Changing London

City churches: London’s religious houses experience rapid medieval growth

The City of London’s churches are fascinating places to while away some time, whether you are there to participate in a service or merely take stock of the surroundings that tell us so much about the history of our great capital. In the second part of my new six-part series, I discover how these Christian religious houses experience rapid medieval growth.

Peer through the ground floor windows of an office building on the corner of Leadenhall Street and Mitre Street and you will see some imposing stonework. These pointed arches dating from 14th or 15th century are pretty much all that remains of Holy Trinity Priory, which was founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda. It was the first religious house to be established inside the City walls after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The fascinating displays, which the reception staff at the office used to be happy for visitors to view but are now sadly closed off as the last tenants have vacated the space, show the expansive priory in its heyday. They describe how the surviving arch from the choir’s aisle wall formerly led to a chapel.

Holy Trinity was, in 1532, the first religious house in the City to be dissolved during the Reformation, and the land was to distributed to Henry VII’s courtiers and City merchants. Today, Mitre Square lies where the former cloister used to be, while Mitre Street follows approximately the line of the old priory church’s nave. The old priory building has also had an impact on the topography of Duke’s Place.

But Holy Trinity was of course not the only religious order to be established in London in medieval times. Some 30 of them occupied huge sites and they became like small towns in their own right with their own churches, meeting spaces, sleeping quarters, kitchens and dining halls. But as a result of Henry VIII’s decision to close religious establishments between 1530 and 1570 through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many of these lavish building have been lost.

St Bartholomew’s – close to Smithfield Market – is perhaps one of the most famous and is remembered in the surviving church of St Bartholomew the Great (built 1123) and St Bartholomew’s hospital. I have also written previously of the fascinating history of Blackfriars monastery, which operated in an area south of Ludgate Hill between 1221 and 1538, before becoming a theatre for Shakespeake’s company (the King’s Players) acted. There is now a wonderful art noveau pub called the Black Friar on the site.

There was a cluster of religious orders on the eastern side of the City, sandwiched between Liverpool Street and Tower Hill. Near Spitalfields you can see the remains of the Charnel House of St Mary’s Spital, established as a hospital in 1197 and which boasted a site of 13 acres. It had wards for women and men, chapels, sleeping quarters for monks, a brew house and a bake house. It was at the Charnel House – which is preserved in a glass chamber and can be visited on open days – where wealthy people could pay for their bones to be stored.

The religious order of nuns called the Holy Trinity of the Minoresses or Poor Clares is remembered in an area called the Minories. If you walk into a very unglamorous surface car park off St Clare Street, you will be on the site of part of their old complex which was established by the Earl of Lancaster in 1293, but sadly only minor remains survive in situ (corner walls from the old cloister were however found to have been incorporated into the basement of a building). The convent precinct became the parish of Holy Trinity in 1566, with a lesser chapel converted into a church, but after re-building in 1706, it was destroyed in 1566.

Minories – once complex of Holy Trinity of the Minoresses (or Poor Clares)

Meanwhile two sculptured friars, created by the artist Michael Black, on a modern called Friary Court marked the spot where the old religious house of Crutched Friars, which was founded by Ralph Hosiar and William Sabernes around 1298, once stood. The friary, the site of which is roughly bisected by modern-day Savage Gardens, is also remembered through a street and a pub of the same name.

The historian John Strype, writing in 1720, told of the supposed corruption at the Friary, particularly an incident involving a prostitute:

“A Prior of this House in Henry VIII.’s Time was not so observant as he should be of the Rules of his Order: who on a Friday (a Day of somewhat more Mortification and Devotion) was found at 11 of the Clock in Bed with with a Whore, and taken in that Posture by Barthelot and others, appointed Visitors by Crumwel the Vicar General’s Order.”

In an attempt to cover-up his wrong doing, a bribe was offered: “the surprised Prior distributed 30l. presently among them, and promised 30l. more.” It was “these scandalous Crimes,” added Strype that “hastened the Dissolution of these Monasteries.”

After being dissolved by Henry VIII the church plot was used as a tennis court and carpenters yard, while the friars’ house became a glass house. Part of the lands of were used for almshouses, but most were granted to Thomas Wyatt, an adviser to Henry VIII. The site was largely given over to warehouses in the 19th century, before it was cut through in 1839 by the building of Fenchurch station.

There is more to see of the old Benedictine Priory of St Helen, founded in 1210 by William Fitzwilliam, because the parish church of St Helen Bishopsgate, which the nunnery grew out of, survives and is a popular conservative evangelical church which holds three packed services every Sunday. The fact that the remaining building today looks like it is two churches joined together is because it was re-built with two sections, one for the parishioners and the other for nuns, which were separated by a screen.

St Helen Bishopsgate

The Priory was dissolved in 1538 and was eventually sold to the Leathersellers’ Company, but the actual church reverted to a normal parish church. It survived the Great Fire and the Blitz, yet – as I will cover in a later blog in this series – was badly damaged by IRA bombs in 1992 and 1993.

Inside St Helen Bishopsgate

While churches attached to the establishments of rich religious orders were usually more lavish than ordinary parish ones, the latter are still worth exploring. Indeed, by 1200 most of the City 110 churches had been established and many were re-built during the medieval period. A new St Paul’s cathedral was constructed after a fire in 1087, but it was destroyed by the Great Fire. Good examples of medieval churches can however be seen at St Andrew Undershaft or St Katherine Cree.

Just as the Reformation was bad news for the religious orders in the City through the Dissolution, it also had an impact on parish churches. The buildings not only became plainer and less colourful places, many fell into neglect as well as they became short of funds. But this was by no means the end for the City’s churches, as the extensive and costly re-building by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 demonstrated. And it’s great that so many churches remain open to the public to this day.

Next week: Remembering Samuel Pepys’s churches

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