Today Knightsbridge is one of the most sought after and exclusive locations in central London. It is probably best known to the tourists that flock there as a shopping destination and is home to both Harrods and Harvey Nichols. It has become a central part of London and it would be difficult to think about the city without including the long stretch of road that makes up the majority of Knightsbridge. It may be surprising to learn, however, that Knightsbridge was not always associated with such splendour. The area has a long history that stretches back hundreds of years, but it was only in the 19th century that it began to develop into the area we know today. There is a certain amount of ambiguity associated with Knightsbridge’s past, it formed almost out of nothing and there is debate over the origins of its name.
Many of the boroughs in London have their roots in small country villages that were gradually subsumed by the expanding sprawl of the city of London. Chelsea and Kensington, that now make up the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, are good examples of this. In the early Saxon period ‘Chelsey’ and ‘Kenesignetun’ were small rural villages that were part of their own distinct parishes. Eventually, as the size and population of London grew, they were absorbed into the city. Knightsbridge, however, was not originally a parish town or a village. The area that is now Knightsbridge was something of a no man’s land between the villages of Chelsey, Kenesignetun and Charing. The area was not a village, a manor or even a recognised existence. It was simply the area that adjoined a bridge over the Westbourne River on the road between London and Kensington.
Of Knights & Bridges
So how did this patch of land become known as Knightsbridge? What are the origins behind the place name? Many of London’s boroughs have interesting stories behind their place names and Knightsbridge is no different. There are, however, disputes over which origin story is correct. One local legend suggests that the bridge over the river was used by knights going to London to fight in holy wars. They took this route in particular because they first had to receive a blessing from the Bishop of London at Fulham. According to the legend, two knights using the bridge quarrelled and, being unable to solve their differences, it was decided that combat would decide the issue. The fight was watched by the other knights and passers-by from the riverbanks but neither knight prevailed and they both fell into the river to their deaths. The area became known as Knightsbridge in memory of the knights’ fatal dispute.
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Though the tale of fighting knights does seem fitting, there are other explanations for the name that others have put forward. According to a topographer named Norden, the bridge was locally known as ‘Stonebridge’ until a knight called Sir Knyvett was attacked while walking across the bridge late at night. The knight managed to better his attackers and ‘slew the master thief with his own hand’. This tale of Sir Knyvett’s valour supposedly gave a new name to the bridge. Another suggestion for the name is based the fact that the bridge may have been used by wealthy residents, the ‘knights and ladies’ rather than the common folk. Some, however, believe that the name derives from the fact the area was used as a meeting place for local youths – where ‘knight’ was a slang term for ‘lad’. Even the original name of the area has come under scrutiny with some claiming it was called ‘Knightsbrigg’ while others believe it was ‘Kynesbrigg’.
Although Knightsbridge did develop into a town under the possession of the Abbey of Westminster (with one of the earliest references to Knightsbridge as a town in c.1361), it remained fairly small and cut off from London. The area fell awkwardly between four parishes and did not develop at the same pace as other nearby towns as a result. It did have a number of public houses but gained an unsavoury reputation in the 17th and 18th centuries as a favourite haunt for villains, highwaymen and rogues. The roads were badly kept and the area was so cut off that it was described at the time as similar to living on a rock in the middle of the ocean.
It wasn’t until the late 18th and 19th centuries that Knightsbridge’s development began to take off and the area began to turn into what we know today. A Knightsbridge Paving Act was requested in 1790 to improve the quality of the streets so that ladies did not injure themselves while walking. Land for building in the surrounding areas was becoming scarce so development soon moved to Knightsbridge. It took a while before Knightsbridge could shake off the vagueness of its boundaries and find its own identity.
A Proper Borough
Though the land in the Knightsbridge area was sheltered and well drained with good views over the Thames Valley, its lack of topographical features and defined boundaries made it feel like a ‘name without a town’. The continued development did, however, help to improve Knightsbridge’s identity and the removal of a turnpike between Knightsbridge and Hyde Park Corner helped to make it feel like a part of London. The opening of Harvey Nichols and Harrods in the mid-19th century and the arrival of several embassies, including the French embassy, to the area at the turn of the 20th century demonstrated how far Knightsbridge had come from a no man’s land to a highly desirable location. Since then, Knightsbridge has continued to grow in prestige and esteem and has become one of the most important parts of central London.