The street of Austin Friars, off Old Broad Street, takes its name from the Augustinian Priory that once stood nearby. The priory was originally built by Humphrey de Bohun, Constable of England, in around 1253, the priory church incorporating the existing parish church of St Peter-le-Poer as a private chapel; and it was extended in 1354. The priory was attacked during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when 13 Flemings were dragged from its sanctuary and beheaded. Many of the barons killed at the Battle of Barnet in the Wars of the Roses in 1471 were buried here. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch priest, theologian and philosopher, the so-called “Prince of the Humanists”, lodged here in 1513, complained about the quality of the wine on offer, and left without settling his bill! Miles Coverdale worked on his translation of the Bible here in 1529. And Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, banker and soldier, and sometime statesman, Vicar-General and Vice-Gerent in Spirituals to Henry VIII, lived here from the 1520s until his execution for treason and heresy in 1540.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, most of the priory precinct came into the possession of Sir William Paulet, the First Marquess of Winchester, who built himself a substantial town-house there, which survived the Great Fire of 1666, but was demolished in 1839. (Cromwell’s house came into the possession of the Drapers’ Company in 1543, but was burned down in the Great Fire of 1666).
In 1550, under Edward VI, part of the priory church was given over to the local Dutch Protestant community to serve as their church, “notwithstanding that they do not conform with the rites and ceremonies used in our Kingdom”; and the remaining part reverted to being the parish church of St Peter-le-Poer. The Dutch Church survived the Great Fire of 1666, but was destroyed in another fire in 1862, rebuilt in 1863, destroyed again in an air raid in 1940, and rebuilt again in 1950-56.
St Peter-le-Poer was also essentially undamaged in the Great Fire of 1666, although ash from the fire settled on an open prayer book in the church, and obscured the text. However, it later fell into disrepair, and had to be repaired in 1716 and rebuilt, by Jesse Gibson, in 1788-92, only to be demolished in 1907-08, when the parish was merged with St Michael Cornhill. Nothing now remains of the church at its former site, although the salvaged pulpit and font still survive, in St Peter-le-Poer in Friern Barnet.
On a related note, Thomas Cromwell’s house in Austin Friars is the setting for a number of scenes in the historical novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel. The books have been adapted – by Mike Poulton – into stage plays: utterly compelling pieces of narrative story-telling, clearing some of the sometimes confusing “scribble of mist” of the books, while retaining much of their evocative atmosphere. They have now also been adapted – by Peter Straughan – for television, with Mark Rylance playing Thomas Cromwell.
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of our web-site.