Tag Archives: Blackfriars London

Whitefriars; Greyfriars; Blackfriars, London, England

Whitefriars Crypt

Buried for centuries, this hidden cellar is all that remains of London’s medieval Whitefriars Monastery.

THE REMAINS OF THE 13TH-CENTURY Whitefriars Monastery are situated very close to a busy central London street, and yet so remarkably well hidden that you’d have to be aware of their existence in order to find them.

The first step is to find Magpie Alley, which is tucked away behind an imposing law firm on Fleet Street. At the end of the alley, there is a large flight of steps behind a heavy gate. Though this might suggest to some that the steps are off-limits, if you continue downwards you’ll find a glass wall, behind which is the crumbling Whitefriars Crypt, lit inside by an electric candle.

The Carmelite Order of the White Friars (named for their white cloaks) once owned a large stretch of land between Fleet Street and the river Thames. Like so many other orders in England, though, they did not survive Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, and were forced from their estate. The Great Hall of the Whitefriars Monastery became a theatre for child actors, while the crypt suffered a more ignominious fate, becoming a coal cellar.

Eventually buried underneath a couple of centuries of redevelopment, the crypt was unearthed in 1895 and restored in 1920. However, its present location is not the original. The crypt spent years underneath the offices of The News of the World, and when the journalists left the building was demolished and the crypt was at risk of being buried once more. To preserve it, a concrete platform was placed underneath the crypt, allowing it to be picked up and moved to its current site, where it was incorporated into the new building.

The remains of London’s white friars

It beggars modern belief just how much London – well, pretty much everywhere in Europe, I guess – was once dominated by the Church. Did you know there were more than one hundred parish churches within or just outside the boundaries of medieval London? No, neither did I; staggering, isn’t it?  Plus the great religious houses, of course. Many of these places have left their names and other memories behind, one way or another.  An obvious example is Blackfriars, on the western fringe of the City of London, named for the Dominican order that once had its London monastery on the east bank of the River Fleet.  On the opposite bank of the Fleet, nestling between it and the Headquarters of the Knights Templar, was the London home of the Carmelite White Friars.  Today, Whitefriars Street runs south from Fleet Street, becoming Carmelite Street just before it meets the Thames at Victoria Embankment. And you can find the only visible remains of London’s White Friars in the basement of an ugly, modern, office block nearby.  How it got there is part of this neighbourhood’s long and varied history.

The story begins, as they so often do, long ago and far away.  In or around the year 1150, at the time of the Crusades, a small group of Christian hermits (presumably, ex-hermits) came together to found a new religious order on Mount Carmel in Palestine – now in Israel.  The Carmelite order grew, and began to spread to Europe, before being forced to flee the Holy Land altogether when Acre fell to the Mamluk Army in 1291. A small group of Carmelites reached England in 1242.  Eventually some 40 Carmelite communities were established across Britain, where, because on formal occasions they wore white mantels over their brown habits, they became known as the White Friars.

White Friars, medieval Carmelite, London

The White Friars first built a small chapel in London in about 1253. It was just outside the western City boundary, south of Fleet Street, and was replaced with a larger building a century later. In time, the Carmelite priory expanded to occupy the land bounded by Fleet Street in the north and the Thames to the south, with Whitefriars Street (which used to be called Water Lane) and Temple Lane to the east and west. It’s almost impossible to imagine what today’s modern built-up area looked like in the 13th century, when the White Friars first arrived; presumably, it was semi-rural, and they were the first to seriously develop it – though it’s possible the Romans had something nearby. Old and New London (published in 1878 and quoted by British History Online) describes Whitefriars, somewhat idyllically, “with broad gardens, where the white friars might stroll, and with shady nooks where they might con their missals”.

You catch tantalising glimpses of Whitefriars in medieval London.  For example, John Brome, wealthy lawyer and one-time owner of Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, was murdered in the church porch in 1468.  Modern Bouverie Street runs through where this large priory church once stood. West and north of this, bounded by Lombard Lane – reputedly a dwelling place of lewd women at the time of Edward III – was the friars’ cemetery. South of the church were the cloisters, chapter house, dormitories – and so on. There was an impressive library, an infirmary, a small dock area and, almost certainly, a mill too. Life might have gone on at Whitefriars for another 300 years, had it not been for Henry VIII.

