Covent Garden on the "Woodcut" map
of the 1560s, with surrounding wall marked in green
During the Roman period, what is now the Strand – running along the southern boundary of the area that was to become Covent Garden – was part of the 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 site had been sacred since at least 410AD. The area to the north of the Strand was long thought to have remained as unsettled fields until the 16th century, but theories by Alan Vince and Martin Biddle that there had been an Anglo-Saxon settlement to the west of the old Roman town of Londinium were borne out by excavations in 1985 and 2005. These revealed that a trading town, called Lundenwic, developed around 600 AD, stretching from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych, with Covent Garden at the centre. 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.
The first mention of a walled garden comes from a document, circa 1200 AD, detailing land 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.
Bedford Estate (1552–1918)
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, Henry VIII took the land belonging to Westminster Abbey for himself; this included the convent garden and seven acres to the north called Long Acre. His son, Edward VI, granted it to the John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, in 1552. The Russell family, who in 1694 were advanced in their peerage from Earl to Duke of Bedford, held the land until 1918.
Russell built Bedford House and garden on part of the land, with an entrance on the Strand, the large garden stretching back along the south side of the old walled-off convent garden. In 1630, 4th Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell commissioned Inigo Jones to design and build a church and three terraces of fine houses around a large square or piazza. This had been prompted by Charles I taking offence at the condition of the road and houses along Long Acre, which were the responsibility of Russell and Henry Carey, 2nd Earl of Monmouth. Russell and Carey complained that under the 1625 Proclamation concerning Buildings, which restricted building in and around London, they could not build new houses. For a fee of £2,000, the King then granted Russell a licence to build as many new houses on his land as he "shall thinke fitt and convenient".
Plan of Covent Garden in 1690
The houses initially attracted the wealthy, though they moved out when a market developed on the south side of the square around 1654, and coffee houses, taverns, and prostitutes moved in. The Bedford Estate was expanded in 1669 to include Bloomsbury, when Lord Russell married Lady Rachel Vaughan, one of the daughters of the 4th Earl of Southampton.
By the 18th century, Covent Garden had become a well-known red-light district, attracting notable prostitutes such as Betty Careless and Jane Douglas. Descriptions of the prostitutes and where to find them were provided by Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, the "essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure". In 1830 a market hall was built to provide a more permanent trading centre. In 1913, Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, agreed to sell the Covent Garden Estate for £2 million to the MP and land speculator Harry Mallaby-Deeley, who sold his option in 1918 to the Beecham family for £250,000.
's 1830 neo-classical building restored as a retail market
The Covent Garden Estate was part of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited from 1924 to 1928, after which it was managed by a successor company called Covent Garden Properties, owned by the Beechams and other private investors. This new company sold some properties at Covent Garden, while becoming active in property investment in other parts of London. In 1962 the bulk of the remaining properties in the Covent Garden area, including the market, were sold to the newly established government-owned Covent Garden Authority for £3,925,000.
By the end of the 1960s, traffic congestion had reached such a level that the use of the square as a modern wholesale distribution market was becoming untenable, and significant redevelopment was planned. Following a public outcry, buildings around the square were protected in 1973, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market moved to a new site in Nine Elms, between Battersea and Vauxhall in south-west London. The square languished until its central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980.
After consulting with residents and local businesses, Westminster Council drew up an action plan to improve the area while retaining its historic character in 2004. The market buildings, along with several other properties in Covent Garden, were bought by a Property company in 2006.