Think of monasteries and you might envisage the picturesque splendours of Tintern, Normandy’s twin-towered Jumièges – positioned on a rural loop of the Seine – or the roofless ruins of San Galgano in Tuscany, with doves fluttering through the glassless windows and nothing in the landscape as far as the eye can see but hills and forest. Abbeys such as these were founded away from worldly temptations, with their monks seeking out the wilderness like the early Christian hermits and Desert Fathers, who abandoned everything to commit their bodies and souls to discipline and prayer – the very word ‘monastery’ is derived from the Greek monos, ‘alone’.
This was the dominant monastic model during the early medieval period, when the Rule of St Benedict (AD 480-547) held sway. But different kinds of urban monastic institutions developed in the 13th century, when new mendicant orders (from the Latin mendicans, ‘begging’) were established, reliant on charitable donations for the funding of their work. The Franciscans were the first (founded in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi), soon followed by the Dominicans (founded by the Castilian priest, St Dominic, in 1215), the Augustinians (founded in 1244), and the Carmelites (organised as an order in 1247).
All told, the 13th century saw the formation of nine officially sanctioned mendicant orders, seven of which were to establish bases in London: the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Pied Friars, the Friars of the Sack, the Crutched Friars, and the Augustinians (see box above). Only Paris could claim more, housing those seven, plus the Trinitarians and the Williamites. Each order was distinguished by its devotion to a particular saint or aspect of the life and passion of Christ, and each sought to carve out a distinctive role. The Dominicans saw themselves first and foremost as preachers – sanctioned by the papacy to challenge heresy, and to set an example of spiritual rectitude to Europe’s growing town and city populations. The Franciscans were more like social workers, relinquishing personal wealth in order to help the needy. The Augustinians were priests, doctors, and educators, and the Carmelites emphasised prayer as well as the provision of spiritual services and sacraments to the laity.
The first mendicants to make a mark on London were the Dominicans. Gilbert de Fresnay (possibly born in England) was sent from Paris in 1221 to establish a Dominican house in Oxford, and moved on to London in August, looking for sponsors. He quickly found a powerful supporter in the form of Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, the royal justiciar (chief minister) to the 14-year-old Henry III (r.1216-1272).
De Burgh bought a plot of land in Holborn and donated it to the Dominicans. Purchases of adjacent land were made over succeeding decades, thanks to the support of several high-status benefactors, including Henry III himself. Evidence for this first friary consists of an almost complete set of property deeds, which Nick Holder has used to reconstruct the 1.6ha (4 acre) site, bounded by today’s Holborn Viaduct, Farringdon Street, Stonecutter Street, and Shoe Lane. The excavation in 1985 of 26-30 Holborn Viaduct uncovered church walls, in addition to which there was a chapter house and two accommodation blocks, as well as an orchard, vineyard, and extensive gardens. Having grown over a period of 40 years to accommodate some 67 friars, plus novices and servants, the Dominicans had sufficient room to expand on this plot, but instead, in 1274, they sought the permission of Edward I (r.1272-1307) to move to a more conspicuous and prestigious site.
Their new home was located in the south-western angle of the city walls, bounded by the River Fleet to the west, Ludgate to the north, Puddle Dock Lane to the east, and the Thames to the south. Moving to this site involved complex negotiations and careful planning. Rural monastic foundations built on greenfield sites had ample room for elaborate buildings, but the new friaries had to be slotted into crowded urban environments – in London’s case, into a city made up of a dense pattern of small properties, with up to 40,000 souls living within its walls in the 1220s, and double that number by 1320, just before the Black Death. The way that the Dominicans went about acquiring and developing their brownfield site illustrates the challenges faced by all the mendicant orders as they sought to establish a presence in the city.
The path was greatly eased for the Dominicans, though, by friends in high places. John of Darlington, prior of the London Dominicans, was confessor to Henry III and an experienced royal minister; he was assisted in realising his plans for the new property by Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1273 and 1279, himself the former head of the Dominican order in England. London’s mayor, Henry le Waleys, a favourite of Edward I and an experienced manager of urban building projects, was another influential intermediary. Together they secured royal permission for the purchase of Baynard’s Castle and Montfichet’s Tower, for the closure of the lanes and roads connecting these two redundant Norman fortifications, and for the demolition of the south-western corner of the city wall, as well as for its upgrading and rebuilding as part of the new monastic precinct.