White Friars crypt

In 1538, Whitefriars Friary was dissolved on the orders of the King. Who knows what happened to the friars? The lands were parcelled off, with a big chunk going to the Royal Physician, Sir William Butts (or Butte), who had treated Anne Boleyn for the sweating sickness. However, Butts died in 1547 and, for some reason, the friary area seems to have quickly fallen into disrepair and become used for cheap accommodation. It is said that the great steeple of the church had been toppled just seven years after the dissolution. In the absence of the White Friars, no one was really sure who was responsible for the area of their old friary. The new inhabitants rightly and successfully claimed it to be outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and maintained the right of legal sanctuary previously held by the Friary.

So, White Friars, largely ungoverned and ungovernable, transformed into a sad, hard area, notorious for criminals, and the criminalised.  In the cant, or underworld jargon, of the time it became known as Alsatia, from Alsace, the disputed Rhineland territory between France and Germany which Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes as “everlastingly the seat of war and the refuge of the disaffected.” Alsatia must have seemed an appropriate nickname – and a pretty awful place.

Areas like this, called Liberties, not subject to the tight control of the City of London, were magnets for actors and all manner of ne’er do wells – Southwark, across London Bridge, was just such a place.  Thus White Friars also became a place for the theatre.  In 1608, the friars’ old hall was converted to a playhouse, the Whitefriars Theatre, for boy players, where plays were staged until 1613. Nearby, from 1629 to 1649, was the Salisbury Court Theatre, built close to the former London residence of the Bishops of Salisbury.  The theatre was closed during the Republic, but re-opened following the Restoration.  A frequent visitor at that time was the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who seems to have sometimes also referred to it as ‘White Friars’.

“1661.—To White-fryars, and saw The Bondman acted; an excellent play, and well done; but above all that I ever saw, Betterton do the Bondman the best.”

Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) was a leading actor of the day.

In the 1670s, John Banister, a former violinist at the court of Charles II, held what are believed to have been some of the first public concerts in Europe at his house in White Friars, charging a shilling entrance fee (which seems a bit steep to me).

White Friars crypt was moved as part of an office redevelopment

Meanwhile, White Friars continued to enjoy – if that’s the right word – its reputation as Alsatia.  In 1688, the poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell published a satirical play, The Squire of Alsatia.  White Friars also featured in the novel Fortunes of Nigel by Sir Walter Scott, set in the first quarter of the 17th century.  Although obviously written much later (it was published in 1822), Scott evidently knew the lawless reputation of the place.  In 1697, some attempt was made by the authorities to control what they saw as the worst excesses of White Friars, but it seems to have continued being a desperate, anarchic, kind of place where those struggling to survive were condemned to a mean, squalid, existence. Not far away was Bridewell Prison – previously Bridewell Palace. Dickens mentions Whitefriars several times, including the intriguingly named Hanging Sword Alley, which still runs between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Square today. It is thought to be named after a fencing school that once stood there – well-placed, given the likely need to defend yourself when venturing into Alsatia; it was previously known as Blood Bowl Alley – apparently Blood Bowl House was a place of ill-repute and features in a Hogarth engraving, where Tom Idle is betrayed by his whore. Why ‘Blood Bowl’, I wonder? – perhaps it used to belong to a physician.

Among the other heirs to the White Friars was a gas works, once a common sight in Britain’s cities, which presumably needed a large area to store coal, and a well-known glass-maker.  Whitefriars Glass had 17th century roots, but became a leading manufacturer of church glass in the 19th century, later diversifying into domestic and decorative ware, and then specialist glass products for industry.  Whitefriars Glass moved to a new factory in the 1920s and was bought by Caithness Glass in 1981.

