Red Lion Square was laid out between 1698 and 1700 by Dr Nicholas Barbon (1637-1699), and was named after the nearby Red Lion Inn in Holborn. Barbon was one of the major developers in the early history of London squares, who pursued profits ruthlessly and dishonestly. He routinely ignored the law and often demolished buildings and built new houses without the permission of the owners. He forced through the development of Red Lion Square in his usual style, facing down fierce opposition from the lawyers of Gray's Inn, which led on one occasion to a physical fight between Barbon's men and the lawyers.
Most of the buildings around the square were replaced in the 19th and 20th centuries, but numbers 14 to 17 are houses originally built by Nicholas Barbon around 1686, which were re-fronted in the 19th century.
Number 17, where you are standing, was briefly the residence of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who founded the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. Five years later, he recommended the rooms to his friends William Morris (1834-1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), despite their dampness and decrepitude. It was here that Morris first tried his hand at furniture and textile design, producing the first of the medieval-style furnishings which gave rise to the Arts and Crafts movement. Burne-Jones too began to paint the quasi-medieval subjects for which he later became famous.
In 1861 Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti set up a design business together at No. 8 Red Lion Square, to produce high- quality furniture and fittings using traditional craft methods. Their housekeeper, known as 'Red Lion Mary', did much of the sewing and tapestry, and also contributed to some of Morris's designs.
On the corner of Summit House is a plaque to John Harrison (1693-1776) who lived at number 12. He invented the marine chronometer, the first accurate nautical instrument to plot longitude.
Another 18th- century resident of the square, philanthropist and merchant Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) is reputed to have been the first habitual user of an umbrella in London. He teamed this with a sword, which by that time was a most unfashionable article of apparel!
The body of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was popularly believed to have been buried where the square now stands. In 1660 when Charles II returned from exile, he took his revenge on all those who had supported the Parliamentary cause. The leading parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton were all dead, but in 1661 Charles had their bodies dug up and given a trial for regicide. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The bodies of Cromwell and Ireton were kept overnight at the Red Lion Inn before being taken to Tyburn and hanged. One version of the story goes that the corpses were substituted for others, and Cromwell's body was in fact buried in Red Lion Square. Whatever the facts, the square is now said to be haunted by the men. Many claim to have seen the three, deep in conversation, walking diagonally across the square, only to vanish gradually as they pass the centre of the garden.