If you're inclined to look up while walking around London, chances are you've encountered this lady, or one of her many sisters:
Resembling Juliet, gazing down from her balcony, the stone-relief maiden is common across central London. But who is she?
The Maidens of Covent Garden
She's known as the Mercers' Maiden, and she actually predates Shakespeare's Juliet. The anonymous lady has been the symbol of the Mercers' Company since at least the 15th century. She appears on their coat of arms, and any building owned or funded by the organisation — which turns out to be quite a few.
The stone-faced maid is most readily found along Long Acre, where perhaps a dozen buildings are decorated with the emblem. You can even find her likeness on some of the bollards, and a disrobed maiden of bronze on nearby Mercer Walk (new home of Stanfords).
The Mercers' Company has owned much of Long Acre since the 16th century. Indeed, this medieval livery company now earns most of its income from the rents in this area. You'll find the maiden clinging to the sides of both retail outlets and residential blocks. The one at the top of the page, for example, is from within the Odhams Walk estate, north of Long Acre.
Who is she?
The origins of the maiden are lost to history. The earliest records to show her likeness come from the early 15th century. A leading theory is that she was adapted from an old inn sign, which may have hung over the place where the medieval mercers (basically, wool and silk merchants) met before they built their own hall. Another suggestion is that she represents the Virgin Mary. We will probably never know.
The Mercers Company is considered first in the order of precedence of the ancient livery companies. Its past members include such notables as Winston Churchill, Richard "Dick" Whittington, William Caxton and Thomas Gresham. Today, most of its energies go into charitable works, and looking after its large portfolio of properties.
Its hall stands on the north of Cheapside. It's mostly a post-war rebuild, but contains many features from earlier halls. Mercers' Maidens can be spied on every surface, including this beautiful example woven into the main staircase balusters.
The Maiden's wider adventures
You never know where the Mercers' Maid might pop up. The rather weathered lady above, for example, can be found to the back of the Old Ship pub over in Limehouse.
Another cluster lingers in the courtyards south of High Holborn, around the ancient Barnard's Inn Hall. This is the headquarters of Gresham College, whose free public lectures you might have attended. The college was founded at the bequest of Thomas Gresham, a prominent mercer who also set up the Royal Exchange. The inside, too, is replete with maidens, such as on this sign for Mercers' School, which operated in the City of London up to 1959.
Although she often appears in clusters, the maiden also pops up sporadically all over town, from Brook Green in the west to Greenwich in the east. We've even found one lurking at the back of St James's churchyard in Clerkenwell, overlooking a children's playground.
Once you've spotted your first maiden, you'll be looking for her everywhere. A good starting place is to browse the collection assembled by Ian Visits.