Meanwhile, Whitefriars became caught up in the newspaper business. The Fleet Street area had an association with printing and publishing since the early 16th century. England’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was established next to the open sewer of the River Fleet in 1702. In the 20th century, the area became synonymous with Britain’s national newspapers, most of which had offices on Fleet Street itself, or nearby. Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, (Britain’s first popular daily newspaper, launched in 1896) and the London Evening News, had offices and printing works on Whitefriars Street and Carmelite Street. The News of the World and the Sun were based at 30 Bouverie Street. In 1986, Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, began the general evacuation of the newspaper industry from Fleet Street by relocating his London operation to more efficient facilities at Wapping, in the East End.

Among the other heirs to the White Friars was a gas works, once a common sight in Britain’s cities, which presumably needed a large area to store coal, and a well-known glass-maker.  Whitefriars Glass had 17th century roots, but became a leading manufacturer of church glass in the 19th century, later diversifying into domestic and decorative ware, and then specialist glass products for industry.  Whitefriars Glass moved to a new factory in the 1920s and was bought by Caithness Glass in 1981.

Meanwhile, Whitefriars became caught up in the newspaper business.  The Fleet Street area had an association with printing and publishing since the early 16th century. England’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was established next to the open sewer of the River Fleet in 1702.  In the 20th century, the area became synonymous with Britain’s national newspapers, most of which had offices on Fleet Street itself, or nearby.  Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, (Britain’s first popular daily newspaper, launched in 1896) and the London Evening News, had offices and printing works on Whitefriars Street and Carmelite Street. The News of the World and the Sun were based at 30 Bouverie Street. In 1986, Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, began the general evacuation of the newspaper industry from Fleet Street by relocating his London operation to more efficient facilities at Wapping, in the East End.

White Friars crypt in Magpie Alley

But what about the remains of the White Friars? Well, in 1896, the then owner of 4 Britton’s Court off Whitefriars Street was having his premises inspected prior to selling them. The agent’s representative noticed a Gothic vaulted ceiling in the basement. Accumulated rubbish, including the remains of coal that had been stored there, was cleared away to reveal part of a late 14th century crypt. The experts concluded that this was a section of cellar from the Prior’s house. The top of the ceiling was a couple of feet below ground level, the room was 12 feet square and with a small doorway, which it is thought once led into the friary grounds. A few years later, the site was purchased by the News of the World, whose owners decided to restore the crypt in the 1920s. They would also allow members of the public to see it, by prior arrangement. In the redevelopment that followed the departure of News International in the 1980s, however, it was decided that this last visible reminder of the White Friars was in an inconvenient place. So it was surrounded by a steel cradle and lifted to a completely new position.

You will now find the last of White Friars Priory exhibited behind glass under an enormous modern office block, leased until 2021 to a law firm with the snappy name of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Find Magpie Alley, which runs between Bouverie Street and Whitefriars Street. It is not on every map. From the Bouverie Street side, there is a tiled display giving a brief insight into Fleet Street’s publishing history. You’ll see a flight of steps going down ahead – this is Ashentree Court – and at the bottom of the steps you will find all that’s left of London’s White Friars. According to the plan displayed in the window, it’s just about where the friars’ reredorter (latrine) would have been.

White friars, Magpie Alley, EC4

It is not possible to go in, but access might be possible via Open House London – or possibly even by contacting Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Tell them you’d like to walk in the footsteps of the White Friars…

GREYFRIARS

In the early thirteenth century, Elias, Vicar-General during the lifetime of St. Francis of Assisi, dispatched nine Brothers to England. Four from nine of the Franciscan friars— Richard Ingworth, Richard of Devon, Henry de Trevizo, and Monacatus— made their way from Dover to London. Upon their arrival to the City, they had initially rented a house in Cornhill owned by John Travers, sheriff of London. Others steadily began joining the original four. Eventually, the Franciscans of Cornhill had to find new living quarters, as their numbers had grown too large for their small house. In the summer of 1225, the Franciscans settled in the parish of St. Nicholas in the Shambles. The new site, also known as the Greyfriars Christ Church, was close to Newgate in the ward of Farringdon Within, situated by the City wall, and located on land granted by John Iwyn, a citizen and wealthy mercer of London.

