Book IV. A Survey of the City and Liberties of Westminster.
CHAP. I. General view, historical particulars, and civil government, of the city of Westminster.
As this city had its origin from the abbey or minster dedicated to St.
Peter, founded on Thorney island (fn. 1) , a swampy piece of ground surrounded by water, which was situated westward from the city of London; so it
derived its name from this relative situation of the monastery, and was called
Westmonasterium, Westminster. It long continued an insignificant, mean,
unhealthy place, remarkable for nothing but the abbey, which was very unfavourably placed in a marshy spot, surrounded on one side by the Thames, and
on the others by what was called Longditch. This was a branch of the river
which began near the east end of where Manchester court is now built; from
whence, crossing King-street, it ran down the street still called Longditch, and
passing Tothill-street, a little west of the Gatehouse, continued its course along
the south wall of the abbey garden to the Thames; where there is now a common sewer built over it. In process of time a few houses collected round the
monastery, which at length became a town: and this was the origin of the present city of Westminster.
For many ages Westminster continued a distinct town from London; and
the Strand was a road to pass from the one to the other along the river side, as
its name implies. By an ordinance of king Edward III. in 1353, certain duties
were imposed on wool, leather (fn. 2) , and other commodities, carried either by land
or water to the staple of Westminster, for repairing the highway leading from
Temple Bar to the gate of the abbey at Westminster; the road, by the frequent
passing of carts and horses, being then so deep and miry as to be dangerous both
to men and carriages. It was added, that, as the proprietors of houses near and
leading to that staple, had, by means of the said staple, greatly raised their rents,
the way before the houses should be paved at their charge; and that part of the
said way, where no houses were, should be paved a-new out of those duties:
that the remainder of those duties should be applied toward erecting a bridge
near the royal palace of Westminster, for the conveniency of the said staple (fn. 3) .
By this bridge in all probability no more was meant than a raised landing place
carried out into the river on piles, like that at present at New Palace yard, and
which was called Westminster bridge before the stone bridge across the river
By having a large monastery, a royal palace, and by having been made a
staple for wool and other commodities; Westminster became at length a place of
some consideration: but it was from Henry VIII. that this town received the
greatest honours. On the dissolution of the monastery he converted it into a
bishopric in the year 1541, with a dean and twelve prebendaries; and assigned
the whole county of Middlesex, Fulham excepted, for the diocese. By this
distinction, Westminster became a city; for though lawyers are not agreed
in the precise definition of what constitutes a city, yet according to Sir Edward
Coke, and Cowel, a town corporate that hath a bishop and a cathedral church is a
city (fn. 4) . It did not indeed long enjoy this pretension to the name of a city; for
it never had but one bishop, Thomas Thirlby, who being translated to the see of
Norwich in 1550 by Edward VI. the new bishopric was dissolved; but Westminster is nevertheless still considered as a city, and is so stiled in our statutes.
It had long been the seat of the royal palace; the high court of parliament, and
the courts of law were held there: most of our kings had been crowned and had
their sepulchres in the abbey church; and the antient palace having been almost
destroyed by fire, Henry VIII. had here his palace of Whitehall, which he
purchased in 1530, of cardinal Wolsey. He also built the palace of St. James,
after the suppression of an hospital which stood there dedicated to the same
saint; and inclosed a fine spot of ground between the two palaces, which he
converted into a park for the accommodation of both. This was no sooner
finished than he erected the elegant gate near the Banqueting-house, which has
been but lately taken down; and added a magnificent gallery for the royal
family to sit in to view the justs and tournaments in the Tilt yard: contiguous
to Whitehall gate he erected a tennis court, cock-pit, and places for playing at
The city of Westminster, properly so called, consists but of two parishes, St.
Margaret's and St. John's the Evangelist; but the liberties contain seven parishes,
which are as follow: St. Martin's in the Fields, St. James's, St. Anne's, St.
Paul's Covent Garden, St. Mary's le Strand, St. Clement's Danes, and St. George's Hanover-square: to which must be added the precinct of the Savoy. Each
of the above parishes is of so great an extent, considering the number of houses
they contain, that it would be impossible for all the inhabitants to attend divine
worship in one church at the same time; there are therefore many chapels of
ease for the convenience of those who could not be so well accommodated in
their parish churches,
When the bishopric was dissolved, the government of Westminster fell under
the dean and chapter of St. Peter's in civil as well as ecclesiastical affairs; whose
jurisdiction extends over the city and liberties of Westminster, the precinct of
St. Martin's-le-Grand in London, and some towns in Essex; all which are
exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of London and of the archbishop of
Canterbury. But the management of the civil power has been, ever since the
reformation, in lay hands, elected from time to time, and confirmed by the
dean and chapter.
The principal of those magistrates is the high-steward, who is usually some
principal nobleman chosen by the dean and chapter; at whose election the dean
sits as high-steward. The next magistrate is the deputy-steward, chosen or
appointed by the high-steward, and confirmed by the dean and chapter. This
officer is in the nature of a sheriff; for he keeps the court-leet with the other
magistrates, and is chairman at the quarter-sessions. The high bailiff, who is
the next in rank, is nominated by the dean, and confirmed by the high steward.
He likewise holds his office for life, and has the chief management in the election of members of parliament for Westminster, and all the other bailiffs are
subordinate to him. He summons juries, and in the court-leet sits next to the
deputy steward. To him all fines, forfeitures, and strays belong, which
render his place very beneficial; but it is commonly executed by a deputy well
versed in the laws. There are also sixteen burgesses and their assistants, whose
office in all respects resembles that of the aldermens deputies of the city of London, each having a proper division under his jurisdiction: out of these are elected
two head burgesses, one for the city; and the other for the liberties; who take
place in the court-leet next to the high bailiff. Beside these there is a high
constable who is chosen by the court-leet, and has the superintendance over the
There are no other courts held in Westminster, but the leet, the sessions,
and the court of conscience for the recovery of small debts; the inhabitants have
no exclusive corporation privileges; nor are there any trading companies within
the jurisdiction: the two members who represent them in parliament are therefore chosen by the householders at large like a common country borough.