The History and Psychogeography of Blackfriars

Psychogeography was defined by its founder, the Frenchman Guy Debord, as “the study of the … effects of the geographical environment … on the emotions … of individuals”.

It can also be taken to be an exploration, often literally, on foot, of what it is about a place that evokes a sense of place.

In Blackfriars, that is history: inescapable; and inextricable from that of London as a whole.  History, or, as Peter Ackroyd put it, “chronological resonance”, or “time … moved or swayed by some unknown source of power”.

For it is here that London may be said to have begun, nearly two thousand years, or a hundred generations, ago.  Here, at the lowest point on the Thames at which it was fordable and bridgeable.  Here, on the comparatively high, dry and defensible ground around Ludgate Hill (and, a little to the east, Cornhill).  Here,  where the Romans  founded Londinium, on  the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, with easy access to the sea, and the overseas dominions, and yet at the same time close to the hinterland and heart of England.

1 - Barge.jpg

Here, on the “lost” Thames tributary of the Fleet, where all those centuries ago a Roman barge sank with its fifty-ton cargo of Kentish building stone still aboard.  Here is why London is where it is.

2 - Royal Wardrobe.JPG

Blackfriars first came to be fully developed  in the Medieval period, when the first and later second Baynard’s Castles, and, in between, the  King’s Wardrobe,  were built here …

3 - Poulaine

… and when a fashion victim lost his winkle-picker shoe, or “poulaine”, here (that can now be seen in the Museum of London).   The first Baynard’s Castle was demolished after its Constable was found to have been complicit in a baronial conspiracy against King John in the early thirteenth century …

4  - Plaque.JPG

… and the land was given over to allow construction in 1278  of the Blackfriars Priory, one of the largest and most important monastic houses in the country.   In 1322,  a  large number – possibly  hundreds – of needy poor people were reportedly crushed to death in a rush to beg alms  at the priory gates.

5 - Provincial's lodgings.JPG

Remarkably, given its later history, precious fragments of the stonework fabric of the priory still survive, and can still be seen and touched.

6 - Legatine Court.jpg

Nothing remains, though, at least above  modern ground level, of the Parliament Hall, where, in 1529,  Henry VIII appeared before the Legatine Court to petition for the  annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so as to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn.   The ultimate failure of the negotiations was to have far-reaching consequences for the church, and indeed for the entire country, of England, not the least of which was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, including that of the Blackfriars, which took place in 1538.

7 - Dissolution document.JPG

After the dissolution of the Blackfriars, at the beginning of what we now consider to be the post-Medieval period, its properties and lands were made use of as the King saw fit.

8 - Church Entry.jpg

The priory church came to be owned by his Master of the Revels, Thomas Cawarden, and part of it used as his Office.

9 - Playhouse Yard.JPG

A little later, in 1576, the Great Hall came to be adapted for use as the first Blackfriars Theatre; and, in 1600, the Parliament Hall, the scene of the aforementioned earlier real-life high drama, the second Blackfriars Theatre.  The second Theatre came to be owned by Shakespeare’s company, by then known as the “King’s Men”, in 1609, after the incumbent troupe of child-actors gave grave offence to the King, James I, during one of the performances they put on there in 1608.    Shakespeare evidently wrote some of his later plays, including “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, specifically for performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”, incorporating noticeably lengthier musical interludes, presumably designed to  keep the audience amused while the wicks on the lighting-candles were   trimmed midway through the performance.

10 - Gate-House.JPG

In 1613, according to the surviving Deed of Conveyance,  he bought for then princely sum of £140 a  “dwelling house or Tenement … within the Precinct, circuit and compasse of the late black Fryers London … ; part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate …”, presumably as an investment.

Essentially the entirety of Blackfriars, and indeed the greater part  of the City of London, was then burned down during the Great Fire of 1666 (the theatre by then already  having been closed down during the Civil War of 1642-51).

11 - Vestry Hall.JPG

The friendless church  of St Ann was never rebuilt, and the parish was united with that of St Andrew.

12 - Blitz

Most of what was rebuilt was burned down again during the Blitz of the Second World War, much of it during the so-called “Second Great Fire of London” on the night of 29th/30th December, 1940.

To walk in Blackfriars is to walk in history.  More than anything, it is to walk  in the footsteps of Medieval monks and lay persons; and   to inhabit, however briefly,  their spiritual as well as their physical world.

Blackfriars is visited on various of our walks, including the “Medieval London”, and “Medieval City Highlights”  themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Guided Walks” section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (lostcityoflondon@sky.com).

4 thoughts on “The History and Psychogeography of Blackfriars

  1. toutparmoi

    This is a great post, Bob, and I’ve made a mental note to to send its link to a blogger friend who used to work near the site of the monastery but didn’t, at the time, think to look for its remains.

    I hope I do better with this mental note than with an earlier one I made in 2016 when a friend and I were doing your Legal London walk. We were chatting about the 2nd Earl of Essex and I mentioned I was beginning to think he’d had an unfair press, particularly with regard to his rebellion. I mentioned I’d email you a couple of references, and never did! So I’ll get onto it right now.

    Reply

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