English Medieval wall painting of the Coronation of Our Lady
After over six hundred years since the Reformation, the dissolution of the monasteries is still a very delicate topic, I will not go into trying to get stuck into the old argument of whom was right or wrong, I believe that both parties were right and wrong: the monasteries were centres of cultural and spiritual growth, that shaped European culture greatly, it is thanks to these great institutions that most works of literature or art survive and it is thanks to them that Christianity penetrated into certain areas of Britain at all, on the other hand, they held too much wealth for what they represented. However, it must be remembered that most of these houses were also hospitals and shelters for the less fortunate, charity was still at the core of these communities. The English Reformation and King Henry VIII, despite of how it might have started, did a great job into getting back all the wealth and power they accumulated into the state's hands, on the other hand eradicating a religion and all its devotions wasn't a great move. Most of this wealth was entrusted into noble families who sometimes built their country residences on top of old abbeys or priories thanks to these founds and claimed, not a very "noble" way to be noble perhaps. Surely, the end of Medieval chivalry values? This wouldn't be much different from how noble families in Rome accumulated wealth through the Church and it wasn't indeed much different from how the French sequestered the church's wealth during their Revolution and just like in England, banned most of the Church's activities, sequestered their possessions and in this case severed the Monarch's head... Therefore it is all pretty much relative to where one stands. All I can say is I am glad that 19th century Anglican high-churchmanship somehow revived the old monastic and spiritual tradition of England, a great resource that still shapes today's Anglicanism, which has always been inspired in its spirituality by the Benedictine tradition. For example in the accessibility of a daily routine of prayer.
The Mattins page of the 1549 Prayer Book, heavily inspired by Benedictine spirituality,
it succeeded in spreading within Anglicanism that tradition of the Daily Office and made it accessible to all
However, forgive me for this long introduction, I just wanted to halt any sort of parochialism in the commentary of this article.
London in the Middle Ages
In this brief text, I wanted to analyse something that incredibly enough, often passes unnoticed: we all know the famous ruins of the famous abbeys and priories of England, Fountains, Whitby and many others - what remains of these old institutions is a great testimony to know what English monasticism was once like. Although, we do not really tend to think of these institutions in a London that went through the Reformation, destroyed by a fire that erased its Medieval past, the Industrial Revolution and which is very well into the 21st century and the future as a place which was once a medium-sized European city, with a smaller population than Florence during the early 15th century and where monastic houses and priories abounded. We will just try to uncover London's past in this post: its monastic history.
Map of London in the 13th century
As in many major European city all the main religious orders were represented in London, long before the Reformation.
- The Benedictines had: the great royal abbey of St. Peter's in Westminster, Barking Abbey for both monks and nuns, Bromley-by-Bow for the nuns, Hardmondsworth Priory, Kilburn priory for nuns, Lewisham priory, established by St. Edward the Confessor, then passed on to the Carthusian order, St. Helen's Bishop's Gate for nuns, Ruislip Priory, Tooting priory.
- The Cluniac monks had: Bermondsey Abbey.
- The Cistercians monks had: Eastminster Abbey, Stratford Langthorne Abbey.
- The Carthusian monks had: Lewisham priory (previously Benedictine), the London charterhouse, St. James' Monkswell Chantry, Sheen priory.
- Augustinians: Aldgate priory, Bentley priory, Clerkenwell priory for nuns, Elsing Spital priory, Haliwell priory for nuns, Kilburn priory for nuns (previously Benedictine), Lesnes Abbey, London Austin, St. Mary's Spital, St. Mary of Bethlehem friary, later for nuns, Merton priory, Richmond Greyfriars (previously Franciscan), St. Bartholomew's priory, Southwark Cathedral priory,
- Franciscans (greyfriars): Aldgate Abbey for nuns, Greenwich Greyfriars, Cornhill Greyfriars, Newgate Greyfriars, Richmond Greyfriars, Stratford friary, Woodford Green friary.
- Dominicans (blackfriars): Greewich Blackfriars, Holborn Blackfriars, Ludgate Blackfriars, Smithfield Blackfriars.
- Carmelite (whitefriars): London Whitefriars, Sheen Whitefriars.
- Trinitarians: Hounslow priory.
- Other orders (Friars of the Sack, Crutched Friars, Pied Friars): London Crutched Friars, Friars of the Sack Aldersgate, Friars of the Sack Lothbury, London Pied Friars, Westminster Pied Friars.
- Bridgetine nuns: Syon Abbey (formerly Twickenham Abbey).
Illustration from a Medieval "Sarum" English missal
- Premonstratensian Canons: Brockley Abbey, moved elsewhere before the Reformation.
- Knights Hospitaller: Clerkenwell Preceptory, Hampton Preceptory (demolished before the Reformation, Hampton Court was built on site), New Temple, formerly for Knights Templar.
Perhaps the saddest part of the Reformation was the destruction of these houses that accumulated beautiful works of art, later destroyed by senseless Calvinistic mentality of the early reformers and the later not-so-pure Puritans and also that with their end, the great charitable work that they carried on stopped and London was deprived of many hospitals.
During the Middle Ages these monastic organisations owned large amounts of property in and around the city of London, both as farming land and actual buildings. The life of friars wasn't much different from elsewhere, as their ministry was and is very much focused in interacting with people. Monks instead, like in most great cities, shared their ascetic life with "secular" missions such as the care for the poor and the sick, leading church services, prayer, studying - their ministry was less "rural" and more apt for the city life.