The friary seems to have enjoyed good relations with Londoners. During its early days, the monastery received many donations and anniversary payments from London’s wealthy citizenry. Construction of the church at Newgate cost a total of £200 and was built from funds mainly provided by William Joyner, the Lord Mayor in 1239. Forty-four prominent London citizens also contributed to the construction of the chapel, including Walter Potter, an alderman and sheriff in London in 1269 and 1272, who built the chapel’s chapter-house and donated all the brass furnishings for its kitchen; Henry le Gayles, mayor of the City in 1274, who contributed funds for the nave of the first church; and the Basings and Frowyks, two prominent London families, who supplied the funds for the church’s water supply.

Benefactors of the fourteenth century included nobility as well as the civic elite. When the church was rebuilt on a much larger scale, a century after the arrival of the first Franciscans, Queen Margaret bought the extended plots of land necessary for expansion and gave 100 marks to the construction of the new building. Other nobles who assisted in the building of the new church included John de Bretagne, the earl of Richmond, who donated £300, a gold chalice, and several carpets; Gilbert de Clare, the earl of Gloucester, who donated several wooden beams; Mary, countess of Pembroke, who donated £70; and Margaret, countess of Gloucester, who donated £26 to the building of the altar. The new stone church, which was consecrated in 1326 and completed in 1327, consisted of a minimum of eleven altars, glazed windows, and two chapels, one for St. Mary and the All Hallows and the other for St. Francis and the Apostles. Measuring 300 feet (91 meters) in length and 89 feet (27 meters) in width, it was the second largest in London after St. Paul’s.

From the time of the establishment of the Franciscan Order in England, in the thirteenth century, the friars were welcomed with generosity, especially in London. Testament to the Grey Friars’ growing popularity is the large number of London Franciscans that continued to join the order, reaching a peak of about ninety in the early fourteenth century. In fact, the building was enlarged even further in 1360 to accommodate the growing number of friars. There are several reasons for their popularity. The growing unpopularity of the Benedictines was one major reason, for the Benedictines were often seen as too wealthy, overly preoccupied with their luxurious surroundings, and disconnected from their religious duties. The friars’ observance to both personal and institutional poverty also seemed to impress a large portion of Londoners.

The influence of the Grey Friars continued to grow in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Several prominent citizens chose the Greyfriars Christ Church as their place of burial, including Queen Marguerita of France, the second wife of King Edward I, Queen Isabella, wife of King Edward II, Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III, and Queen Joan de la Tour of Scotland, daughter of King Edward II. It was essentially this association with the rich and powerful that became the downfall of the Grey Friars. For the majority of the fifteenth century, the Franciscans seemed to prioritize good relations with the nobility over their spiritual duties. They had even abandoned their grey-colored habits, only to return to them in 1502. Nevertheless, the friars had not yet lost all their credibility in London. In 1508, for example, the Mayor and Aldermen established that patrons of the Greyfriars Church were to pay yearly visits to the site on the Feast of St. Francis. In 1522, the friars began hosting yearly dinners for the high-ranking officials of the City.

The London Franciscans did not seem to face much trouble in the early years of the Reformation period. In the 1520s and 1530s, the officers of the Greyfriars Church largely supported the religious changes and aligned themselves with Crown policy and reform. In 1538, however, the monastery was quickly dissolved by Thomas Chapman, an agent of Thomas Cromwell. On November 12 of that year, all twenty-six members of the order signed Chapman’s Deed of Surrender, declaring that their grey habits and other rituals did not constitute “Christian living.” It is probable that the brothers signed the Surrender unwillingly. The dissolution of the monasteries had a massive impact on friaries and churches of this period, and the Greyfriars Christ Church in particular suffered heavy damage. Tombs disappeared, monuments were defaced, marble columns were sold, and golden altarpieces were stolen. The brothers were also forced to flee from the country.

In 1546, sections of the friary church were sold off to investors when the Crown granted that the building serve as the center of a new parish. Another section of the former friary was given over to the City of London to serve as a new secular orphanage and school (Christ’s Hospital) in 1552. After it was burned in the Great Fire of 1666, the church suffered major damage once again during the Blitz in World War II when, on 29 December 1940, a firebomb struck through the roof and into the nave of the church. Only the tower and four main walls remained, smoke-scarred and unstable. The church was never rebuilt even after sustaining a great amount of wartime damage. Today, rose garden beds sit alongside ten wooden towers where the original medieval pews once stood. The avenue of wooden towers, representative of the original thirteenth-century church towers, marks the locations of the former nave.

