Take a look any map of medieval London and you can’t miss the 30 or so religious complexes dotted around the City and suburbs, housing the likes of monasteries, schools and hospitals.
Surrounded by stone walls with secure entrances through gate houses, these private precincts grew into thriving communities with churches, sleeping quarters, meeting rooms and dining halls. The large amount of funding they attracted allowed the institutions to build lavish buildings and for the residents live comfortable lifestyles.
But following the actions of one king five centuries ago, you’ll be searching for a long time today to find the religious complexes that occupied over vast areas of medieval London intact. Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1530 and 1570 had a huge impact on the topography of large parts of the City and surrounding areas, whereby most of the religious precincts were either sold off or given away to royal favourites.
Out of these former religious sites, many grand mansions were built for courtiers. Yet within a couple of decades most of the former religious sites were divided up into smaller units for a mix of housing and industry. Secular developers made fortunes in the schemes they promoted and transformed the capital into the place we see today.
Not all was lost to capitalist developments however, as charitable institutions were set up creating schools and hospitals in the former religious precincts. And the religious element of these sites didn’t completely disappear either as some monastery churches were converted into parish churches.
So much development has taken place in London over the last 500 years, but I’m fascinated by the fact that you can still see traces of the great medieval religious institutions. Often the remnants are there hidden away from daily life, but they are there if you look carefully.
I saw this first-hand this weekend on a visit to the remains of the Charnel House, the most complete building at St Mary Spital, just a stone’s throw from what is now Spitalfields market. It was set up as a hospital in 1197 by a number of wealthy London citizens, but was also a fully-fledged priory.
The complex would grow to around 13 acres and was said at the time to be the largest hospital in London, with separate wards for men and women attached to chapels so that patients could follow religious services taking place, sleeping quarters for monks, a brew house, a bake house and an open air pulpit.
While monks and canons provided spiritual care, lay nurses looked after the sick (sometimes supported by visiting doctors sponsored by wealthy patrons). Although little remains of the hospital, archaeological discoveries in recent years have revealed some evidence of their way of life. Patients would have slept on mattresses with a straw filling and linen sheets, personal items were kept in lockers (for which keys have been found), and they ate soup bread, plus some meat and fish.
But the jewel in the crown in terms of discoveries was the Charnel House, a place where wealthy people would pay for their bones to be stored. Usually closed up, I was yesterday able to walk around the remains which have been preserved by English Heritage in a glass fronted chamber. I went down into the former crypt and saw evidence for the windows and buttresses.
Given the amount of change that this area has seen over the years, with Huguenot weavers in the 17th and 18th centuries and mass scale housing in more recent times, it’s remarkable that the remains have been saved. It’s fascinating to be able to walk around Spitalfields market today and, against all the stalls, bars and restaurants, see the so many layers of history preserved side by side.