased by cunning and evil passion; when, however, he spoke, his eloquence and manner dispelled this, and intellect only was discernible…”
A SYNOPSIS OF THE STORY
The circumstances behind the curse upon the square centre upon the machinations of a mysterious, though wealthy and seemingly influential man, who persuades a local lady to seduce Brother Martin, which she manages to do without too much resistance from the neophyte.
Indeed, the naive Martin becomes so obsessed with her that he agrees to forsake his monastic calling and elope with her and the date and the meeting is set for four days time by the high altar of the monastery’s church.
FATHER ANSELM INTERVENES
However, an older and wiser monk, Father Anselm, the oldest monk in the monastery, guesses what Martin is up to and prevails upon him not to give in to temptation:-
“…Had Martin been placed under this holy father from the first, it is probable that his difficulties and temptations would have been foreseen and danger warded off; but now it was too late; a fiend possessed his soul and held it with an iron grip.
That sense of quiet following a decision even to sin, which Martin had felt, left him under the saint-like eloquence and charity of Father Anselm.
This holy man discovered the peculiar temperament of his pupil, and with a fire and genius equal to Martin’s, and a tact gained from experience and knowledge of the passions of men, he poured forth arguments and exhortations of the right kind to appeal to such a temperament.
The result of this to Martin was curious; his determination to sin did not leave him, but the thought of it brought untold misery.
In a few days he would meet the object of his passion in the great church at the hour put down for him to make his solitary prayer.
Would he fly with her and break his priestly vow? Would he bring such scandal on the monastery? Was that to be the return for all the kindness shown him? Yes. Again, did he realise the greatness of the sin? Was his faith still active? Was he to be the one black sheep in all the fold?
Again, yes! Oh! mighty passion, like the torrent, regardless of all obstacles, ignoring all attempts to say thy headlong course; oh, fierce, all-consuming fire! But the eloquent words of the aged priest went home, and though they did not cure Martin of his sinful desire, produced a misery so intense that he feared his mind would get unhinged…”
THE APPOINTED HOUR ARRIVES
On the night of the planned elopement, the mysterious stranger brings the woman to the church and then hides in the shadows to ensure that all goes according to plan.
Brewer begins to pile on the suspense:-
“The hour of waiting seemed interminable; the woman paced the church with anxious steps, and the autumn day began to wane.
Darker and darker the church became, great shadows were cast over the broad nave, the size of the building seemed doubled, and one part of it began to be enveloped in deep gloom.
The woman turned with a shuddering glance from the dark corner, walked up the nave, ever and anon glancing behind her to see that the black shadow was not following her.
She began to tremble with nervousness, and approached the chancel, which was bathed in light from the rays of the setting sun.
Stay! What was the crimson stain on yon altar step? Horror! It seemed to move! It must be blood! Nearer and nearer it came! It almost approached her! A deep but brilliant red, at first a spot, it now increased till it seemed to flood the chancel with its sanguinary hue; then it died away again, smaller and smaller, till it lingered longest on the chancel steps.
Why did it not leave, that stain of crimson?
The sun gradually left the rich stained glass windows. Darker and darker the church became, but the woman thought she saw that crimson stain long after the black shadows had enveloped the great building…”
THE MONK ARRIVES
And then, Brother Martin Arrives upon the scene, and things take a tragic twist:-
“Would the hour for meeting never come? How long was she to remain in that dark and eerie place?
Stay! What was that?
The flickering glimmer of a little candle was approaching the choir from the monastery. It became more and more distinct; a figure entered the church, holding a taper.
Could that be Martin?
The face was wan and ghastly, the black hair was dishevelled, a raven lock fell over the face and made its ashen paleness more apparent.
The monk held out the light at arm’s length and peered into the church, and the woman was terrified at the ghastly figure.
The face looked like that of a fiend, not a man; the eyes gleamed with a fierce and unnatural light, and seemed bursting from their sockets; the sleeves had fallen from the bony arm, which looked like that of a skeleton.
What was that tiny bright speck just appearing under the folds of his habit?
She could not approach the ghost, and crept behind a pillar of the nave.
The figure in the choir turned round and knelt down as if in attitude of prayer, and a gust of wind extinguished the taper, which the monk let drop with a thud.
The church was in total darkness, save for the little altar lamp, which but intensified the gloom.
One, two, perhaps three, minutes passed, when a curious pale and silvery ray lit up a portion of the choir; the moon had risen to witness the full and dreadful deed.
The woman trembled, but felt that now she must perform her task. Her eyes seemed to swim; she could scarcely guide aright her steps; but slowly and silently she approached the kneeling figure, and touched with her right hand the habit of the monk.
The man in the nave leant forward and watched the scene with terrible earnestness.
How suddenly the monk had turned round! What was that bright object which he held aloft twice, thrice? Good God, was murder being done?
The man rushed forward, but, alas! too late.
The monk had seized the woman by the throat; a dozen times he gashed the face; the knife descended with lightning rapidity – pools of blood deluged the altar steps.