Fortean London: The Greyfriars Ghost Fight?

Fortean London is strolling through July in knee-length khaki shorts and a pith-helmet to point out some open spaces in the city haunted by spooky stories. Think of it as your guide to eating sandwiches with spectres or picnicking with phantoms.
Come with us first to Christchurch Tower on Newgate Street near St Paul’s Cathedral, which is the tower of a Wren church destroyed in the Blitz. The site of the church and graveyard was left as a garden after the war though some walls still remain. It often goes by the name of the friary that previously occupied the site: Greyfriars.
The Franciscan order of grey robed monks had a lot of influence before the dissolution of the monasteries and it’s this part of its history that lingers. Gentleman ghost writer Peter Underwood records, in his book ‘ Haunted London’, that a russet-robed monk haunted here, walking barefoot in the “early hours of misty autumn mornings”. The Franciscan’s wore russet-red robes on arrival in England before reverting to their traditional grey garb.
He is the only peaceful ghost here. Elizabeth Barton, the ‘holy maid of Kent’ was a nun who had started having prophetic visions in 1525. Her prophecy and enthusiastic Catholicism made her popular until she made the mistake of predicting the death of Henry VIII after he broke with Rome. Henry lived and Elizabeth was hanged at Tyburn for treason and buried at Greyfriars. Her ghost roams “wild and restless” around the remains of the graveyard.

The garden of Christ Church Greyfriars is a popular lunch spot. Many other churchyards are set to become public spaces
ALAMY

Pre-Henry VIII Greyfriars was a popular place for monarchs to rest, some with alleged sex lives more varied and hectic than Henry’s. Isabella of France is buried here holding the heart of her king, Edward II. She couldn’t get hold of much else of him as he was, apparently, an enthusiastic bisexual philander. Isabella, with her lover Roger Mortimer, staged a coup and the legend (or ‘old, old conspiracy theory’ as some legends are) tells of Isabella having Edward murdered by ordering a red hot poker to be shoved up one of the many places a red hot poker shouldn’t go, burning his “inner portions beyond the intestines”.
Homophobic hate-crime or act of passion? Her ghost haunts Greyfriars so perhaps you could ask her yourself. Richard Jones’s ‘Walking Haunted London’ reports that she clutches Edward’s ghost heart as she “flits amongst the trees and bushes”.
The ghost of Lady Alice (or Agnes) Hungerford also haunts Greyfriars. She only poisoned her husband before being hanged in 1523 and deposited in to Greyfriars graveyard. A watchman recognised her ghost one summer evening from her dignity and beauty but also her arrogant attitude. He was so scared he fled and gave up his job. “He had seen enough of the ghosts,” Underwood writes, “and he saw only one.”
But in ‘Walking Haunted London’ and JA Brook’s ‘Ghosts of London’ Alice and Isabella’s haughty, husband-slaughtering ghosts met within Greyfriars and a night watchman got ‘caught in the midst’ of their fight. He, according to Jones, fled and gave up his job ‘without pay’. Whether he the same apocryphal watchman that Underwood mentions or Greyfriars is not the place to loiter at night, Fortean London does not know as present. We merely recommend Greyfriars as a fine place to have lunch but maybe not a midnight snack.

Greyfriars

Undated photograph showing the interior of the church before its destruction in 1940 (image from
Undated photograph showing the interior of the church before its destruction in 1940 (image from The Citizens’ Memorial)

Christ Church was one of eight Wren churches that burned on one of the most ferocious nights of the Blitz, 29th December 1940.  Known as the “Second Great Fire of London”, large swathes of the City were destroyed by the Luftwaffe’s bombs – a larger area, in fact, than had been destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.  As well as Christ Church Greyfriars and other churches, the medieval Great Hall of the Guildhall was gutted, and many of the City’s historic livery halls were also destroyed.  The publishing hub of Paternoster Row was obliterated, with the loss of millions of books. Famously, though, St Paul’s Cathedral was saved by the brave efforts of firefighters and provided the iconic photograph of St Pauls surrounded by smoke and ruins.

