Tag Archives: Blackfriars Priory

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.

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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.

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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 …

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… 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 …

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… 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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.  What may once have been part of the cellar is preserved in what is now the public house known as the  “Cockpit”.

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).

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

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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.

 

Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses

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I am currently greatly enjoying reading “Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses” by Sarah Dustagheer (Cambridge University Press, 2017) …

The two performance spaces in question are the “Globe” playhouse on Bankside in Southwark, and the less well-known – Second – “Blackfriars” in the City.

The “Blackfriars” was purpose- built or -adapted  by James and Richard  Burbage in 1596-1600, on the site of the Parliament Hall of the dissolved Blackfriars Priory (*).  It was a covered theatre, and was able to be used by theatre companies throughout the year, including in the  winter,  when the open-air “Globe” playhouse  was rendered unusable by bad weather.   It was also an “all-seater”,  seating 6-700 in some – although not much – comfort, and charging a minimum of 6d a head (in contrast, the “Globe” seated or stood more (2-3000), but charged much less (1d a head)).  In time, the theatre became extremely popular with the fashionable set, and equally profitable.    In 1608, it came to be part owned by Shakespeare’s acting company,  “the “King’s Men” (formerly the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”), and became, with the “Globe”, their joint home.  The theatre was eventually closed down by the Puritans in 1642; and demolished in 1655.

On a plot adjoining the reconstructed Elizabethan “Globe” on Bankside is a modern replica of a Jacobean theatre,  named the “Wanamaker”.  Its design was in part based on a set of plans once – although no longer – thought to have been of the “Second Blackfriars”, and its interior conveys a real sense of what that theatre would have been like.  A   sense of enclosed space, of intimacy, of proximity to the players, of exclusiveness perhaps.  Of  being surrounded by the shadowy  light of dancing candles and reflecting costume jewellery.  And, perhaps even more particularly,  of being surrounded by sound, and in interludes by the sound of music.  Note in this context that the music in certain of Shakespeare’s later  plays, such as  “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, was not only well suited to, but probably also  specifically written for, performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”.

(*) Here in  1529 an earlier  high drama was enacted when the  Legatine Court, under  the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and King Henry VIII’s representative, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey,  met  to discuss Henry’s   proposed divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – eventually ruling against any such action.

Incident at Blackfriars (1322)

Blackfriars Priory

On this day in 1322, a large number (tens to hundreds) of needy poor people were crushed to death in a rush to beg food and money at the gates of Blackfriars’ (Dominican) Priory.

The Blackfriars’ was one of a number of monastic houses established in London in the early Medieval period, which altogether included those of the  mendicant friars not only of the Dominican order (the Black Friars), but also of the Carmelite and Franciscan orders (the White  and Grey Friars, respectively); the hermit monks and nuns of the Benedictine, Cluniac and Carthusian orders; the monk- and nun- like regular and friar-like secular canons and canonesses of the Augustinan order(s); and the Knights Templar and  Hospitaller.  The monastic houses came to dominate not only the religious life, but also the philosophical and indeed even the physical life of the City, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process, and making many enemies as well as friends.

 

 

The Lost Monastic Houses of London

July 3rd –  On this day in 1322, hundreds of needy poor people were crushed to death in a rush to beg food and money at the gates of Blackfriars’ (Dominican) Priory.

Blackfriars

Remains of Blackfriars Priory, Ireland Yard

The Blackfriars’ was one of a number of monastic houses established in London in the early Medieval period, which altogether included those of the  mendicant friars not only of the Dominican order (the Black Friars) but also of the Carmelite and Franciscan orders (the White  and Grey Friars, respectively); the hermit monks and nuns of the Benedictine, Cluniac and Carthusian orders; the monk- and nun- like regular and friar-like secular canons and canonesses of the Augustinan order(s); and the Knights Templar and  Hospitaller.  The monastic houses came to dominate not only the religious life, but also the philosophical and indeed even the physical life of the City, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process, and making many enemies as well as friends.

Charterhouse (monks once cloistered here, and offered up silent prayer, beside the plague pit)

Surviving Carthusian Monk’s Cell with Guichet, Charterhouse

The   Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-40 essentially resulted in the appropriation by the Crown  of all the monastic houses in England, Wales and Ireland, of which there were several hundred, and of all of their assets (monastic houses in Scotland were annexed by the Scottish King, James VI, in 1587).   The smaller  houses, with incomes of less than £200 per year, as evaluated by the Valor Ecclestiacus, were dissolved  under The Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries of 1536; the larger  ones, by The Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries of 1539.   After the Dissolution, the assets of the monastic houses were disbursed, under the auspices of Henry’s  Vicar-General and Vice-Regent in Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, and his Court of Augmentations.

Bermondsey Abbey (chants, caught on the wind of a thousand years ago, can be heard here, still)

Surviving fragment of Bermondsey Abbey, beneath glass floor of Del’ Aziz Restaurant, Bermondsey Square

In London, the change in land ownership and usage is evident in the marked contrast between the map of 1520, from before the event, and the  “Copper Plate” one of 1556-8, the “Agas” one of 1561-70, and the Braun and Hogenberg one of  1572 (*), from after the event.  Many of the former monastic properties evidently became parish churches, hospitals, orphanages or schools, or combinations thereof, or Inns of Court, or  play-houses, while others passed into private ownership.  Of the  former monks, nuns and priors, of whom there were several hundred city-wide, and several thousand country-wide, most went to work in the newly created parish churches, although a still substantial number were forced to seek out entirely new ways of life.  All were at least  offered more or less generous pensions, although none of their servants was.

(*) The Braun & Hogenberg map was published in 1572, but still shows “old” St Paul’s with the  spire it lost in a lightning strike in 1561.