With a demon’s fury the monk then threw down the corpse and trod it out of very recognition. He spat upon the mutilated face, and, with his remaining strength, he ripped the body open and cast the entrails round about.
The man who had watched this scene of carnage now feared to approach, for the murderer held up his blood-stained knife in triumph, and, in his madness, called upon his patron saint and claimed a benediction for his deed.
Exhausted, the monk now threw himself upon his knees, and mumbled a confused medley of prayer and imprecation.
Then he got up and faced the villain whose scheme had been his ruin.
His thirst for blood now whetted, the monk would have killed the man, but the latter stepped aside and, pointing to the corpse, bade Martin look more closely at his victim.
The woman’s mouth was open, the moonlight streamed through the window, and Martin looked intently at the corpse.
Maniac as he was, he saw that the roof of the mouth was gone. The striking resemblance of the woman to himself he remembered; an inspiration suddenly dawned upon him; he looked inquiringly at the ruffian opposite, and read in his countenance a confirmation of the awful thought.
An agonising cry escaped his lips, he seized the knife, and plunged it deep into his heart, and fell a corpse upon his murdered sister.”
Betcha didn’t see that one coming!
THE WEALTHY MAN’S MACHINATIONS
Yes, Martin had murdered his own sister and, in his remorse, he had committed suicide.
As for the mysterious and wealthy man whose scheming had led to the tragedy, well, he was, it transpired, none other than Sir Thomas Audley (1488- 1544) who would become Lord Chancellor of England in 1533.
And, it had all been done in order that the magnificent monastery might be suppressed, albeit, Brewer goes out of his way to absolve Henry VIII of any blame, making it more than clear that Henry had had no inclination of the means employed by Audley to achieve his objective.
THE SUPPRESSION AND THE CURSE
As for what happened next?
Well, here is Brewer’s narrative:-
“The monastery was suppressed, the monks turned out, and somewhat later Audley was placed in possession of the building…Audley attempted to sell the buildings, but was not able to do so, and at last he ruthlessly destroyed the magnificent architectural pile; and, with the exception of a few arches, left no trace of the church and monastic institution of Holy Trinity, Aldgate.
Both during the process of destruction and many years after that event, no one, unless obliged, would approach the spot where the high altar and chancel of the church had once existed.
It was rumoured that every night, between the hour of twelve and one, a dark young man appeared in the garb of a monk and always pointed to a spot, and uttered strange prophecies of terrible events that must occur there.
The people got wind of the story of Martin and his sister, and for many generations, the spot was considered cursed.
Woe to anyone who would live on that spot; woe to him who remained there at night and out of reach of help!”
MURDERS IN MITRE SQUARE
The curse leads to several murders being perpetrated on the spot in Mitre Square where the original atrocity had occurred.
But, of course, the one that Brewer was capitalising on in order to sell copies of his book, was that of Catherine Eddowes, which had taken place in the Square’s south-west corner on the 30th of September, 1888.
And so, let’s join him as he takes his readers to Mitre Square in the aftermath of the murder of Catherine Eddowes:-
ALDGATE AT NIGHT
“A Saturday evening in the East-end of London!
Who that has seen this sight can ever forget it?
Crowds upon crowds of dissolute men and women jog and jostle each other upon the pavements, and the roads are nearly impassable from the costers’ carts, containing every conceivable article of diet, apparel, and mechanical contrivance.
The men shout out the rare value of their goods in exultant tones, as if to defy comparison with their rivals further on.
How depressing is the scene! But what is that singing we hear? Two big young girls with dishevelled hair, arm in arm, brush past us – excited by drink, screaming from lungs of iron the song last heard at the “Cambridge” hard by.
THE CHURCH OF ST BOTOLPH, ALDGATE
As we walk on, we pass a church with two huge lamps, vieing with the public-house lights in importance and attractiveness – and these reveal a picture by one of our greatest allegorical painters.
See that dear young child awe-inspired, wonderingly staring at the mosaic which he cannot understand, but vaguely feels is telling of a life widely different from that of his own debased surroundings.
THE PEOPLE OF THE SLUMS
But as the commemoration of the Resurrection dawns upon us, the streets suddenly become dark, for the bright lights are extinguished and the duped ones are ejected from the glittering palaces, some to stumble and totter through innumerable alleys to what is called home, and others to lounge about with apparently no object in life.
Life itself seems dead in them as they live. Half-starved many of them, and homeless; without wishing it or wanting it, falling into sin – apparently unintentionally. How can we blame them? Should we be better?
A WHISTLE FROM MITRE SQUARE
But let us hurry out of this pandemonium into purer air.
We breathe once more as we approach Aldgate’s comparative quiet, and proceed westward.
But why that whistle and hurrying of men to Mitre Square?
Let us join them, and find out for ourselves.
A HORRIBLE SIGHT IN MURDER CORNER
There with the aid of the policeman’s bulls-eye, we see a sight so horrible that full particulars cannot be printed, but it is a counterpart of that which the monks of Holy Trinity saw when they arrived at that identical spot in the year 1530.