Money donated by the king in 1278 enabled further land to be purchased between the former Norman castles and the River Fleet. Work began on the replacement of the city walls in 1279, after the king granted the right to levy a ‘murage’ charge – a tax on merchandise entering the City, which was the traditional means by which town and city walls were constructed or repaired in the medieval period – for a period of three years. A year later, work began on constructing a new church. A further murage grant was allowed in 1302, and when Edward II (r.1307-1327) confiscated Templar property in October 1307, he gave their water mill on the River Fleet to the Dominicans – the last piece of land within the overall plot that they did not yet own – enabling them to complete the new city and monastic walls by 1309.
Archaeological excavation shows the wall was an imposing structure, measuring some 1.8m (6ft) wide along the Fleet and 2.7m (9ft) wide along the Thames. It was built of Kentish ragstone and chalk, with a facing of sandy limestone ashlar from the Hythe Beds in Kent. Battered at an angle of 5° on the water side, it extended out to the low-tide mark in the Thames, thus taking in the foreshore between the old wall and the new – a substantial area (0.68ha or 1¾ acres) of reclaimed land that brought the total area within the friary precinct to just over 3.1ha (7¾ acres).
Financing a friary
Progress thereafter was rapid. The church and cloister were constructed by a team of 24 masons, supervised by the experienced royal mason, Michael Canterbury, who had previously worked on St Stephen’s chapel in the Palace of Westminster. Such architectural fragments as have survived suggest that the church was one of London’s most splendid. The narrator of the 14th-century poem known as Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede (c.1393; a different poem but contemporary with Langland’s Piers Plowman of c.1390) describes ‘twice twenty-two’ traceried windows and richly carved and gilded stone, including the arms of civic benefactors, as well as many chest tombs and monuments commemorating the laymen and -women who had made donations to the order.
These lay donors were one very important source of income for all the mendicant orders, but so were the proceeds of renting out property. Not only did Black Friars have all the structures we expect of a monastery – including not one but two cloisters, chapter house, library, refectory, dorter (dormitory), infirmary, and latrine block – but it also had tenements both within the precinct and around the edges. It was the reliable annual income from these that underpinned the urban monastic economy, lacking as they did the income from manors and granges that made some rural monasteries immensely wealthy.
Also critical to the urban monastic economy was the income from ‘spiritual services’. Nick Holder’s analysis of an Augustinian document dating from 1522 recording that year’s income reveals that the London Austin Friars raised about 35 per cent of their income from rents, 30 per cent from alms, 14 per cent from bequests, and the remaining 21 per cent from charging fees for hearing confessions, for burial within the church or cemetery, for conducting funeral services, and for saying anniversary masses for the dead. Their total income for that year was £171, which left a surplus of £16 after the expenses of clothing, food, fuel, candles, books, stabling, building repairs, and wages for the cooks, butler, gardeners, brewer, baker, and washerwoman were subtracted.
Black Friars was beyond doubt England’s most developed urban monastery, and one that made a very substantial architectural and spiritual mark on the London landscape. Over time, it grew to become ‘the largest, wealthiest, and most politically significant’ of all the English friaries, according to Nick Holder. By the 14th century, it was an intellectual powerhouse, preparing students for higher study in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris, as well as being one of the institutions that defined London’s status as a European centre of culture. With special links to the Crown, the friary was used on occasion for sittings of parliament; in 1382, it hosted the church council convened to condemn the teachings of John Wycliffe, and in 1529 Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio held their enquiry here into the ‘great matter’ of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Second in terms of grandeur and extent was the precinct of the Grey Friars, located north of Newgate Street and east of Giltspur Street. Arriving in England in 1224, the first party of nine Franciscans stayed with the Dominicans or at the houses of well-wishers until they acquired their first plot – a tenement donated by London mercer John Iwyn, who later joined the order as a lay friar. Thereafter, like the Black Friars, they purchased or were given some 27 adjoining plots, adding up to 1.8ha (4.5 acres) in total. Construction of a chapel began as early as 1228, with timber donated by Henry III and cash provided by London merchant, and later mayor, William Joyner.
