Austin Friars | The history of one of London’s lost monasteries
This City of London road was named after a 13th century religious order.
Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, the City of London was home to several monastic orders. Although a few buildings were preserved in existing churches, others were demolished and their legacy today is often only a street name. After King Henry VIII established the dramatic religious change so he could marry Anne Boleyn, he swiftly closed a succession of London monasteries. Those shuttered include the Bermondsey Abbey, Blackfriars, Charterhouse Priory (Smithfield), Crutched Friars, Grey Friars, Holywell Priory (Shoreditch), St Bartholomew’s Priory, St. Helen’s priory (Bishopsgate), St Martin’s le Grand, Whitefriars (Fleet Street), among others.
One order within the City of London boundaries was Austin Friars – located in between the present stations of Bank and Liverpool Street. The Austin Friars was an Augustinian order, believed to have arrived in England in the 1260s. They acquired land from two older churches, with St Olave Broad Street apparently being demolished to make way for the friary. Over the years, the friary’s wealth grew, allowing them to gain more land, eventually covering 5.5 acres. The complex was surrounded by a high wall, bordering London Wall, Throgmorton Street and Broad Street. Within their boundaries were a church, accommodation, garden and other buildings for dining and studying. The complex was entered by at least three gates, the main entrance being on Throgmorton Street. The friary was home to about 60 friars by the 13th century and was popular with London’s elite.
On the western edge of the friary, courtier Thomas Cromwell, Earl Of Essex (1485-1540) began leasing a home from the friary in the 1520s. It was a three-storey building with 14 rooms and a garden. By 1532, Cromwell’s power and influence at Henry VIII‘s court had grown so he expanded his Austin Friars home to reflect his rising status. He ended up with a huge property covering 2 acres with another 1.5 acres of garden. A few years later, Austin Friars came to an end in November 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester (1483/5-1572), took over the Friars’ house and cloisters and erected a townhouse on the site, which was later demolished in 1844. Two years later, Cromwell’s days at Austin Friars were also over after he was imprisoned and executed for treason and heresy. His house was acquired by the Crown and sold three years later to the Drapers’ Company for their hall, but was burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666 and rebuilt.
After the Austin Friars left, their friary church became a place of worship for some of London’s migrant community from 1550, who began using the nave for services. This community, predominately Dutch and French migrants, were granted a royal charter to establish a Stranger Church (aka a Protestant church established by foreigners) by King Edward VI (1537-1553). The church was renamed Temple of the Lord Jesus, had four pastors speaking either French or Dutch, with Polish reformer Jan Laski (1499-1560) acting as superintendent. By the late 1570s, London’s Dutch population was the city’s biggest migrant group, many having fled the Flemish regions of the Netherlands due to religious persecution. The community further expanded in the 17th century during a second wave of migration during Dutch-born King William III of England’s (1650-1702) reign. While the nave remained, the church’s original choir, tower and transepts were demolished in 1600. Although it survived the Great Fire, a blaze damaged the church in 1862 and it was restored the following year to designs by architects Edward I’Anson (1812-1888) and Lightly. It was the Victorian restoration that was sketched by Vincent Van Gogh and sent to his sister Anna in 1873-74. Less than two centuries later, the church was destroyed by Nazi bombs in October 1940. The current Dutch Church standing today was designed by Arthur Bailey (1903-1979) and built between 1950-1954. Inside the church, you can see some of the remains of the Medieval priory under the altar table.
Today, Austin Friars lives on as the name of a winding road, leading off Old Broad Street. Looking at Austin Friars on a map, it slightly resembles a ‘s’ shape with three sharp bends. The existing road location and shape has existed since at least the late 17th century, with it being labelled as ‘St Augustin Fryers’ on a 1754 map. The author Charles Dickens refers to Austin Friars in his 1842-1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Chapter 39 refers to Chuzzlewit’s solicitor Mr Fipps, who has an office in Austin Friars, dubbing it a “gloomy place”.
Leading north off the road towards Great Winchester Street is the atmospheric Austin Friars Passage. This short cut-through was previously named Bell Alley from at least the 1750s, being renamed to its current title in the 19th century. It is partially covered, features classic white and black tiling and old ghost signs on its ornate entrance. Underneath a fading road sign is another for a former local business, reading: ‘Pater & Co, