Tag Archives: Monastic houses



Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

Everyday life would have continued to revolve around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.

The lives of almost  all women in the Medieval period –  other than those from the “higher” strata of society, that is, the aristocracy and clergy, including ordained clergy  – would have revolved around the “daily grind” of managing their households, and providing food for, and caring  for, their families, and they  would have had  little time for extraneous  activities or  interests.   Moreover, they would have enjoyed less  freedom under the Law than in Saxon times.  Indeed, under the Medieval Law of Coverture, a  married woman, or femme covert, had no legal rights whatsoever independent  of her husband, and was essentially his chattel.  An unmarried woman or widow, or femme sole, though, was at least legally allowed  to manage her own business.  And there is evidence that, in London and some other towns, a femme covert might be permitted to adopt the more privileged status of a femme sole to enable her to do so.


Medieval Londoners were God-fearing folk, and one could argue that they had cause to be.    The sporadic and apocalyptic  outbreaks of Famine and Plague must have seemed to them to have been visited upon them by a vengeful God, or “Destroying Angel”.  Life could also be cut painfully short by other – including occupational –  diseases,  accidents, and acts of violence; and the deaths of mother and/or baby in the act of childbirth would have been distressingly common, and infant mortality shockingly high.  Faith at least offered hope of life eternal.

The predominant religion of the period was Catholic Christianity, which pervaded all areas of life, even the very air,  with  its incense and incantations.  Note, though, that the seeds of the post-Medieval Protestant Reformation may be said to have been sown with the so-called Lollardy of the late fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, which indeed has been referred to as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, and which similarly sought to restrict the secular wealth and power of the established church, and to return to apostolic poverty and mission.


There was a major phase of church building and rebuilding, perhaps as an act of penance, to assuage the guilt of the conqueror and oppressor, beginning in the  late eleventh and  twelfth centuries.    By the end of the thirteenth  century, there were around 100 churches in the City, as recorded in the “Taxatio Ecclesiastica” of Pope Nicholas IV of 1291 – some of the associated parishes constituted of only a few streets.  Late parishioners’ bequests for “Chantries”, or prayers to be chanted for those in Purgatory, were often spent on extravagant embellishments.

Further religious or monastic  houses began to be established  in and around the City in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, among them those of the hermit monks and nuns of the Benedictine, Cluniac and Carthusian orders; the mendicant friars of the Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscan orders (the White, Black and Grey Friars, respectively); the monk- and nun- like regular and friar-like secular canons and canonesses of the Augustinan or Austin order(s); and the Knights Templar and  Hospitaller.  The monks and nuns following Benedictine rule  foreswore earthly delights, and instead dedicated their lives to divine service, and the rhythms of their days were tuned to  the   “Liturgy of the Hours”: matins in the middle of the night; lauds at dawn; prime in the first hour; terce in the third; sext in the sixth; none in the ninth; vespers “at the lighting of the lamps” at dusk; and   compline before retiring at  night.  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 Knights Templar and Hospitaller came into being in the twelfth century, as Orders of “fighting monks” or “monks of war”,  tasked principally with the protection of  Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with participation in Crusades, and incidentally with infrastructure and finance.  The Knights Templar in particular  became immensely wealthy and powerful, and at the same time the subject of much mistrust, on account of the secrecy surrounding  their activity.  Indeed, eventually, on 13th October 1307 – according to myth the original unlucky “Friday the Thirteenth” –  the leaders of the Order  were arrested on a  variety of charges, at least some no doubt trumped up by debtors and other vested interests, under a warrant reading “God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the Kingdom” (“Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume”).  They were later tortured into confessing to having “spat three times on the Cross” (”  … craché trois fois sur la Croix … “), and done to death by being burned at the stake, and the entire Order was  eventually disbanded, essentially to be subsumed into that of the Knights Hospitaller.  In 1237, Matthew Paris  chronicled the departure of  a party of Knights Hospitaller from the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell to the Holy Land  as follows: “They … set out from their house … , and proceeded in good order, with about thirty shields uncovered, with spears raised, and preceded by their banner, through the midst of the City, towards the bridge, that they might obtain the blessings of the spectators, and, bowing their heads with their cowls lowered, commended themselves to the prayers of all”.  The Priory had been founded by Jordan de Briset almost a century  earlier, in 1140.


Medieval London would have been full of pilgrims.  London was a  site of pilgrimage in its own right, with large numbers  flocking each year to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, or to lesser shrines in Bermondsey Abbey, Syon Abbey, Our Lady of Willesden (!) or St Anthony’s Hospital.  It would also have been the point of departure for local pilgrims on their way  to other sites, for example, the shrines of Henry VI in Windsor Castle, St Alban in St Albans Abbey, St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral, or St John in Beverley Minster, or that of Our Lady of Walsingham in Walsingham Priory (not to mention Santiago de Compostela, Rome or the Holy Land).    Perhaps most importantly, though, London would have been a  gathering-point  on the pilgrimage route from the north to the shrine of  St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (“The Pilgrim’s Way”).    The “troublesome priest”  Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 29th December, 1170, by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the King, Henry II.  The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot – at least from the hospital of St Nicholas in Harbledown – in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint).  The practice ceased after the Reformation under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, when images of Becket were ordered to be “putte downe and auoyded out of all churches, chapelles and other places”, and a painter from Southwark was paid for “defasynge” diverse examples in the chapel on London Bridge by then rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle rather than the Martyr.  However, it may be said to have resumed in later  centuries.  Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”).  Further research from around this time suggests that the journey along this – fifty-eight mile – route would have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns, where suitable accommodation was available.  It would have involved travelling sixteen miles on the first day (London to Dartford); fourteen on the second (Dartford to Rochester; eighteen on the third (Rochester to Faversham); and ten on the fourth (Faversham to Canterbury).  The first day’s journey, from the City of  London to Dartford, would have been by way of London Bridge, Borough   High Street, Tabard Street, the Old Kent Road,   Deptford, Blackheath, Shooters Hill, Welling, East Wickham, Bexley and Crayford.  Sufficient numbers of pilgrim souvenirs, in the form of badges, free-standing figures, ampullae and reliquary chasses, have been found in Thames-side locations in London as to suggest that they were deliberately deposited there in accordance with some forgotten rite.

A minority community of Jews became  established in England in the late eleventh century, during the reign of the Norman King William I, many of its members originating from Rouen in Normandy, and practising  usury,  which Canon Law forbade  Christians from.


At this time, a  number of synagogues were built in and around Old Jewry in the heart of the City of London, and the  remains of Jewish ritual baths or mikvaot (sing. mikvah or mikveh) have been found here.  Tragically, the Jews of England became subject in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries to   a series of what in later times would be referred to as pogroms or purges.   To cite a single  example, in 1278, around 680  Jews were arrested in London,  and detained in the Tower, on suspicion of the capital offence of coin clipping and counterfeiting, of whom  300 were subsequently hanged.  Eventually,   all the Jews of England   were ordered, under the Edict of Expulsion issued by  Edward I on the day of the Fast of Tisha B’Av,  July 18th, in 1290, to be expelled by November 1st of that year.  On the actual day of the expulsion, one ship’s captain had his Jewish passengers from London disembark on a sandbank at Queenborough in the Thames estuary, and then left them there to drown on the rising tide – for which terrible crime, he was later hanged.

