While there may at times be good reason for doubting the claims made as to the antiquity of some London taverns, there can be none for questioning the ripe old age to which the Pope’s Head in Cornhill attained. This is one of the few taverns which Stow deals with at length. He describes it as being “strongly built of stone,” and favours the opinion that it was at one time the palace of King John.
He tells, too, how in his day wine was sold there at a penny the pint and bread provided free. It was destroyed in the Great Fire, but rebuilt shortly after. Pepys knew both the old and the new house. In the former he is said to have drunk his first “dish of tea,” and he certainly enjoyed many a meal under its roof, notably on that occasion when, with Sir W. Penn and Mrs. Pepys, he “eat cakes and other fine things.”
Another, not so pleasant, memory is associated with the Pope’s Head. Two actors figured in the episode, James Quin and William Bowen, between whom, especially on the side of the latter, strong professional jealousy existed. Bowen, a low comedian of “some talent and more conceit,” taunted Quin with being tame in a certain role, and Quin retorted in kind, declaring that Bowen’s impersonation of a character in “The Libertine” was much inferior to that of another actor.
Bowen seems to have had an ill-balanced mind; he was so affected by Jeremy Collier’s “Short View” that he left the stage and opened a cane shop in Holborn, thinking “a shopkeeper’s life was the readiest way to heaven.” But he was on the stage again in a year, thus resuming the career which was to be his ruin. For so thoroughly was he incensed by Quin’s disparagement that he took the earliest opportunity of forcing the quarrel to an issue.
Having invited Quin to meet him, the two appear to have gone from tavern to tavern until they reached the Pope’s Head. Quin was averse to a duel, but no sooner had the two entered an empty room in the Cornhill tavern than Bowen fastened the door, and, standing with his back against it and drawing his sword, threatened Quin that he would run him through if he did not draw and defend himself. In vain did Quin remonstrate, and in the end he had to take to his sword to keep the angry Bowen at bay.