The Lost Abbeys and Priories of the City of London Part 1 – From the Tower to Bedlam and Beyond

Before the dissolution of the monasteries which took place between 1536 and 1541, London was positively teeming with monastic houses both within and without the walls of the old city. This post looks at four of them, from Tower Hill to Spitalfields we will follow the line of the old city wall. The post is the first part of an Inspiring City series which will try to find all (or at least most) of the lost monastic houses of the old city.

Nowaday’s most of the monasteries can only be discerned at by clues in the ground, place names, the odd stone here and there and of course their imprints on old maps. Tudor London was a very different place. The Old City Wall was in place and travellers and traders entering the city would have done so by on of the gates and posterns which encircled the city. Outside the walls, there was not much development. The Tower Hamlets were just that, hamlets amongst fields and the Fleet still flowed freely just below Ludgate Hill.

The Dissolution changed the city, vast tracks of land had been owned by the priory’s and the abbey’s. This was true up and down the length and breadth of the country with them being great sources of wealth. Henry VIII knew this of course and their appropriation by the crown brought in great sums to the treasury. It also meant that many of the buildings were torn down, or given other purposes. The land which the abbey’s owned was redistributed to become estates for others and developed over time.

So for this post I thought I’d try and search out some of the remnants of these eccesiastical houses, goodness knows there were enough of them and in order to do so will follow the line of the City Wall from Tower Hill to Blackfriars or at least I will eventually. This post will take us from the Tower to Spitalfields.

St Mary Graces Abbey
A Cistercian abbey, St Mary Graces was founded by Edward III in 1350 and sat to the east of the Tower of London, next to Tower Hill and bordered to the south by East Smithfield, the hospital of St Katherine was to the south on the site of the present day St. Katherines Dock. Excavations here between 1983 and 1988 revealed many bodies buried on the site in plague pits, victims of the Black Death which ravaged the city between 1348 and 1351. The abbey held the dubious honour of being the last abbey founded in England before it’s dissolution in 1539. The site was redeveloped to become the home of the Royal Mint and now is offices.

Tower of London as seen from what where the Abbey of St Mary Grace would have been

Tower of London as seen from where the Abbey of St Mary Grace would have been

The old Royal Mint building was built on the site of the abbey

The old Royal Mint building was built on the site of the abbey

The remains of the abbey can still be glimpsed in a little alley to the right of the old Mint building

The remains of the abbey can still be glimpsed in a little alley to the right of the old Mint building

St Clare’s Abbey
The monastery of St Clare was founded in 1293 by Edmund Plantagenet, the Earl of Lancaster and Leicester, for a group of nuns of the Order of St Clare. It was dissolved in 1539 becoming the property of the See of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, then in 1548 acquired by the powerful Grey family before being sold to William Paulet, the Marquess of Winchester with the intention of it becoming an armoury for the nearby Tower of London staying in crown hands until 1673.

The Abbey would have stood to the East of the present day Minories, the road which cuts north south from Aldgate to Tower Hill and to the immediate south of Aldgate High Street. The current area of the Minories takes it’s name from the Minoresses of the Abbey and clues as to the existence of the Abbey abound in places names around the area. Names such as St Clares Street which at one point would have run through the estate with residential housing either side and Goodmans Field which at one point would have been a managed farmstead which brought income into the Abbey.

The Minories as it is seen today

The Minories as it is seen today

St. Clare Street would have once been lined with tenements and led toward a church

St. Clare Street would have once been lined with tenements and led toward a church

This empty and unused office building sits in the space between Minories, St Clare Street and Aldgate High Street in the space that would have once been occupied by St Clares Abbey

This empty and unused office building sits in the space between Minories, St Clare Street and Aldgate High Street in the space that would have once been occupied by St Clares Abbey

For more reading on St Clare’s Abbey and the history of the Minories try:

Ptomng.Com – Thesis on the Minories
A History of the Minories, London by Edward Murray Tomlinson

Priory and Hospital of St Mary Bethlehem
Nowadays better known as the Bedlam, the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Bethlehem stood on the site of the present day Liverpool Street Station and just outside of the old Bishopsgate. It was the first of a number of ‘Bedlams’ and when the original site fell into disrepair a new one was built not far away on Moorfields. Then when that became structurally unsound it moved to Southwark.