Food and Drink

The staple foods of the day were those of the butcher – or on high days and holy days the fishmonger – and baker.  The rich  gorged themselves on meat, and as FitzStephen put it: “Those with a fancy for delicacies can obtain for themselves the meat of goose,  guinea-hen or woodcock – …  all … set out in front of them”.  The poor, whose wages were  as little  as 1s or 12d/week or less in 1300, subsisted on “potage”, a sort of cereal and vegetable stew that enabled them to eke out their meagre supplies of meat: for them, the only affordable meats would have been suet or marrowbone, typically at 1d per lb., chicken at 1½d each, and rabbit, at 2d each.  Cooked meat and other ready-to-eat foods were  sold on the street by hawkers (“One cryd hot shepes feete|One cryd mackerel … |One … rybbs of befe, and many a pye”).   The relationship with meat animals was intimate: people lived with their livestock; and pigs ran wild in the streets, creating a considerable public nuisance.  Little of the animal was wasted, everything edible being eaten, the fat being rendered to make tallow, and the hide being tanned to make leather.  Herbs and spices were widely used in cooking to mask the “corrupt savours” of foods that had started to spoil – at a time when the only means of preserving them were pickling and  salting.  Dishes could be sweetened either with honey, perhaps purchased on Honey Lane, off Cheapside, in London, or with sugar, although obviously only after it was introduced, from  the Moorish World, in the fourteenth century.  (Potatoes were only introduced, from the New World, in the post-Medieval period, in the  late sixteenth century).

Water  was drawn from City’s rivers, or from springs or wells.  In FitzStephen’s time, it was pure and clean and sweet and wholesome.  Later, though,  “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt” – and  obviously they couldn’t have that!  And, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the water from the Thames had become so contaminated by waste from ships and from shore as to be not only unpalatable but unsafe to drink, for fear of contracting a water-borne disease such as Bloody Flux (Dysentery).  So, a supply had to be brought in from outside.


A (lead!) pipeline was built, by public subscription, in 1236, to bring water from a spring at Tyburn, roughly opposite where Bond Street tube station now stands,  to the so-called Little Conduit, Standard and Great Conduit on Cheapside, about three miles away (sections  have  recently been discovered 2m below Medieval street level in Paternoster Row and in  Poultry).   Most people collected water from the conduits themselves, although some had it delivered to them – in buckets suspended from shoulder-yokes – by water-carriers or “cobs” (of whom there were 4000 by 1600), and the few that could afford   to had a private supply piped directly to their homes or businesses in specially installed so-called “quills”.  The pipeline    was extended at either end in the fifteenth century so as to run from Oxlese, near where Paddington station now stands,  to Cornhill, about six miles away.  The so-called  Devil’s Conduit under Queen’s Square probably dates to around the same time, a photograph taken in 1910, shortly before its demolition in 1911-3,  showing it to contain graffiti from  1411.  And the  Aldermanbury Conduit under Aldermanbury Square dates to 1471.

Ale and  beer, or  “liquid bread”, became a staple in the City, as soon as it was unsafe to drink the water – “small beer” for breakfast, even (beer was brewed with hops, which first begun to be imported from the Low Countries in the late Medieval period).  Wine was also imbibed in quantity.  When King Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile  were crowned at Westminster on the Sunday after the feast of the Assumption in 1274, “the Conduit in Chepe ran all the day with red and white wine to drink, for all such who wished”.  Purpose-built drinking establishments began to spring up in and around the City in the Medieval period.  Among them were the “Tabard” of 1304, on Borough High Street in Southwark; “Bull Head” of 1307, the “Nag’s Head” of 1356, the “Star” of 1405, and the “Mitre” of 1461, all on Cheapside; the “Pope’s Head” of 1318, and the “Cardinal’s Cap” of 1369, on Lombard Street; the “Bear” of 1319 at Bridge Foot; the “Swan” of 1413, on Old Fish Street;  the “King’s Head” of 1417, and the “Sun” of 1429, on New Fish Street; the “Bell” of 1464, on King Street [Whitehall] in Westminster; the “King’s Head” of 1472, on Chancery Lane.  The “Tabard” was known to and  written about by ChaucerIt was burned down in the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676, and rebuilt as a coaching-inn in 1677, only to be demolished in 1873, after the arrival of the railway at nearby   London Bridge rendered most such establishments surplus to requirements (only the “George” of 1677 still standing).  Its former site is marked by a “Blue Plaque” in Talbot Yard.


