Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:59 am
It beggars modern belief just how much London – well, pretty much everywhere in Europe, I guess – was once dominated by the Church. Did you know there were more than one hundred parish churches within or just outside the boundaries of medieval London? No, neither did I; staggering, isn’t it? Plus the great religious houses, of course. Many of these places have left their names and other memories behind, one way or another. An obvious example is Blackfriars, on the western fringe of the City of London, named for the Dominican order that once had its London monastery on the east bank of the River Fleet. On the opposite bank of the Fleet, nestling between it and the Headquarters of the Knights Templar, was the London home of the Carmelite White Friars. Today, Whitefriars Street runs south from Fleet Street, becoming Carmelite Street just before it meets the Thames at Victoria Embankment. And you can find the only visible remains of London’s White Friars in the basement of an ugly, modern, office block nearby. How it got there is part of this neighbourhood’s long and varied history.
The story begins, as they so often do, long ago and far away. In or around the year 1150, at the time of the Crusades, a small group of Christian hermits (presumably, ex-hermits) came together to found a new religious order on Mount Carmel in Palestine – now in Israel. The Carmelite order grew, and began to spread to Europe, before being forced to flee the Holy Land altogether when Acre fell to the Mamluk Army in 1291. A small group of Carmelites reached England in 1242. Eventually some 40 Carmelite communities were established across Britain, where, because on formal occasions they wore white mantels over their brown habits, they became known as the White Friars.
The White Friars first built a small chapel in London in about 1253. It was just outside the western City boundary, south of Fleet Street, and was replaced with a larger building a century later. In time, the Carmelite priory expanded to occupy the land bounded by Fleet Street in the north and the Thames to the south, with Whitefriars Street (which used to be called Water Lane) and Temple Lane to the east and west. It’s almost impossible to imagine what today’s modern built-up area looked like in the 13th century, when the White Friars first arrived; presumably, it was semi-rural, and they were the first to seriously develop it – though it’s possible the Romans had something nearby. Old and New London (published in 1878 and quoted by British History Online) describes Whitefriars, somewhat idyllically, “with broad gardens, where the white friars might stroll, and with shady nooks where they might con their missals”.
You catch tantalising glimpses of Whitefriars in medieval London. For example, John Brome, wealthy lawyer and one-time owner of Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, was murdered in the church porch in 1468. Modern Bouverie Street runs through where this large priory church once stood. West and north of this, bounded by Lombard Lane – reputedly a dwelling place of lewd women at the time of Edward III – was the friars’ cemetery. South of the church were the cloisters, chapter house, dormitories – and so on. There was an impressive library, an infirmary, a small dock area and, almost certainly, a mill too. Life might have gone on at Whitefriars for another 300 years, had it not been for Henry VIII.
In 1538, Whitefriars Friary was dissolved on the orders of the King. Who knows what happened to the friars? The lands were parcelled off, with a big chunk going to the Royal Physician, Sir William Butts (or Butte), who had treated Anne Boleyn for the sweating sickness. However, Butts died in 1547 and, for some reason, the friary area seems to have quickly fallen into disrepair and become used for cheap accommodation. It is said that the great steeple of the church had been toppled just seven years after the dissolution. In the absence of the White Friars, no one was really sure who was responsible for the area of their old friary. The new inhabitants rightly and successfully claimed it to be outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and maintained the right of legal sanctuary previously held by the Friary.
So, White Friars, largely ungoverned and ungovernable, transformed into a sad, hard area, notorious for criminals, and the criminalised. In the cant, or underworld jargon, of the time it became known as Alsatia, from Alsace, the disputed Rhineland territory between France and Germany which Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes as “everlastingly the seat of war and the refuge of the disaffected.” Alsatia must have seemed an appropriate nickname – and a pretty awful place.
Areas like this, called Liberties, not subject to the tight control of the City of London, were magnets for actors and all manner of ne’er do wells – Southwark, across London Bridge, was just such a place. Thus White Friars also became a place for the theatre. In 1608, the friars’ old hall was converted to a playhouse, the Whitefriars Theatre, for boy players, where plays were staged until 1613. Nearby, from 1629 to 1649, was the Salisbury Court Theatre, built close to the former London residence of the Bishops of Salisbury. The theatre was closed during the Republic, but re-opened following the Restoration. A frequent visitor at that time was the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who seems to have sometimes also referred to it as ‘White Friars’.
