There’s not a more evocative street name in London than “Bleeding Heart Yard” nearby to the jewelry district of Hatton Garden.
Charles Dickens knew it well, using it as the home and workshop of the impoverished plasterer Mr Plornish and his family in Little Dorrit, but there’s a more sinister and evil tale connected to this courtyard.
The yard itself is probably the rear courtyard of Ely House, although I suspect the cobbles to be more modern. This was once the residence of the Bishop of Ely, but the estate was granted to Sir Christopher Hatton in 1577 at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I. Hatton had acquired a short term lease and spent around £1900 on renovations, somewhere near half a million today. A commission was set up to look into granting him the Freehold of the property if the then Bishop of Ely Richard Cox could not reimburse Hatton for the repairs. This Cox failed to do and so the Freehold passed to Hatton who’s name is used in the location Hatton Gardens, which denoted the area of Ely House used for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Hatton was one of Elizabeth’s favourites at court and as such the commission was always going to find a way to make the outcome please the Queen. It is said that to sweeten the deal, Hatton promised Elizabeth five cartloads of Hay and a red rose to be presented to her every Midsummer’s Eve.
So there’s Richard Hatton set up in his massive house surrounded by fertile lands feeling well pleased with himself. So he decided to hold a grand masque, a form of festive courtly entertainment that involved singing and dancing and plays. He leaves the guest list in the hands of his wife, who sends out invitations to the Great and the Good throughout the Kingdom.
The talk of the country from common alehouses to those who move in the circles of the Royal Court is the masque to be held at Ely House and speculation is rife concerning the lavishness and luxury that will be on offer. The evening finally arrives and the line of carriages waiting to drop off the honoured guests reads like a who’s who of Elizabethan England. The celebrations commence and everyone is having a thoroughly good time, all except one. This person is not enjoying himself at all and the reason is that he has not been put on the guest list and has been turned away at the front door (“if ‘t be true thy names tis not on the listeth, then thou art not coming in and nay traineth’rs, tis a strict dresseth code tonight mine own son. Anon jogeth onwards!”).
This was a bad mistake on the part of Lady Hatton, for this disgruntled person was none other than the Devil ! He disguises himself as a servant and gains entrance to the house via the rear courtyard. Once inside he switches appearances to that of a dashing nobleman and then proceeds to flirt with and seduce Lady Hatton. He sets up an assignation with her in the rear courtyard. But instead of continuing with her seduction when she emerges from the house, the Devil whisks her onto his waiting horse then rips out her heart, which he tosses onto the courtyard floor before riding back to Hell with the now dead Lady Hatton hanging from his saddle.
After a while her presence is missed and her husband puts together a search party. Finally they arrive at the courtyard having drawn a blank throughout the house and there they find the still beating heart of Lady Hatton lying in a pool of blood.
It’s a brilliant story, and there are several versions, but even if you overlook the supernatural element of it there is one major factual flaw, Christopher Hatton never married.
Where the story originates from I’ve not been able to find out as yet. A version does appear in a collection of poems and stories published in 1837 called the Ingoldsby Legends in which Lady Hatton enters into a pact with the Devil to bring her husband fame and fortune. However, the author seems to have muddled his Hattons as the wife is referred to as Lady Elizabeth Hatton, she was the spouse of Sir William Hatton who was Christopher Hatton’s cousin.
looking at maps that predate this publication clearly shows the courtyard with the name Bleeding Heart Yard, this one dates from 1746.
Three theories regarding the name are out there from around the early 17th century, two are facts, the third is folklore. The two facts are that there was a tavern in nearby Charles Street called the Bleeding Heart, alternatively it could be that a motif of a bleeding heart was used on the heraldic design of a family (unknown) that owned the land prior to the Bishop’s of Ely. The Folklore is that a young maiden declined to marry a man of her father’s choosing, as she loved a another. Her father imprisoned her in a small room within the courtyard until she would agree to marry his choice. Every evening around dusk the maiden would stand by the barred windows and sing a lovelorn song, of which the refrain was “Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart, bleeding away“, until she finally died.