At first, and true to the example of St Francis, the chapel and accommodation was modest. But subsequent rebuilding and expansion resulted in more ambitious buildings, to the point that William of Nottingham, head of the English Franciscan order (d.1254), demanded that the roofs and ceilings of the church and cloister be ‘rearranged’, perhaps to remove elaborate vaulting or carved bosses. Even so, Grey Friars was, by the end of the 13th century, recognisable as a monastic establishment, with a large preaching barn of a church. Although it was not as big as St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, it was London’s largest ‘ordinary’ church – and also included a dormitory, chapter house, library, and refectory, arranged around a grand cloister.
Londoners seem to have warmed more to the Franciscans than to the Dominicans, who suffered from being too closely linked with the Crown. People flocked to hear their sermons, and the friary’s surviving register suggests that lay supporters made many more bequests, donations, and mass payments to the Franciscans, although for smaller amounts. Lacking the Dominicans’ royal income and large rental portfolio, they had less secure finances and were more reliant on alms for meeting their annual running costs.
The burial register also shows that many Londoners chose burial within the Grey Friars church and cemetery. To give a sense of scale, Christian Steer (who contributed the chapter on burial and commemoration in Nick Holder’s book) says that, of the documented tombs in London’s mendicant houses, Grey Friars had 684 compared with 130 at Black Friars, 94 at Austin Friars, 86 at White Friars, and 27 at Crutched Friars. Drawings made by 16th-century antiquaries and heralds show that these monuments included numerous raised tomb chests carved with coats of arms and topped by brasses, incised figures, or three-dimensional marble effigies.
A high number seem to have been of knights, civil servants, or people who had held civic office in the city as aldermen or mayors. Burial within a friary church thus served for Londoners the same function as the parish church did for country knights and the rural gentry. Another distinctive feature of the London mendicant houses was their use for the burial of alien merchants (mainly Flemish, Dutch, and German) or foreign members of the nobility who died while visiting London. Very few aliens are recorded as being buried in London’s parish churches, whereas the Grey Friars burial register records, for example, the burials of the Florentines Andrew de Maneriis (d.1390), Dinus Forceti (d.1349), and Philip Bardi (d.1362), as well as the Venetian Peter de Balby (d.1430). This apparent pattern may also be due to the nature of how these burials were recorded, of course.
Grey Friars has one of London’s best documented water supplies, too. This is thanks, Nick Holder says, to the ‘rare combination of archaeological excavation, medieval documents, and a surviving medieval conduit-head building’. Monasteries needed fresh water for spiritual and ritual cleansing prior to and during the Mass, as well as for drinking. The second quarter of the 13th century was a period of experimentation, leading to the development of water-storage tanks set within a conduit head at or near the spring or water source, to provide enough pressure to deliver water to a distant site through long, narrow pipes made of cast lead. The technology was developed at Christchurch Canterbury and Fountains Abbey, but was rapidly adopted elsewhere. The Augustinian canons at Waltham Abbey introduced a piped water supply in the 1220s, the City authorities in London installed their first supply in the 1230s, the London Franciscans in the 1240s, and the Dominicans in the 1250s.
Grey Friars acquired its own supply thanks to the donation by William Taylour of a spring in rural Bloomsbury in the 1240s. Henry III and three London citizens paid for the construction of a conduit head and underground piping to carry the water to the Grey Friars precinct in Newgate. Excavation has established that the conduit head measured 9ft by 6ft and was built of Reigate stone (a calcareous sandstone) under a barrel-vaulted chalk roof. The cistern within had a capacity of 2,000 gallons (9,100 litres), sufficient to push the water along the 1¼-mile (2.1km) route to Grey Friars, a fall of some 31ft (9.5m).
A second conduit head was added to the system early in the 14th century, a quarter of a mile further west in Bloomsbury (in the vicinity of today’s Queen Square), thanks to the donations of William de Camera and three other citizens. Also built entirely of Reigate stone, this had twice the capacity of the 13th-century conduit. Remarkably it has survived, albeit having been dismantled in 1911 and re-erected in 1927 within a modern structure in the backyard of the Metropolitan Water Board’s New River Head building (off Myddleton Passage, in Clerkenwell).
Decline and Dissolution
By the time of the Dissolution, the five surviving London friaries owned about 8ha (20 acres) of valuable urban land – about 5 per cent of the walled City (143ha or 353 acres). The 160 or so friars living within these walls constituted just 0.5 per cent of the population: this elite group of religious men enjoyed 20 times as much space as the average Londoner. Although, compared to rural monasteries, these urban establishments were relatively small, lacking extensive outer courts and land, in urban terms they were remarkable and privileged spaces, green oases – with gardens, orchards, and vineyards – amid the grey and polluted city.