“1661.—To White-fryars, and saw The Bondman acted; an excellent play, and well done; but above all that I ever saw, Betterton do the Bondman the best.”
Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) was a leading actor of the day.
In the 1670s, John Banister, a former violinist at the court of Charles II, held what are believed to have been some of the first public concerts in Europe at his house in White Friars, charging a shilling entrance fee (which seems a bit steep to me).
Meanwhile, White Friars continued to enjoy – if that’s the right word – its reputation as Alsatia. In 1688, the poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell published a satirical play, The Squire of Alsatia. White Friars also featured in the novel Fortunes of Nigel by Sir Walter Scott, set in the first quarter of the 17th century. Although obviously written much later (it was published in 1822), Scott evidently knew the lawless reputation of the place. In 1697, some attempt was made by the authorities to control what they saw as the worst excesses of White Friars, but it seems to have continued being a desperate, anarchic, kind of place where those struggling to survive were condemned to a mean, squalid, existence. Not far away was Bridewell Prison – previously Bridewell Palace. Dickens mentions Whitefriars several times, including the intriguingly named Hanging Sword Alley, which still runs between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Square today. It is thought to be named after a fencing school that once stood there – well-placed, given the likely need to defend yourself when venturing into Alsatia; it was previously known as Blood Bowl Alley – apparently Blood Bowl House was a place of ill-repute and features in a Hogarth engraving, where Tom Idle is betrayed by his whore. Why ‘Blood Bowl’, I wonder? – perhaps it used to belong to a physician.
Among the other heirs to the White Friars was a gas works, once a common sight in Britain’s cities, which presumably needed a large area to store coal, and a well-known glass-maker. Whitefriars Glass had 17th century roots, but became a leading manufacturer of church glass in the 19th century, later diversifying into domestic and decorative ware, and then specialist glass products for industry. Whitefriars Glass moved to a new factory in the 1920s and was bought by Caithness Glass in 1981.
Meanwhile, Whitefriars became caught up in the newspaper business. The Fleet Street area had an association with printing and publishing since the early 16th century. England’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was established next to the open sewer of the River Fleet in 1702. In the 20th century, the area became synonymous with Britain’s national newspapers, most of which had offices on Fleet Street itself, or nearby. Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, (Britain’s first popular daily newspaper, launched in 1896) and the London Evening News, had offices and printing works on Whitefriars Street and Carmelite Street. The News of the World and the Sun were based at 30 Bouverie Street. In 1986, Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, began the general evacuation of the newspaper industry from Fleet Street by relocating his London operation to more efficient facilities at Wapping, in the East End.
But what about the remains of the White Friars? Well, in 1896, the then owner of 4 Britton’s Court off Whitefriars Street was having his premises inspected prior to selling them. The agent’s representative noticed a Gothic vaulted ceiling in the basement. Accumulated rubbish, including the remains of coal that had been stored there, was cleared away to reveal part of a late 14th century crypt. The experts concluded that this was a section of cellar from the Prior’s house. The top of the ceiling was a couple of feet below ground level, the room was 12 feet square and with a small doorway, which it is thought once led into the friary grounds. A few years later, the site was purchased by the News of the World, whose owners decided to restore the crypt in the 1920s. They would also allow members of the public to see it, by prior arrangement. In the redevelopment that followed the departure of News International in the 1980s, however, it was decided that this last visible reminder of the White Friars was in an inconvenient place. So it was surrounded by a steel cradle and lifted to a completely new position.
You will now find the last of White Friars Priory exhibited behind glass under an enormous modern office block, leased until 2021 to a law firm with the snappy name of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Find Magpie Alley, which runs between Bouverie Street and Whitefriars Street. It is not on every map. From the Bouverie Street side, there is a tiled display giving a brief insight into Fleet Street’s publishing history. You’ll see a flight of steps going down ahead – this is Ashentree Court – and at the bottom of the steps you will find all that’s left of London’s White Friars. According to the plan displayed in the window, it’s just about where the friars’ reredorter (latrine) would have been.
It is not possible to go in, but access might be possible via Open House London – or possibly even by contacting Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Tell them you’d like to walk in the footsteps of the White Friars…