The original Bedlam was founded as a Priory in 1247 by Simon FitzMary, the Sheriff of London as a ‘priory under the obedience of Bethlehem’. The order here never became a large one and by 1403 the priory was caring for the sick, specifically ‘six insane men and three others who were sick’ evolving over time from a religious house to more of a hospital. After the priory was dissolved in 1547 it was granted a charter from Henry VIII as a hospital for the insane.

The site became a City institution and the management of it was passed to the governors of Bridewell who in turn left the running of it to the keepers who would charge what they could for the supposed care of it’s inhabitants. Rather distressingly an inspection in 1598 revealed that the cesspit ‘badly needed emptying‘. Over the years it became more neglected, crowded and squalid and it closed in 1676 with conditions inside having become quite poor, moving not far away to Moorfields just south of the present day Finsbury Circus.

Liverpool Street Station is built on top of the first Bedlem Hospital

Liverpool Street Station is built on top of the first Bedlem Hospital

Bethlehem Plaque on the side of Liverpool Street station

Bethlehem Plaque on the side of Liverpool Street station

Map of the old Bedlem and Bishopsgate on the hoardings of the Crossrail project in Liverpool Street

Map of the old Bedlem and Bishopsgate on the hoardings of the Crossrail project in Liverpool Street

For more information on the original Bedlam try:

Bethlem Heritage – Priory of St Mary Bethlehem
BBC – History of Bedlam

The Priory and Hospital of St. Mary Spital
Just up the road from St. Mary Bethlehem, it’s namesake St. Mary Spital is better known these days for having given it’s name to the area of Spitalfields, nestling as it used to do, in amongst a lot of fields. The entrance to the modern day Spital Square would have been around the area of the gatehouse to the priory and the modern day Folgate Street would have been it’s northern boundary.

The priory was founded in 1197 by Walter Brune and dissolved in 1539 by Henry VIII with the lands becoming an artillery ground, hints of which can still be seen in road names of the areas such as Artillery Lane, Gun Street and Artillery Passage. Elizabeth I made good use of the area as she prepared for war with the Spanish during her reign with many of the soldiers training there. Excavations in the nineties revealed much and the remains of the Charnel House can be seen as a result with the remains of over 10,500 skeletons uncovered.

Eventually the area developed and it’s proximity to the city led to the development of a market which in 1638 was given it’s first charter by Charles I for Flesh, Fowl and Roots. Following the Great Fire in 1666 the market begun to expand and it’s importance grew receiving a further charter from Charles II in 1682. It was the catalyst for the wider development of the area as the market acted as a magnet for traders bringing goods from the docks and elsewhere. Eventually other industries grew up as the area began to attract more and more migrants and the silk weaving and brewing industries were born.

The remains of the Charnel House on Bishops Square

The remains of the Charnel House on Bishops Square

The Kings Stores Pub on Widegate Street in Spitalfields

The Kings Stores Pub on Widegate Street in Spitalfields is one of many places whose name pays homage to the areas artillery ground past

The area of St. Mary Spital as it looks today

The area of St. Mary Spital as it looks today

For more information on St Mary Spital try:

British History Online – The Precinct of St. Mary Spital
Spitalfields Life – In a Well in Spitalfields

London Unveiled – Old Spitalfields Market

This post forms the first part of the Inspiring City ‘Lost Abbey’s’ series. Click the links below to learn more about the other monastic houses dissolved by Henry VIII.

Holy Trinity Priory, St. Helen’s Priory, Crutched Friars, Austin Friars, Blackfriars Monastery, Greyfriars Monastery