Firefighters in the smouldering ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars (image from The Citizens' Memorial)
Firefighters in the smouldering ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars (image from The Citizens’ Memorial)

Only one item is known to have been saved from Christ Church Greyfriars – an ornate wooden font cover which was bravely rescued by an unknown person as the church burned.  The font cover now resides at the nearby St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.  It is a beautiful thing – dating from the late 17th Century, the high quality carvings have stood the test of time well.

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The firebombing of Christ Church left the building a blackened, empty shell – but the walls and tower were still standing.  In order to restore its structural integrity, the tower was carefully rebuilt and the whole ruin was designated as a Grade I listed building in 1950.  However, this did not prevent the removal of the east wall of the church when King Edward Street was widened in the 1970s.  A low concrete barrier now marks where that wall once stood, but that part of Wren’s building is now lost.

A garden was laid out in the ruined nave of the church, with wooden frames for climbing roses installed where columns had once stood in the building.  The 18th Century vestry house, which perished in the 1940 fire, has been rebuilt and how houses a dental surgery. The tower was eventually converted into a private residence – surely one of London’s most unusual homes.

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So what does the future hold for Christ Church Greyfriars?  Whilst researching this post, I came across a campaign to reinstate the demolished east wall of the church and turn it into a memorial for Britain’s civilian victims of World War II.  As one of the few tangible reminders of the war’s destruction still visible in London, Christ Church seems like an ideal site for such a memorial and its proximity to St Paul’s would surely guarantee it a good number of visitors.

Proposed view of the restored eastern wall of Christ Church (image from the Citizens' Memorial)
Proposed view of the restored eastern wall of Christ Church (image from the Citizens’ Memorial)

Today, the garden at Christ Church Greyfriars is a popular spot for tourists and office workers alike to sit on pleasant days and enjoy lunch.  The initial mystery of the ruin is what must often draw people to the site; the attractive planting and the benches make it a place to stay and enjoy.  For me, along with the nearby Postman’s Park it was something of a haven during my first year living in London, when I often sought out peaceful spots amid the madness of the City.

Blackfriars

A historic religious and theatrical site located at the eastern end of Victoria Embankment, now dominated by a railway terminus and gyratory traffic system

The Black Friars (or Dominicans) were so called because they wore long black mantles over their white robes. In 1224 the friars established a priory on the east side of Shoe Lane and then moved across the River Fleet to what is now the east side of New Bridge Street in 1278. The Dominican order founded more than 50 priories but this was probably the most important and it was a venue for early parliamentary conclaves.

The order in England was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. Unlike some other religious buildings, the priory did not survive to serve a different purpose. It had been reduced to a pile of rubble when the actor James Burbage acquired much of the site to build the Blackfriars Theatre in 1596. William Shakespeare was involved in the enterprise and in March 1613 he paid £140 for a property nearby, in what is now Ireland Yard. The building was the former priory gatehouse, to which he made improvements, according to a legal document of 1615. However, by that date he seems to have been spending much of his time back in Stratford, where he died the following year.

The Blackfriars Theatre closed in the Civil War and was demolished in 1655. Playhouse Yard marks its site.

Blackfriars Bridge was built in 1769, using funds generated from rents on the houses and shops of London Bridge. Structural problems caused by water scouring necessitated its replacement exactly a century later.

In 1864 the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company opened Blackfriars station on Ludgate Hill. The station moved to its present site by the river in 1886. Subsequent extensions and alterations progressively compounded its status as the ugliest railway terminus in London until its renovation in 2009-12, which introduced mainline platforms that stretch the full width of the Thames, an imposing, glass-fronted ticket hall at the corner of Queen Victoria Street and New Bridge Street and an additional entrance on the south side of the river.

Shwon in the photograph at the top of this article, Unilever House was built in 1930–2 on the site of DeKeyser’s Royal Hotel (1874), which had been taken over by Lever Brothers in 1921. Unilever is continuing to use the building as its British base although the company decided in March 2018 to simplify its structure into a single legal entity incorporated in the Netherlands and headquartered in Rotterdam.

