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.
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.
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 …
… 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 …
… 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.
Remarkably, given its later history, precious fragments of the stonework fabric of the priory still survive, and can still be seen and touched.
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.
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.
The priory church came to be owned by his Master of the Revels, Thomas Cawarden, and part of it used as his Office.
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.
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).
The friendless church of St Ann was never rebuilt, and the parish was united with that of St Andrew.
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.