In 1534 under the Act of Supremacy, King Henry VIII became Supreme Head of the Church of England and in doing so separated the country from the authority of the Pope in Rome. Following this, Henry VIII disbanded some 900 religious institutions in England. At that time there were around 260 monasteries, 300 priories 142 nunneries and 183 friaries. In total, maybe 12,000 people lived and worked in these establishments which meant that one in fifty adult males in England was in religious orders. Many of these were ‘hospitals’ – which had a broader meaning than the modern one – in that they offered hospitality to travellers as well as care for the sick.
The dissolution of these institutions was overseen by Thomas Cromwell, made famous in the movie The Man for All Seasons and the Wolf Hall novels by Hilary Mantel. Their property and endowments were confiscated and this wealth redistributed to nobles who supported the King. On the continent, similar transactions were underway in Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia where protestant minded rulers also sought to diminish the power of the Pope. But the dissolutions happened much more quickly – in only seven short years – in England than elsewhere in Northern Europe. A testament, maybe, to Cromwell’s efficiency.
( download large version of the map here : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lost_Monastic_Houses_in_the_City_of_London.jpg)
The map shows the extent of the land holdings of these religious houses. The dissolution was probably the greatest transfer of wealth that has every happened in the City of London. The echo of these dissolved institutions is still there, particularly the friaries. Wandering the City you will come across Blackfriars Station, and districts called Austin Friars, White Friars and Crutched Friars.
Friaries were different from monasteries and priories. Medieval monks lived apart from the world and were supported by great landed estates who enabled them to renounce normal life. But in the 12th Century the Friaries movement started. Friars avoided these large endowments and deliberately were “in the world” relying on the generosity of lay people. They were ’selling’ religious support as a service – hearing confessions, preaching and saving souls from Hell by saying masses. They were established near the centre of large towns; large population centres meant a large pool of potential ‘customers’. If you look at the map of Monastic houses here you will see that the friaries are generally within the City walls while the priories and hospitals are further out offering services to travellers.
The reforming Protestants saw these “services” a a confidence trick – a false road to salvation; meaningless penitences in confessionals and pretending to save people with prayers. Protestants though people should find God’s truth for themselves not through all that popish trickery. It was actually Henry VIII son, Edward VI who finally confiscated the endowments of the chantries where non-monastic priests celebrated masses for souls. He also forced all services to be in English, abolished clerical celibacy and banned the Mass.
The place of these monasteries were taken by the local parish churches where life went on very much as before. The ‘services’ offered by monasteries and friaries could be done ‘for free’ by the local parish church supported by tithes . So despite the physical evidence of a great wave of destruction – the ruins of monasteries still lie scattered across England – the community effect on spiritual life was limited – things went on much as they had before.
To accompany the map, here is a brief summary of the monastic houses in the City of London around 1400 AD.
1. Austin Friars
An Augustinian Friary founded in 1253 by Humphrey Bohun. “Austin” is a shortened form of “Augustinian”. The lost church of St Peter le Poer was the chapel attached to this friary. It was only demolished in 1907 and the footprint of the parish contained the precinct of the friary. The nave of the main friary church became the Dutch Church which stands there today. The mansion became the Drapers Hall. The map shows the old precinct of Austin Friars superimposed over an OS Map of London in 1900. The dark purple shows the main friary church, the light purple the friary cloisters and outbuildings and the pink are tenements & shops leased out to laypeople.
2. Bethlehem Hospital
The hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem at Bishopsgate was established in 1247 by Godfrey, the Bishop of Bethlehem. The word ‘bedlam’ meaning chaos and uproar is a corruption of this hospital’s name. This famous psychiatric institution still exists today although it has moved several times from its original Bishopsgate location; to Moorfields in 1676, to Southwark in 1815 and finally to Croydon in Surrey in 1930.
3. Black Friars
Dominican Friars wore a black cloak and founded the first ‘Blackfriars’ near Holborn (3a on the map) in 1220. But in 1276 they moved to what is now Blackfriars station on the banks of the Thames, closer to the centre of the City and St Pauls Cathedral. After the dissolution there was a brief but unsuccessful attempt to re-establish the friary at St Bartholomew the Great in 1556. The map shows the old precinct of the second Blackfriars superimposed over an OS Map of London in 1900. The dark purple shows the main friary church, the light purple the friary cloisters and outbuildings and the pink are tenements & shops leased out to laypeople. If you walk down Friar Street off Carter Lane you will find this memorials to the Friary near the site of the lost church of St Anne Blackfriars.