Which brings us to the indelicate matter of waste, and the disposal thereof.   That is to say, human and animal waste, food waste, and the equally if not even more noxious by-products of the City’s cottage industries (butchery, tallow chandlery, tannery, soap manufacture, glass manufacture, from animal horn,  and so on).  Originally, essentially all of the above was simply dumped in the streets, to be washed downhill in  gutters, and into the   Thames or one of its tributaries – one of the streets thus coming to be known as  Shiteburn Lane (and later, so as to offend   one less sensibility, Sherborne Lane).   (To be fair, some public latrines were built directly over the Thames or its tributaries, thereby at least cutting out the middle man, so to speak).  Eventually, though, this practice was outlawed as the streets became breeding grounds for vermin and disease, not to mention evil-smelling, and exceedingly unpleasant underfoot – whence the invention of the “patten”, the platform sole of the day.  After the mid-fourteenth century, waste was compelled to be  collected by rakers and carters, and disposed of further afield  “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river … and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people”, and anyone guilty of any violation was punished by “prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and the Aldermen”.  Some was carried down the Thames, in “dung-boats” to be dumped, some deposited in land-fill sites outside the City, and some spread as fertiliser on surrounding fields.  Nonetheless, a considerable amount of damage had already been done to the environment and  to public health, and the Fleet and Walbrook had effectively become dead rivers, the post-Saxon history of the former  being  described as “a decline from a river to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, and from a ditch to a drain”.  Environmental archaeological examination of Medieval Fleet deposits from a site in Tudor Street revealed the existence of 140 species of mainly micro-organisms in one, early layer, indicating – apart from nematode worms from human faeces – a generally healthy condition; but only two stress-tolerant and opportunistic species in a second, later layer, indicating increasing toxicity; and none at all in a third, latest layer, indicating the total eradication  of all life, as described in the archive records for 1343.

All in all, Medieval London was a City of crowding and clamour and squalour and stench.  Nosegays and pomanders notwithstanding.

Medical Matters

The diagnosis and treatment of disease in Medieval England would have been based essentially on Galenic principles – as in Roman times.   Diseases would have been diagnosed on the basis of perceived  imbalances in the four humours, namely choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), phlegmatic (phlegm) and sanguine (blood).  And treated according to the “theory of opposites”, for  example, in the case of excesses, by blood-letting or purging, through the use of herbal concoctions.  Sadly, the mainly herbal treatments administered by monks, Apothecaries and Physicians, were of limited efficacy against the diseases of the day, including  Ague, Plague, Leprosy,   and Consumption.

Quartan Ague, the commonest strain,  was diagnosed by a high fever recurring every fourth day.  It is now known to be caused by the parasitic protozoan  Plasmodium malariae, in turn transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito of the genus Anopheles.  In the Medieval period, it was  thought to be associated with harmful airs associated with stagnant water (whence “Mal-aria”).  There  is actually something to this, as stagnant water  provides the perfect habitat  for the vector mosquito.  Note in this context that there was a major epidemic in 1241 after the great floods of that year, as chronicled by Matthew Paris: “Thus the year passed away, … generating epidemics and quartan agues”.

Bubonic Plague  was diagnosed by painful swellings or buboes in the groin or armpit.  It is now known to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, in turn generally transmitted by the bite of an infected  rat-flea of the species Xenopsylla cheopis, such as was common in the conditions in which people, livestock, pets and vermin  lived, cheek-by-jowl, in London in the Medieval to post-Medieval period.   In the Medieval to post-Medieval period, it was thought to be spread by cats and dogs, which were therefore rounded up and killed in large numbers (the resulting  reduction in predation ironically allowing the real culrits, rats to proliferate).  The 1348-9 outbreak, now referred to as the “Black Death”,  caused so many deaths in such a short time that epidemiologists suspect that it was a particularly deadly and infectious – pneumonic  – strain  of the disease,  capable of being passed directly from infected person to person without the involvement of the vector flea.  Significantly in this context, the “Black Death”  was able to continue to spread and even to spike over the winter of 1348-9, when the vector flea would have been inactive, as it is everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