Inside the Blackfriar

Across Queen Victoria Street from the station, the Blackfriar (or Black Friar) is the finest Arts and Crafts pub in London. It began its existence in 1875 as a fairly ordinary establishment, distinguished only by its wedge shape, but was remodelled in several stages during the early years of the 20th century by the architect Herbert Fuller-Clark and a group of artist-craftsmen, of whom the most significant was the sculptor Henry Poole.

There are delightful decorative touches outside the pub but it’s the interior that truly astounds, with monkish motifs, mosaics and copper reliefs abounding amidst the mirrors and multi-coloured marble.

East of Blackfriars station a bombed-out warehouse was converted into the Mermaid Theatre in the late 1950s but has primarily been used as a conference and events venue in recent years.

South of the river, One Blackfriars (detail shown above) is a 50-storey mixed-use development also known as the Vase. Its shape was apparently inspired by the (much more bulbous) Lansetti II vase created by Timo Sarpaneva, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as by the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși and Henry Moore. The site was formerly occupied by the headquarters of Sainsbury’s, which relocated to Holborn Circus in 2000. 

Early on 18 June 1982 the body of Italian financier Roberto Calvi was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets stuffed with bricks and stones. Calvi, dubbed ‘God’s banker’ because of his ties to the Vatican’s bank, IOR, had been seeking help for his failing Banco Ambrosiano after escaping house arrest in Rome. Italian prosecutors charged five individuals with Calvi’s murder in 2005. All were subsequently acquitted.

Blackfriars, located in the southwest corner of central London, originated as a Dominican friary founded in the year 1278. The name Blackfriars comes from the color of the robes that the Dominicans wore.

When the Dominicans arrived in England in 1221, they established their first London monastery outside of the city walls in Holborn. However, in the year 1276, the Dominicans obtained land inside of the city walls and moved the location of their friary with the approval and patronage of Edward I. The Dominicans moved their friary to an area between the River Thames and Ludgate Hill, just bordering the River Fleet.

In order for the Dominicans to build their new establishment, several changes had to be made to the surrounding area. For one, Edward I had to approve the leveling of the Montfichet and Baynard Castles, as well as the demolishing and rebuilding of the city wall further west. According to Nick Holder, the movement and expansion of the friary required the purchase of several buildings from the neighboring parish of St. Andrew. The plot that the Dominican friary maintained consisted of roughly eight acres.

Holder has described Blackfriars as being “built in a typical medieval way.” The original friary was built on a deeply entrenched foundation, which consisted of mortar, ragstone, and chalk. The walls of the church were built of ragstone blocks, and had a width of approximately three feet, with Reigate stone for quoins, the external angles of a wall or building, and other architectural details.

The measurements of the church were 19.7 meters in width, and the floor plan consisted of seven to eight bays which were each about 15 feet wide. Other structures at Blackfriars included five chapels, which were built between the years 1436 and 1502. These chapels included a Lady chapel, a chapel of the Virgin, a Pardon chapel, a chapel of St. John the Baptist, and the chapel of St. Ann. Lastly, the grounds also included a central tower located over the nave and the choir.

During the time of the original friary, the grounds were used for several important government occasions, such as meetings of Parliament. One major historical event hosted by the Black Friars was the divorce hearing between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1529. In the year 1538, Henry VIII dissolved the friary, and the grounds and buildings were sold off. One notable buyer was James Burbage in 1596, who purchased the grounds for the creation of the Blackfriars theatre. Blackfriars burnt down in 1666, during the Great Fire of London. The building, however, was reconstructed, and still maintained today. Now, tourists can see the reconstructed version of the friary, as marked by a plaque outside of the location. Along with the reconstructed version of the friary, a piece of wall that may have been a part of the original construction can be seen on the grounds, maintaining a small part of the original history of the building.

– Sarah Burns

Blackfriars Map
This image displays a labeled map of the Ludgate Blackfriars, along with several other surrounding establishments
Blackfriars Layout
A layout of the original Ludgate Blackfriars, before the dissolution in 1538.

Reference