The Charterhouse in Farringdon was founded in 1371 by Walter Manny as an order of Carthusian Monks on the site of a Black Death burial ground. After the dissolution the property was bought by Thomas Sutton who built a huge rambling courtyard house on the site in 1545 and also established a school and an almshouse there. The school was moved to Godalming in 1872 and is most famous as the alma mater of the rock group Genesis.
5. Clerkenwell Priory
This nunnery was founded in 1145 by a Norman Baron called Jordan Briset who also founded the St John Hospital just to the south. The Priory of St Mary at Clerkenwell was a house of Augustinian Canonesses. It grew to be quite wealthy with extensive landholdings from Norfolk to Hampshire and 14 different properties in the City of London. After dissolution in 1539 it was owned by the Duke of Norfolk who later sold it back to the crown. The parish church of St John Clerkenwell today stands where the nunnery church once stood.
6. Crutched Friars
The name means ‘crossed’ friars after the staff with a cross on top that they carried. The friary was established in 1249 near where Fenchurch Station is today. It was an outpost of the Belgian based “Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross” The street running under the station arches is still called Crutched Friars. You will find a statue of two monks on the corner of Crutched Friars and Rangoon Street in their memory.
The New Abbey of St Mary Graces was founded in 1350 by Edward III and acquired the nickname “Eastminster” to contrast it with Westminster. After the dissolution in 1538 it became the site of the Royal Mint until 1966. In the mid 1980s a large scale excavation produced much useful archeological evidence and the site is now being redeveloped as the Chinese Embassy.
8. Elsing Spital Priory
Founded in 1329 as a nun’s conventual hospital by William Elsing. The hospital backed onto the old Roman wall around the City of London as you can see in the photo of the site above. The priory church became the parish church of St Alphage London Wall after the dissolution. That church was damaged by bombs in the First World War and the parish was amalgamated with St Mary Aldermanbury in 1917. The ruins of the medieval tower can still be seen today.
9. Grey Friars
The Franciscan Friars – known as the Grey Friars after the colour of their clothing – settled in London in 1225 on land near Newgate just inside the city wall. After the dissolution the new church of Christchurch Greyfriars, also known as Christchurch Newgate, was built incorporating the precinct of the friary and the parishes of St Nicholas Shambles and St Audoen Newgate. Wren rebuilt the church after the Great Fire of 1666 but it was severely damaged in the Blitz in 1940. The ruins of the church remain standing today as a public garden and the tower has been converted into a private residence. A blue plaque commemorating the friary can be found in Newgate Street just past the old churchyard.
10. Holy Trinity Christchurch
The Holy Trinity Priory, also known as Christchurch Aldgate, was founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda for the Austin Canons between what is now Duke Street and Mitre Street in Aldgate. When the Priory was dissolved in 1531 the land was given to Sir Thomas Audley who built houses on the site. These were inherited by his son-in-law the Duke of Norfolk and the area became known as Duke’s Place. In 1622 the church of St James Dukes Place was built in tribute to the king at that time James I. Then in 1874 this church was demolished under the Union of Benefices Act and the parish combined with nearby St Katharine Cree which had been built in 1280 as a separate church for parishioners. A blue plaque commemorating the priory can be found in St James Passage behind Aldgate School as shown in. the photo above..
11 Holy Trinity Minories
The Abbey of the Minoresses of St Claire without Aldgate, Holy Trinity Minories for short, was founded by Edmund Crouchback in1293 for Spanish nuns of the Order of St Claire.A Minoress was a nun in the Second Order of the Order of Friars Minor otherwise known as the Franciscans. The area was a papal peculiar outside the jurisdiction of the English bishops and eventually became the parish of the church of Holy Trinity Minories. This church was the chapel of the abbey which was rebuilt in 1730 but then destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. All that remains of Holy Trinity Minories today is a parish boundary marker on a parking post shown in the photo, and of course, the name “Minories”for this part of the City.