The Franciscan Friars Observant at Sheen and Greenwich who had been critical of the King's new marriage saw their order closed throughout England, all the friars were imprisoned and died of starvation. Because of the people's protests to abandon their old religion, more and more orders faced their end rather quickly throughout the country. Over 15,000 monks and nuns were ejected from their premises, even more were tortured and sometimes brutally executed, those who submitted to the King were granted a pension by the Crown though.
The first to close in the immediate area around London was Elsing Spital for the Blind at Cripplegate, Henry's supremacy was not very well accepted and three Carthusian monks were hanged, drawn and quartered. The others were forced to sign the Oath of Supremacy. The remaining ones were imprisoned and chained until starvation. The monastery closed and the building was acquired by Lord North.
The larger monasteries began to be closed from 1538, starting with Bermondsey Abbey, followed by Blackfriars, Greyfriars in Newgate Street and Whitefriars at Fleet Street. St. Helens's priory at Bishopsgate, St. Mary's priory at Merton, Austin friars and St. Martin's le Grande and Stratford Langthorne Abbey.
A rather kind rendition of public officials "sequestering" a priory's most valuable treasures
That same year more closures followed: St. Bartholomew's Priory at Smithfield, Holiwell Priory, St. Mary's Spital outside Bishopsgate, St. Clare's Convent at Aldgate, the Crutched Friars at the Minories
outside Bishopsgate; The Convent of St.Clare’s at Aldgate, Crutched Friars, inside the city walls at the Minories; St.Mary Graces near the Tower; Southwark Priory; St.Giles’s hospital; St.Mary’s nunnery at Clerkenwell; Syon Abbey; and Sheen Priory. Barking Abbey, in which William the Conqueror had lived almost five hundred years earlier during the construction of the Tower, was another victim. In 1541 all but its curfew tower was demolished and its stones used for repairs at Greenwich Palace. The Knights of St. John that existed since the Crusades were dissolved in 1540, so was Kilburn priory, its premises were acquired by the King to store his hunting tents, the beautiful tower was blown up by the Earl of Somerset, Protector to Edward VI, to provide materials for his Somerset House. Westminster Abbey, was dissolved gradually, its land and possessions were given to the King, some of its remaining lands were transferred to St.Paul’s Cathedral, hence the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. In 1540 the abbot and the remaining twenty four monks agreed surrendered and the authorities took everything of value. St. Katherine's outside the city, near the Tower, had always been under the patronage of the Queen's consort, Catherine continued to be the priory's patron, it was never dissolved and it still exists today.
Westminster Abbey during the Middle Ages
King Henry was able to acquire many properties through the seizing of all these religious properties, in a way or another this also made England itself richer, gaining directly or indirectly from land and property that was auctioned, with proceeds going to the royal purse or the Exchequer. while these actions must be blamed in terms of destroying art and hospitals, it is also true that England needed to centralise its power by giving a firm message to Rome, in the end the French got very close to it too, had not the Pope annulled that King's marriage, but then France was closer and scarier. More or less like in the rest of England, the rich and powerful gained hugely by this buying former Church's property: Sir Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Rolls, gained Blackfriars monastery; and the Lord Treasurer, Sir William Paulet acquired Austin Friars monastery. Bermondsey Abbey came into the ownership of Sir Thomas Pope, Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations. Thomas Audley, one of the King’s most loyal ministers, acquired the Augustinian priory of Holy Trinity at Aldgate, which he partly redeveloped into a row of houses. Other properties simply stood still and fell into ruin. Others were acquired as parish churches or hospitals: such as those for lepers at St.Giles and St.James’s, closed for ever while others such as St.Bartholomew’s and St.Thomas’s continue as secular institutions to this day. St.Mary of Bethlehem near Bishopsgate was by the 16th century primarily a secular hospital for the insane – ‘Bedlam’ – and was therefore never dissolved. The monasteries right outside of the City, such as Whitefriars Priory, south of Fleet streets became liberties, even after the religious orders were banned, up until the 19th century, they were heavens for tax-debtors, prostitutes, refugees, even Catholics or Quakers - Holiwell was where Shakespeare's first plays were performed!
Reproduction of the lost Lady Chapel at Syon Abbey
The price of land fell with so much of it coming on to the market so suddenly. During the 1560s a contemporary historian recorded that: “Fair houses in London are plenteous, and very easy to be had at low and small rents, and by reason of the late dissolution of religious houses many houses in London stood vacant…”. What remained of the last traces of the Medieval religious churches and houses was destroyed by the in-famous fire of London in 1666.
Oriel window at St. Bartholomew's the Great
Some ruins of the lost abbeys and priories still remain, such as Bermondsey Abbey, though these are not located in the central areas of London. If we want to have an idea of what these abbeys looked like there are, there are indeed the several churches and cathedrals scattered in the country, most of them being former abbeys or priories, but in London itself we can find two great examples: Westminster Abbey, an old Benedictine foundation with its cloister and chapter house where monks could meditate and meet for capitular meetings and St. Bartholomew's the Great, an Augustinian one, with what we consider a traditionally "Anglican" choir but it is in fact a reproduction of the one that was there hundreds of years ago, where the friars would reunite to sing the daily office, an oriel window for the prior still is in place, it was supposedly built so that he could see what the friars were doing in church! Two great buildings one in the Gothic, the other in the Romanesque style that silently tell us how much of Anglicanism, from the Prayer Book to the position of the choir stalls in any church, and even English culture are founded and inspired by these old orders.
The cloisters at Westminster Abbey