Tag Archives: Austin Friars

The execution of Thomas Cromwell (1540)

Thomas Cromwell, as portrayed by Holbein in c1533.jpg

On this day in 1540, Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell was beheaded at Tower Hill on trumped-up charges of treason and heresy, having earlier been attainted, or  in other words essentially found guilty without trial.  He had finally fallen out of favour, and victim to the sort of court intrigue that to that date he had himself customarily been behind, over his ill-advised choice of Anne of Cleves as the new wife for the King.

The lawyer, politician and chronicler Edward Hall recorded Cromwell’s last words, as follows:

“I am come hether to dye, …  for …  I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For … I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And …  beyng but of a base degree, …  have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe … .  Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have … mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe … . And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long …  reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe”.

Hall also recorded, as follows:

“[H]e … committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed [botched] the Office [Execution]”.

Plaque marking site of execution on Tower Hill.JPG


Austin Friars (and “Wolf Hall”)


Statue of Austin Friar

Statue of Austin Friar

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.

Surviving relics from Augustinian Priory under altar table of present Dutch Church

Surviving relics from Augustinian Priory under altar table of present Dutch Church

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).

The former Augustinian Priory complex - as shown on the Copper-Plate Map of c1550 (1 - Church; 2 - Cloister; 3 - Cromwell's House; 4 - Gate-House)

The former Augustinian Priory complex – as shown on the Copper-Plate Map of c1550 (1 – Church; 2 – Cloister; 3 – Cromwell’s House; 4 – Gate-House)

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.

The late nineteenth-century Dutch Church - as sketched by van Gogh in 1876

The late nineteenth-century Dutch Church – as sketched by van Gogh in 1876

The present Dutch Church

The present Dutch Church

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.

Thomas Cromwell - as painted by Holbein in c1533

Thomas Cromwell, painted by Holbein in c1533 – a study in inscrutability

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.

Statue of Austin Friar