12 Holywell Priory
The Priory of St John the Baptist, otherwise known as Holywell or Haliwell, was founded in Shoreditch around 1130 by Robert Fitzgeneran as an Augustinian nunnery. At that time Shoreditch was boggy moor land drained by the “shore ditch” and with a spring that was religiously significant – a “holy well”. It was a small establishment with never more than 15 nuns. After dissolution in 1539, it was bought by Henry Webb who was a courtier of Catherine Parr ( Henry VIII sixth wife). In 1576, Burbage built a theatre there which performed Shakespeare’s early plays. But when the lease ran out in 1598, it was dismantled and move to the south bank to become the famous Globe Theatre. By the end of the 18th century, nothing remained of the original priory buildings and all that is left today is the name “Holywell Lane” which runs off Shoreditch Hight Street.
13 & 14 Hospital & Priory of St Bartholomew
This is one of the few happy stories in the wasteland of destruction which is the main tale of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For “Bart’s Hospital” is still there today and is world famous as a teaching institution and working hospital. The Priory of St Bartholomew was founded in 1123 on land obtained from Henry I by Roahere who was a court minstrel. Two churches still exist today on the site. St Bartholomew the Great which was the priory church and St Bartholomew the Less which was the chapel associated with the hospital. Both of these escaped the Great Fire of London and so are among the oldest original church buildings in the City.
15 Priory of St Helen
In 1210 William Goldsmith founded a priory of Benedictine Nuns alongside the church of St Helen which had existed for at least a century and was possibly of Roman or Saxon origin. This remarkable building survived the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940 unscathed. You can still see the two naves, the one built for the nuns and the other for the parishioners side by side today in the photo above. It’s luck ran out when it was damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 but the restoration of the building that followed increased the seating capacity from 500 to 1000. Today it is a thriving church in the protestant evangelical tradition.
16 Sack Friars
The Sack Friars, also known as the Brothers of Penitence, wore clothes made of sack cloth, walked barefoot, were forbidden to eat meat and could only drink water. Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry III, gave them land in Colechurch Street in the parish of St Olave Jewry in 1271. The Friary was short lived. The severe lifestyle attracted few adherents and a decision by Pope Gregory X in 1274 meant the Sack Friars were forbidden from recruiting any new members. The Friary was abandoned in 1305 and nothing of it today remains.
17 Southwark Priory
Southwark Cathedral – or to give it its full name – The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie has Saxon origins. Legend has it that the daughter of a ferryman called Mary found a nunnery there on the profits of the ferry business across the Thames long before the Norman Conquest. In 1106 an Augustinian Priory was founded on the site dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After the dissolution in 1538 it became a parish church and was rededicated to St Saviour. It then became a cathedral in 1905 and the mother church of then Anglican Diocese of Southwark.
18 St John Hospital
Founded in 1100 by a Norman Baron called Jordan Briset in Clerkenwell. To give it its proper name it was the Priory of the Monastic Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem. The Knights Hospitaller were a wealthy catholic military order headquartered in Jerusalem until 1291, then Rhodes until 1522 and finally Malta until 1798. Even though he was officially “Protector of the Hospitallers”, Henry VIII dissolved the priory in 1540 and granted it to the Duke of Northumberland. In 1550 the substantial buildings were blown up with gunpowder and the stone used in other buildings such as All Hallows Lombard Street. All that remains today is St John’s Gate, which was largely reconstructed in Victorian times but gives a good idea of what London’s City gates might have looked like.
19 St Katharine’s Hospital
The Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St Katharine by the Tower was founded by Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, in 1147. Then in 1442 it was granted a charter of privileges which made its 23 acre precinct a liberty with its own prison outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. This status as a liberty meant to was not dissolved but reestablished in protestant form under the protection of the Queen Mother. The buildings were demolished in 1825 to build St Katharine’s Docks which were themselves redeveloped in the 1980s into a residential quarter. You will find parish boundary markers for St Katherine by the Tower – like the one shown here on the lamppost – around the marina.
