The reformation was a turbulent time for London. Henry VIII’s desire for the Church of England to break away from the Catholic Church lead to some major changes in the look and feel of the city. It led directly to the dissolution of the monasteries and the City of London had many of those.
Today some of London’s prime real estate has it’s roots in monastic foundations. A map of the City in Tudor times looks very different to now but overlay it with a map of the city today and you’ll be amazed just how much land was taken up with monastic houses.
And it was perhaps this more than anything else that led to Henry VIII dissolving the lands and re-appropriating them to the crown. He managed to swell the Royal coffers significantly and was able to cement relationships with key allies who would often go on to take over the land. The whole process transformed the political outlook of London and the country as a whole. For this post, the second in a three part series we look at those dissolved monasteries from within the city walls.
Within the confines of the City Walls, the Friary of Crutched Friars or ‘Friars of the Holy Cross’ would have stood just north of the Tower of London. It was in the area of the modern day Port of London Authority Building. Bounded by the modern day streets of Crutched Friar to the north, Coopers Row to the east and Seething Lane to the West. Looking over the City Wall there would have been a view of the neighbouring St Clares Abbey. Slightly further north towards Aldgate, the Holy Trinity Priory would have stood. Founded by Ralph Hosiar and William Sabernes around 1298 the founders themselves become friars of the order. Dissolved by Henry VIII a couple of centuries later it is said that one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners caught the prior of the friary ‘flagrante delicto’ and that was all that was needed to ‘bring the hammer down upon the ‘corrupt little brotherhood.’
Of course how true all that is will be open to interpretation. Many excuses were certainly cooked up during the dissolution as reasons for which lands could be re-appropriated. The fate of the Crutched Friars was for the church to be turned into a carpenters yard and a tennis court with the friars hall becoming a glass house.
The lands of the friary were granted to Thomas Wyatt, a poet, diplomat and advisor to Henry VIII. That was in 1540 after he had already purchased some of the property following the dissolution in 1539. The only section of the old friary grounds not granted to Wyatt were a number of almhouses built to the West of the estate in 1534 by John Milbourne, a prominent draper. Wyatt died in 1542 with the property passing to his son Thomas and then in turn to Thomas Seymour and Sir William Sharington in 1537. After the latter pairs arrest for embezzlement and the execution of Seymour, the property then passed to Henry Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel in 1549. In 1571 through the marriage of Fitzalans daughter Jane it then passed again to John Lumley. John Stow reports that in 1575 a great fire burst out within the walls of the friary precinct which destroyed everything.
Holy Trinity Priory
Located just within the City Wall the priory was on the doorstep of the old Aldgate on the area of land currently occupied by the Sir John Cass Foundation Primary School and Mitre Square. The priory would have been able to look south to the Crutched Friars and Tower Hill and north to St. Helens Priory just a short distance away and St Clares Abbey just over the wall to the south east. It’s proximity next to the Aldgate would have meant that it would have had a birds eye view of traffic coming to and from the city to Stratford, Essex and beyond.
Founded by Matilda
It was the first religious house to be established within the walls of London after the Norman Conquest, being founded by Matilda the wife of Henry I in 1108. It was also one of the first Augustinian houses established in England as well as being the first to be dissolved in 1532, voluntarily surrendered to Henry VIII after running up large debts. The land passed eventually into the ownership of Thomas Audley in 1534 before becoming the property of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk who married Audley’s daughter. Even now, the name ‘Duke’s Place’ lives on within the confines of the old precinct.
Nowadays sections of the Holy Trinity Priory can still be seen, but you’ve got to look hard. A whole section of wall complete with archway remains inside the ‘Towergate’ building on the corner of Mitre Street and Leadenhall Street. They can be spotted just through the windows of the building but you’ve got to squint hard. Leadenhall itself would have formed one of the boundaries of the priory, with Mitre Street approximating the line of the nave. Mitre Square, which later become better known as the location of a Jack the Ripper murder, would have approximated the location of the cloisters.
St Helens Priory
Perhaps the most obvious remnant from the time of St. Helens Priory is the parish church of St. Helens Bishopsgate which still stands and remains one of the most important examples of medieval architecture existent in London today. Even more so because it actually pre-dates the nunnery which was established in 1210 by William Goldsmith on the grounds of the church. It would have been situated between the roads of Bishopsgate and St. Mary Axe.
The priory was dissolved in 1538 and in 1543 the Leathersellers Company acquired the convent buildings and the land to the north of the church from Sir Richard Williams the nephew of Thomas Cromwell. In the church, the nuns choir actually became part of the parish church and is now incorporated into the building seen there today. The majority of the buildings on the site were kept and given other purposes by the Leathersellers with various developments over the years taking place with the main priory building becoming their main hall. Finally in 1799 the last of the increasingly derelict and expensive to maintain old convent buildings were gone. Much of the area was re-developed in order to make better use of the land, building houses from which rental income could be obtained.. The church survived however and is notable for being one of the few buildings to survive the Great Fire in 1666 and then the Blitz during World War II.
Recent history of the site though records the IRA targeting the city in the early 90’s and two bombs in 1992 and 1993 rocked the area. The first on 10 April 1992 exploded outside the Baltic Exchange in St. Mary Axe, just 60 yards away from the old church. It killed three people and caused serious damage including the destruction of some ancient stained glass windows. A second bomb, which exploded on 20 April 1993, exploded on Bishopsgate causing more damage though providing the stimulus to eventually start the process of renovation.
The name Austin Friars is a recognisable name still within the walls of the City. Nowadays the former Augustinian Friary finds itself slap bang in the middle of Londons financial district. Looking at a map of modern London the friary would have occupied land enclosed by the modern day Old Broad Street, London Wall and Throgmorton Street. Founded in 1253 the name Austin Friars is an abbreviation of ‘Augustinian Friary’. It was established by Humphrey de Bohun after coming into contact with the Augustinians on his return from the crusades. The friary was eventually dissolved in 1539 with a large part of the manor passing to the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations himself Richard Rich for just £40. Sir William Paulet bought part of the old cloisters for just £43.
Thomas Cromwells House
But more than any other monastic building, the links to the past with Austin Friars are still there. Not necessarily in the buildings that occupy the site but by the footprint on which they inhabit. The Drapers Hall for example, one of the Great 12 Livery Companies of the City is built on the location of what was formerly Thomas Cromwells House. This great mansion was contained within the boundaries of the friary and as Cromwell was such an influential figure that meant that Austin Friars was at the centre of political power in London. After Cromwells downfall in 1540, the Crown took the land and then sold it to the Drapers Company in 1543. Since then the Drapers have occupied the site although the original building burnt down during the Great Fire in 1666 and then the rebuilt one was also destroyed by fire in 1772. Nowadays the hall, albeit having had a number of alterations dates from the third iteration rebuilt in 1772.
The Dutch Church
The other building of note is the Dutch Church which, although not the original building, is built on the footprint of the nave of the old friary church. After the dissolution in 1538 the church was taken by the crown and then in 1550 given to the immigrant Dutch community in London and the church is still Dutch today albeit having been rebuilt twice in the intervening years. It survived the Great Fire but eventually ended up burning down in another fire in 1862, rebuilt the year after only to be destroyed again in 1940 during a German air raid. The church was rebuilt again between 1950 and 1956.
This post forms the second 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.