For part three of our Lost abbey’s series we focus on the old monastic buildings which used to exist towards the west of the old City of London. For part one we looked at the houses outside the City Wall to the east of the city and for part two looked at the houses within the City Wall again to the east of the city.
For this third part we move west or at least so far as the boundary formed by the Fleet and the Newgate. London was a city teeming with monastic buildings in a time when the country’s spiritual guidance came from Rome. It all changed during the reign of Henry VIII when in conflict with the Catholic Church over his intended marriage to Anne Boleyn and divorce of Catherine of Aragon he decided to dissolve the monastic houses and appropriate the lands for the crown. He declared himself the supreme head of the new Church of England for good measure.
The city looked very different to how it does now but look hard enough and you can still make out the echoes of these ancient buildings. Many of which would have stood close to the old City walls and some which can still be heard in place names around London today. Two buildings whose imprints can still be seen if you look hard enough are the Blackfriars and the Greyfriars monasteries.
The Black Friars Dominican Monastery
Now known mainly on account of it’s tube station sitting on the District Line, The old dominican friary became known as the black friars on account of the robes that the monks wore. Overground just outside the station there is a quaint little pub called the Black Friar not contemporary with the time of course but still a nice reminder given that it sits on what would have been the outer edge of the friary precinct.
The Black Friars would have held a dominant position, on the banks of the Thames with stairs leading down towards the riverside. To the east of the estate, the friary bordered the once mighty River Fleet, which still exists albeit underground, still following the alignment of Farringdon Road. It would have overlooked the great Bridewell Palace towards the other side of the river and sat in the shadow of the great St. Pauls Cathedral which would be dominant on Ludgate Hill towards the north east.
Built in 1276 under the reign and patronage of Edward I the Dominicans only arrived in England in 1221. Originally settling in Holborn the friars moved when Robert Kilwardly the Domincian Archbishop of Canterbury obtained the land from the mayor crucially within the city walls. It was built partly using stone from Montfichet’s Tower which was nearby and which had been pulled down. It was dissolved in 1538 but not before it had played host to a number of key historic events serving as a meeting place for parliaments and privy councils. In 1529 it found itself at the very centre of the countries impending religious change by hosting the divorce hearing between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
After the dissolution the grounds and buildings were sold off before in 1576 some of the buildings were leased to Richard Farrant in order to become the site of the first Blackfriars Theatre with plays being staged there until 1584 when it was closed down by disapproving City officials. In 1596 James Burbage bought Blackfriars for £600 and set about creating what would become known as the Blackfriars Playhouse which had a roof and the ability to create special effects with installed trapdoors and wires. Shakespeare himself was a part owner and the theatre was often used in the winter by his troupe the Lord Chamberlains Men whilst in the summer months they would perform at the Globe. It closed in 1642 during the English Civil War and was then demolished in 1655. Look closely and there is still a ‘Playhouse Yard’ in the approximate location of the theatre. Shakespeare bought a house close by on Ireland Yard in 1613 just three years before his death.
In 1632 the guesthouse of the friary was acquired by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, the equivalent to todays pharmacists who in 1617 had been given a Royal Charter by King James. Originally part of the Worshipful Company of Grocers the Apothecaries, led by the Huguenot Gideon De Laune, had lobbied hared to get their own recognition and the guesthouse was to be their hall. It burnt down in the Great Fire of London, was re-built in 1672 and is still standing to this day. It’s an impressive building and can be approached from what is now Blackfriars lane. If you wanted to take a look you can walk into the courtyard and even see a small remnant of what was possibly part of the original buildings on the site.
Wander around the little backstreets of this area and history can come to life, the courtyard which would have been Playhouse Yard is unrecognisable now of course but gives you a sense for where Shakespeare would have played. His house on Ireland Yard is no longer there but it gives you a sense of the proximity in which he would have lived. A number of public spaces also remind us of their past, the gardens of the old Christchurch Greyfriars graveyard contains a small section of ancient wall whilst the gardens on ‘Church Entry’ were formerly part of the preaching nave in the old church of the Dominican Friary.
Grey Friars Monastery
In the area just behind the modern day Old Bailey, the Franciscan Church of Greyfriars was established in 1225. Close to St. Pauls Cathedral it was on the road to the Newgate one of the main entrances to the City. The friars arrived from Italy in 1224 and wore grey, hence the name. Initially establishing themselves in Cornhill they were granted land in the parish of St. Nicholas Shambles and over time grew the property with the help of a series of wealthy benefactors including the famous Lord mayor Richard Whittington who built them a library in 1429. The whole precinct would have occupied the length of road to the north of Newgate Street from the approximate area of Giltspur Street to the interchange with King Edward Street.
Dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 he gave the church and the buildings of the priory along with the parish churches of St. Ewin in Newgate Market and St Nicholas in the Shambles to the Mayor and Corporation of London. The condition being that they be merged together into one parish called Christ’s Church within Newgate with a further requirement that the vicars there were to attend to the prisoners at Newgate Prison when required. The church burnt down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt by Wren between 1687 and 1704. The new Wren church was smaller than the original with the remainder of the site enclosed as a burial ground with the space becoming a garden and public space in 1872. The church was destroyed during a bombing raid on 29 December 1940 during the blitz leaving only the tower standing.
There is a cool little ghost story also attached to the church grounds of two beautiful women both haunting the same space unaware of each other for centuries until when they did meet other, both being of equal beauty, they started to fight. Said ghosts are supposed to be that of the she-wolf of France Queen Isabella who it is alleged murdered her husband Edward I in order to be with her lover Richard Mortimer. Her son Edward III avenged his father by killing Mortimer and confining Isabella to a castle in Norfolk though when she died in 1358 she was buried at the Greyfriars.
The other ghost is supposed to be that of Lady Alice (Agnes) Hungerford who was found guilty of arranging the murder of her first husband, John Cotell on 26 July 1518. She had since remarried to a man called Edward Hungerford though he too died in 1522 leaving Alice his sole beneficiary and his son Walter nothing. It was only after this that two of Alice’s servants were indicted for the murder of Cotell with the blame also being attached to Alice as the supposed mastermind behind the crime with Cotells body having supposedly being destroyed in the kitchen furnace. Alice was also buried at the Grey Friars. Many thanks to Mysterious Britain where we picked up that cool little story, check out their page to find more of their thoughts on the justness of Alice’s execution.
The sites of both the Blackfriars and the Greyfriars were visited and photographed by Inspiring City on 10 November 2014. This post forms the third 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.