The History of London’s Covent Garden

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A popular shopping, theater, and restaurant district in London’s West End, Covent Garden got its start in the Middle Ages. Formerly the garden property of Westminster Abbey, what was then “Convent Garden” supplied fruit and vegetables for the convent and abbey of St. Peter at Westminster.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII seized the land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. After changing hands several times, the property fell to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. Russell commissioned royal architect Inigo Jones to build a square and houses to attract wealthy tenants to the area. Because these aristocrats would need to attend church, Russell instructed Jones to build St. Paul’s Church. Basing his design on the formal piazzas of Italy and Paris, Jones laid out the framework for the first square in London in 1631.

Though the piazza began hosting fruit and vegetable markets as early as 1656, attendance was low and shoppers were mainly nearby wealthy tenants. The square’s isolated location helped it avoid the brunt of the plague in 1665, as well as the Great Fire of London a year later. Needing an escape from their ravaged city, Londoners flocked to the West End and market activity erupted.

Two theaters were built, granted by King Charles II to be the only theaters in the city allowed to perform spoken drama. Theater-goers began pouring into the area. Between the market chaos and the burgeoning nightlife scene created in part by the theaters, the aristocracy fled the area. In their place came coffee houses, bookshops, gambling houses, and brothels.

By 1960, the square could no longer sustain its rapid growth and crowds. The Convent Market Bill was passed in 1961, and by 1974 the entire market had moved across the river to Nine Elms. The old market buildings were preserved and reopened in 1980 as a major tourist and shopping hotspot.

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