Leprosy  was diagnosed by the loss of the ability to sense pain and by the consequent loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infections.  It is now known to be an infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis, and to be spread from infected person to person.  In the Middle Ages, sufferers were regarded as unclean, and stigmatised by being made to carry a bell with which to announce their presence.  Indeed, all  lepers were banished and banned  from the City of London under a Royal Edict issued by Edward III in 1346, which read, in part: “all leprose persons inhabiting … should auoid within fifteen dayes …, and … no man suffer any such leprose person to abide within his house, vpon paine to forfeite his said house, and to incurre the Kinges further displeasure”.  An entry in the “Letter-Book … ” of 1372 … read: “John Mayn, …  who had oftentimes … been commanded … to depart from the City, … and avoid the common conversation of mankind – seeing that he …  was smitten with the blemish of leprosy – … was [ordered] before the mayor and aldermen … [to] depart forthwith … , and … not return … , on pain of undergoing the punishment of the pillory”.

Even quite intricate surgical operations were evidently skilfully performed, and most  patients survived the actual surgery, although sadly many succumbed to  uncontrollable infection afterwards.  Operations performed by monks were proscribed  by a Papal Decree issued by Boniface VIII after the Council of Tours in 1163 (“Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine”).  After this date, they came to be undertaken by Barber-Surgeons.


Some  twenty-five  hospitals, mainly attached to monastic houses, sprang up around the City in the Medieval period; a few of which survived the Dissolution and into  the post-Medieval, including St Mary of Bethlehem, St Bartholomew’s, and St Thomas’s.   They  are perhaps best thought of as places to  which patients would go to in anticipation of compassionate care (“hospitality”), if  not necessarily effective treatment.  Some of the hospitals specialised in the treatment of particular types of patient, for example, St Mary of Bethlehem, or “Bedlam”, in the treatment of mentally ill persons; Elsing Spital, in the treatment of blind persons;  St Anthony’s Hospital, in the treatment of those suffering from  “St Anthony’s Fire”, or ergotism, a disease caused by eating cereals contaminated by an alkaloid-secreting fungus; and the “Lazar(us) Houses” of St Giles-in-the-Fields, Westminster, Knightbridge to the west of the City of London, Kingsland to the north, Mile End to the east, and Southwark to the south, in the treatment of lepers.  The sites of the leper hospitals were deliberately chosen so as to allow a degree of social isolation, and yet at the same time to provide the opportunity for  the inmates to beg for alms from the occasional passers-by.   St Giles-in-the-Fields was quite literally “in the fields” between the Cities of London and Westminster.

The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was originally built  just outside Bishopsgate in 1247, part of it becoming a hospital  in 1329/30, a mental hospital of a sort purportedly as long ago as 1377, and demonstrably as long ago as  1403, and  infamous for the shameful ill-treatment of its inmates by all and sundry in the unenlightened times that followed.


From various accounts, it appears that the population of London was of the order of 10-15,000 at the time of the “Domesday” survey in 1086; 40,000  a century later in 1180; 80,000 in 1300; and 40,000 in 1377, after the “Black Death” (the “Domesday” survey was undertaken by the Normans principally to determine who owned what, and what taxes they were  liable to).  The  death rate among native Londoners tended to exceed the birth rate, significantly so during outbreaks of Plague, such that the city’s population could only be maintained and grown by immigration, either from elsewhere in England and Scotland; from Europe, for example from  Normandy, Gascony, Flanders and Lombardy; or indeed from even further afield.   The  subsidy rolls of 1292 and 1319 record primarily French, Flemish/Dutch, Italian and German “aliens” or “strangers”. Those of 1440 and 1483 record primarily German “aliens”, numbering 1,307 out of  a total of 2,540, but also French, Flemish/Dutch, Italian (Genoese, Venetian and Lucchian), Spanish and other, including Indian.  By this time, there were already over 100 “aliens”  in each of the  wards of Bishopsgate, Broad Street, Cripplegate, Dowgate (where the “Steelyard” was), Farringdon, Langbourn, Portsoken and Tower.

The lost monastic houses of London

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.  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.

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

Blackfriars Priory - CopyBlackfriars Priory

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

Holy Trinity Priory - Copy   Holy Trinity Priory

Priory of St John - CopyPriory of St John

St Mary Spital - Copy       St Mary Spital

Whitefriars Priory - CopyWhitefriars Priory

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.   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.