20 St Martin le Grand
Legend has it that this college of canons and a church dedicated to St Martin of Tours was founded by King Wihtred of Kent in the 7th century. But we are on more certain ground with the confirmation of its foundation by a charter of 1068 from William the Conqueror. The church, standing near both Newgate and Aldersgate, had the privilege of sounding the curfew bell for closing the City of London gates. The college was taken over by Westminster Abbey in 1503. After it was dissolved and demolished in 1548 it remained an outlying liberty of the borough of Westminster, voting in Westminster elections all the way up to 1832. In 1829 the headquarters of the General Post Office was built on the site. All that remains today is a blue plaque marking the site shown in the photo..
21 St Mary Spitalfields
The Priory of St Mary Spital was founded in 1197 as a convent by Walter Fitz Earldred. The Augustinian nuns there ran one of the largest hospitals in medieval England providing lodging for travellers – “spital” being a shortened form of “hospital”. This Priory gave its name to the whole area of Spitalfields which was still fields and nursery gardens up until the 1680s when it was developed into housing for Huguenot immigrants. After dissolution in 1539, the buildings were demolished and the priory precinct became the Liberty of Norton Folgate. Hawksmoor’s magnificent church – Christchurch Spitalfields – was not built until 1729.
22 St Thomas Acon Hospital
The Hospital of St Thomas of Acre was founded around 1150 by Thomas Fitzthebald on the north side of Cheapside where the Mercers Hall now stands. Acon is a corruption of Acre. This collegiate church and hospital was the house of the Knights of St Thomas of Acre – a military order under rule of the Teutonic Knights. St Thomas was the famous Thomas a Becket who was born in the parish of St Mary Colechurch. The hospital was founded in that parish for this reason. In 1514 the Worshipful Company of Mercers became the patrons of the order so when the hospital was dissolved the Mercers bought the property from the crown and built their hall there. A blue plaque on the wall outside Churches shoe shop commemorating St Thomas a Becket and his image on the corner of Poultry and Ironmonger Lane are the only physical mementos of the Hospital.
23 St Thomas Hospital
The hospital named after St Thomas a Becket at Borough, Southwark was originally part of Southwark Priory but was relocated to what is now St Thomas Street in 1215. It was run by a mixed order of Augustinian monks and nuns to provide shelter and treatment for the poor, the sick and the homeless. After dissolution in in 1539 it was reopened in 1551 and rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle. This was a prudent move as Thomas a Becket had challenged the authority of a previous King Henry (the second) and was seen by Henry VIII as a traitor. This skilful rebranding was the work of the City of London who received the grant of the site and a charter from Edward VI . The hospital was moved to its current position in Lambeth in 1871, but the hospital buildings survive along with the old St Thomas Church. The latter is now offices but contains the Old Operating Theatre museum.
Temple Church was built by the Knights Templar in 1185 between Fleet Street and the River Thames and is probably the most famous of London’s medieval religious houses. It has its own tube station – Temple – and achieved worldwide notoriety in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. At the other end of the literary spectrum, it also features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. When the Knights Templar were abolished in 1307, Edward II took possession and later gave the church to the Knights Hospitaller who leased it to two colleges of lawyers – the Inner and Middle temples. It then became a possession of the crown again in Henry VIII’s dissolution in 1540 and a Royal Peculiar exempt from the jurisdiction of the Church of England. The lawyers eventually got their way following an agreement with James I in 1608 and it has been the heart of the English legal profession ever since.
25 White Friars
The Carmelite Order of White Friars Priory was founded in 1247 by Sir Richard Grey. The Carmelite Order was created at Mount Carmel in the Holy Land in 1150 and became known as the White Friars because of the white mantles they wore. They were driven out from Mount Carmel by the Saracens in 1238 and settled in London between Fleet St and the Thames, next door to the Knights Templar at Temple. We know what the priory looked like from the Wyngaerde Panorama shown above. It also shows the Temple – the building immediately to the left. The Priory was dissolved in November 1538 when the 13 remaining friars signed a surrender document to the royal commissioner, Thomas Legh. The precinct was divided into 13 separate land plots which had all been sold off by 1545. You can still see the crypt of the White Friars priory in Magpie Alley off Whitefriars Lane – it was carefully preserved when the current building of 65 Fleet Street was constructed in 1991.