Discover Covent Garden

The area to the north of the Strand, today’s Covent Garden, was long thought to have remained as unsettled fields until the 16th century, but theories by Alan Vince and Martin Biddle were borne out by excavations in 1985 and 2005. These revealed Covent Garden as the centre of a trading town called Lundenwic, developed around 600 AD, which stretched from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych. Alfred the Great gradually shifted the settlement into the old Roman town of Londinium from around 886 AD onwards, leaving no mark of the old town, and the site returned to fields.

By 1200 part of it had been walled off by Westminster Abbey for use as arable land and orchards. Referred to as "the garden of the Abbey and Convent", and later "the Covent Garden", where they grew their food. This monastic land was seized by Henry VIII and granted to the Earls of Bedford in 1552. The 4th Earl commissioned Inigo Jones to build some fine houses to attract wealthy tenants. Jones designed the Italianate arcaded square, like the Place Des Voges in Paris, along with the church of St Paul's. The church was built as a chapel-of-ease to old St. Martin-in-the-Fields before that was rebuilt in the 18th century. The design of the square was new to London and had a significant influence on modern town planning, acting as the prototype for new estates as London grew. What would become the Strand on the southern boundary of the future Covent Garden was used during the Roman period as part of a route to Silchester, known as Iter VII on the Antonine Itinerary. Excavations in 2006 at St Martin-in-the-Fields revealed a late Roman grave, suggesting the locale had been a sacred site. Excavations in St. Paul’s Church burial ground in the 1980s revealed bones dateable to 700AD founding date of the Diocese of London.

A document from 1200 AD mentions a walled garden owned by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St Peter, Westminster. A later document, dated between 1250 and 1283, refers to "the garden of the Abbot and Convent of Westminster". By the 13th century this had become a 40-acre (16 ha) quadrangle of mixed orchard, meadow, pasture and arable land, lying between modern-day St Martin's Lane and Drury Lane, and Floral Street and Maiden Lane. The use of the name "Covent"—an Anglo-French term for a religious community, equivalent to "monastery" or "convent"—appears in a document in 1515, when the Abbey, which had been letting out parcels of land along the north side of the Strand for inns and market gardens, granted a lease of the walled garden, referring to it as "a garden called Covent Garden". This is how it was recorded from then on.

By 1654 a small open-air fruit-and-vegetable market had developed on the south side of the fashionable square. Produce coming from Camberwell and Peckham over London Bridge. Theatres were reopened after the Restoration of Charles II. He began in 1663 by Licencing The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House as we call those companies today. Gradually as fashion moved to Bloomsbury (bigger houses, more room for gardens), both the market and the surrounding area fell into disrepute, as taverns, theatres, coffee-houses and Molly houses opened up.  By the 18th century it had become a well-known red-light district. See Harris’s List.  An Act of Parliament was drawn up to control the area, and Charles Fowler's neo-classical building was erected in 1830 to cover and help organise the market. The market grew and further buildings were added: the Floral Hall, Charter Market, and in 1904 the Jubilee Market.

By the end of the 1960s traffic congestion was causing problems, and in 1974 the market relocated to the New Covent Garden Market about three miles (5 km) south-west at Nine Elms. This was thought preferable to demolishing & rebuilding the area. The central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980 and is now a tourist location containing cafes, pubs, small shops, and a craft market called the Apple Market, along with another market held in the Jubilee Hall.

For over 1300 years the area has been about food though nowadays, it’s on a plate!

The idea of Restaurants began to emerge in Paris during the 1789 French Revolution. Private chefs found themselves out of work, their employers having fled, so they began cooking for the public in the Palais Royale.

There are a wide range of restaurants, in Covent Garden's central area around the piazza & in St Martin's Lane bordering the West End; some of these with international reputations. Among the restaurants are the historic theatrical eating places, the oldest of which is Rules, famed for English cuisine, it was founded in 1798, making it the oldest restaurant in London. It was a favourite of King Edward VII who had his own door to the private dining-rooms. J. Sheekey, an oyster bar and fish restaurant founded in 1893 by market-stall holder Josef Sheekey in Lord Salisbury's St Martin's Court, and The Ivy, which was founded as an unlicensed Italian cafe by Abel Giandellini in 1917. Other restaurants include family friendly Pasta Brown at the gates of church. Very popular with today’s theatregoers. Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street founded in 1943, one of the older French restaurants in London. Covent Garden was home to some of London's earliest coffee shops, such as Old Slaughter's Coffee House, which ran from 1692 until 1843, and a Beefsteak Club, the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, which was co-founded in 1736 by William Hogarth at the then Theatre Royal (now the Royal Opera House).

Cultural connections

Covent Garden, and especially the market, have appeared in a number of works.

In The Country Wife by William Wycherley 1695, the fop Mr Sparkish says “my Wedding Feast is at my Aunt’s, … in the Piazza”, it was the height of fashion.

In 1867, Johann Strauss II from Austria composed "Erinnerung an Covent Garden" (Memory of Covent Garden, op. 329).

Eliza Doolittle, the central character in George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, and the musical adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady, is a Covent Garden flower seller.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 film Frenzy about a Covent Garden fruit vendor who becomes a serial sex killer was set in the market where his father had been a wholesale greengrocer.

The daily activity of the market was the topic of a 1957 Free Cinema documentary by Lindsay Anderson, Every Day Except Christmas, which won the Grand Prix at the Venice Festival of Shorts and Documentaries.

Ultravox shot the video for their song Vienna at night in front of church

The films Venus, Street Cat Named Bob and Hummingbird were shot in and around church.

Trial and Retribution TV Series by Lynda La Plante was shot on church property.

The Street Performers’ Association provides daily entertainment in front of church with our blessing.

  • Stay up to date
    with our latest Church News