Having set out with relatively modest ideals – following the tenets of corporate poverty and a life of prayer, preaching, and teaching – the mendicant orders quickly established close links with London’s elite and transformed key areas of the medieval city. As these poor urban preacher-monks became relatively wealthy, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, and Crutched Friars all rebuilt their early churches and monastic buildings on a grander scale, with more elaborate architecture. The London friars were not alone in this: Nick Holder estimates that the growing wealth of the London friars, and the aggrandisement of their buildings, followed similar developments on the Continent, perhaps lagging a decade or two behind their colleagues in the heartland of the mendicant movement.
The end came in November 1538, when monastic commissioners Thomas Legh and Richard Layton knocked on the friary doors and asked the priors to sign surrender documents. At first, the former friaries were treated as long-term assets – the tenants remained and simply paid rent to the Crown, rather than to the friars; although churches and monastic buildings were quarried for lead, timber, and stone when needed (for example, building materials were taken from the church of the Crutched Friars for building work at the Palace of Whitehall). In 1544, the policy changed, however: needing cash for Henry VIII’s wars with France and Scotland, his agents sold the friaries and, by the mid-1540s, all five mendicant houses were in private hands.
The story does not quite end there, for in 1556, under Mary I (r.1553-1558), the Dominicans refounded their house at a new site at St Bartholomew the Great church. Their second stay in London lasted just three years and three months, before the new Black Friars was closed down by Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603). This refounding resulted in the only major physical legacy of the friars’ three-and-a-half centuries in London: the building on West Smithfield that the friars remodelled in 1556 to form a new entrance to their priory, incorporating the west door of the 13th-century church that had previously occupied the site. Happily, the gatehouse is one of a handful of buildings to have survived the 1666 Great Fire of London as well as the Blitz.
Known collectively as friars (from the Latin fratres, meaning ‘brothers’ or ‘brethren’), the different mendicant orders were distinguished by the colour of their habits. The Dominicans were known as Black Friars on account of their black cloaks; the grey hooded cloaks of the Franciscans earned them the name Grey Friars; Carmelites were White Friars for the same reason. Pied Friars (technically Fratres Beate Marie, ‘Brethren of the Blessed Mary’) wore a white inner garment under a black cloak, and the Friars of the Sack wore a sackcloth habit, consistent with their formal name: Fratres de Penitencia Jesu Christi (‘Brethren of the Penitence of Jesus Christ’). Crossed, Crutched, or Crouched Friars derived their name from the English pronunciation of their Latin name, Fratres Cruciferi. Finally, the Augustinians wore black, but were known by the contraction ‘Austin’ Friars to distinguish them from the Black Friars.
The other orders
None of the other mendicant orders achieved quite the same political or popular support as the Dominicans and Franciscans, but they still established a significant presence in the City. The White Friars arrived in England in 1242, and occupied a site that eventually enclosed 2.1ha (5.2 acres) between Fleet Street and the Thames, east of Temple. The Austin Friars (1260s) occupied a 2.3ha (5.7 acre) site in the angle between Broad Street and London Wall. The Crutched Friars founded their first house in Whaplode, Lincolnshire, in the 1240s, and arrived in London in the 1260s on a small site (0.9ha or 2.2 acres) south of the street still called Crutched Friars.
The Sack Friars lasted just under 50 years in London, from their arrival in 1257 through the winding up of their order in 1274 (when Pope Gregory X banned further recruitment), after which a few of the existing friars remained until 1305. Their 0.2ha (½-acre) priory was located in the angle between Lothbury and Coleman Street. Finally, the Pied Friars arrived in London in 1267 and occupied a small site (0.5ha or 1.2 acres) in the angle between Southampton Street and the Strand, on what was then a rural road linking the City and Westminster, before it too was closed down by Gregory X’s decision. The last London Pied Friar held out until 1317.
The Friaries of Medieval London: from foundation to Dissolution, by Nick Holder, with contributions by Ian Betts (on floor tiles and building materials), Jens Röhrkasten (on spiritual life and education), Mark Samuel (on architecture), and Christian Steer (on burial and commemoration), Boydell Press, £50, ISBN 978-1783272242.