Measure this spot as carefully as you will, and you will find that the piece of ground on which Catherine Eddowes lies is the exact point where the steps of the high altar of Holy Trinity existed, and where the catastrophe to the ten foolish gallants occurred two centuries later.
THE GHOST OF MONK MARTIN
Oh, what can we do that these horrors may be stayed? What CAN we do?
This is now the cry of public lamentation and woe! Is the ghost of Monk Martin still hovering over the scene of his crime? Is the power of the Evil One still active? or is it the vengeance of the Almighty that has cursed this spot with a curse so awful in its results that no age can with certainty evade punishment?
THE CURSE UPON MITRE SQUARE
Who is there so bold as to say that the one bit of ground that has sustained the weight of countless lifeless bodies, during more than three centuries, is not accursed – that there is no Curse upon Mitre Square?
As the pen drops from the hand, cramped with writing, this fearful historical narrative of crime and retribution – the brain in very sympathy and overwrought with recounting the ghastly tragedies of present and bygone times, seeks ease and rest in slumber, and in sleep, the veil of the future is unfolded.
THE SPECTRAL PROCESSION
What is that white-robed procession bearing tapers and singing the Miserere? O blessed sight, behold a stream of Magdalens, with flowing hair and downcast eyes, winding their way, as did the forty monks of old, to the accursed spot.
And as they approach it, carrying their precious ointment, behold a radiant light is in the air, reflecting a benediction on the spot below; and I see aloft the choir of Holy Trinity as it was before the curse fell upon it, restored by the Divine Architect to its old beauty and splendour, the rounded arches and the carved stalls on either side the altar.
Instead of monks, I see, through the wreath of incense, a choir of angels waving their palm branches to the rhythm of the heavenly antiphon – so full of favoured promise to all wanderers in this troublesome world::-
THOUGH YOUR SINS BE AS SCARLET,
THEY SHALL BE AS WHITE AS SNOW!”
“THOUGH THEY BE RED LIKE CRIMSON,
THEY SHALL BE AS WOOL!”
And so John Brewer’s “masterpiece” of horror draws to its close. The book was published in plenty of time for the Christmas market, and, no doubt, sales were reasonable.
NEWSPAPER REVIEWS OF THE BOOK
In the weeks that followed the newspapers gave the book mixed reviews
The Aberdeen Press and Journal, on Saturday, 24th November 1888, had this to say:-
“Mr. John Francis Brewer, in a little work just the published by Messrs Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., entitled “The Curse upon Mitre Square,” unearths a rather startling coincidence with regard to the Mitre Square tragedy.
It is that in the year 1530, in the Church of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, which stood where Mitre Square now stands, a murder, the very counterpart of the recent tragedy, was committed by a monk named Martin, at the instance of Sir Thomas Audley, who shortly afterwards became Lord High Chancellor.
The church was declared to be haunted ever after, and it was eventually destroyed by command of Sir Thomas Audley himself.
This terrible murder, it seems, was perpetrated at the high altar of the church, which stood on the very spot where Catherine Eddowes was butchered by the Whitechapel fiend.”
A STRANGE LITTLE SHILLING BOOK
Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, reviewed the book on Saturday, 24th November, 1888:-
“A Strange little shilling book has just been published by Simpkin, Marshall & Co., written by John Francis Brewer, entitled, “The Curse Upon Mitre Square.”
The writer points out that the last but one of the series of Whitechapel murders was committed on the identical spot on which a great crime was perpetrated by one of the monks of the Holy Trinity Monastery, Aldgate, which formerly stood there, and which was also the site of another frightful tragedy two centuries later.
Mr. Brewer asks who, after this, will dare to say that the place is not accursed?
A. Sloper’s reply is in the form of a suggestion.
Erect a fountain on the spot, from which a continuous silvery stream of juniper juice shall ever flow, and instead of the spot being cursed, it will be blessed eternally.
Don’t you see, he-turn-Ally?
Here, this won’t do. Go and buy the book yourself.”
THE MITRE SQUARE CURSE
The St James’s Gazette, reviewing the book on Wednesday, 26th December, 1888, wondered how much of it was based on historical fact and how much had actually been the invention of the author’s imagination:-
“The Curse upon Mitre square; 1530 – 1588.” By John Francis Brewer. (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.)
The object of this story is to show that the spot upon which one of the Whitechapel murders was committed is the exact site of the steps of the high altar of the ancient Church of Holy Trinity, Aldgate.
How far Mr. Brewer is relating facts, and how far he is drawing upon his imagination, is not apparent; but he tells of the terrible crimes committed upon the steps of that high altar at the time of the suppression of the monasteries, and we are asked to believe that the murders which have lately been committed in Whitechapel are in the nature of retribution for the sacrilege of a monk of Tudor times.
The story is not a pleasant one; but it is powerfully told, and may commend itself to superstitious people who like to give themselves the creeps.”
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Of course, it’s one thing to read reviews and a brief synopsis of the book; it’s quite another thing to read it in its entirety and then draw your own conclusions as to the quality of the text.
So, without further ado; pull your chair up to the fire, light a candle, and prepare to be chilled to the bone as you read the full text of The Curse Upon Mitre Square.