Street names in the vicinity of the tower recall the former manor and its owners, the Spencer Compton family, marquesses of Northampton, which of course links to the area where City, University of London is based.
Sir John Spencer owned Canonbury Tower, but there has probably been a house on the site since 1373, when the land was owned by the Priory of St Bartholomew’s. After the dissolution of the monasteries the house was leased by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister and the man who was largely responsible for getting rid of the monasteries.
John Spencer – Lord Mayor, and very rich merchant of the City, bought the house in 1570. The whole manor cost him £2,000. This was his country house, his town house was Crosby Hall in Bishopsgate. There is a romantic legend that his daughter Elizabeth eloped with William Compton by being smuggled out of imprisonment in the tower (her father was not keen on the marriage) and escaped in bread basket. Whatever the truth in that, the two married, and the two families were joined. Elizabeth inherited Sir John’s fortune.
The existing house and tower have been altered but are largely the same as when Sir John was in residence.
The legal world is well represented in the tenants of the house and tower. Not only was Islington pleasantly rural, but it was also an easy journey to the city for work.
In 1605 the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Egerton, is recorded as being in residence.
Sir Francis Bacon, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor leased the building 1615-25. He is associated with Gray’s Inn.
From 1625-1635 the house was let to Sir Thomas Coventry, whose father was a judge, and he himself became Solicitor General and Attorney General and Lord Keeper.
The Northampton Estate bailiffs are also reported to have lived in the house between 1684-1826, including Goodman Symes, who is mentioned in the letters of author Charles Lamb. Charles lived in Islington, his cottage still exists in Colebrook Row. He and his sister Mary both suffered bouts of mental illness, and the peace and quiet of Islington suited them. He does have connections with the law. He was actually born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple because his father was a clerk to Samuel salt, a senior bencher. Lamb has a statue in Inner Temple Gardens, a boy holding a book. The book is inscribed ‘Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.’
Canonbury Tower is usually open to the public, by guided tour only.
Thanks to Sue Doe for this excellent new entry in the ‘Law and Mortar’ series. Law and Mortar gives Lawbore readers an insight into interesting buildings with a legal twist, local to the university campus. Life long Londoner, worked in the legal profession for decades (libraries, know how, compliance, data protection) after a law degree from the LSE. Now concentrating on local specialist history research (Hackney; women; legal), walks, talks and spreading knowledge. Find her on Instagram.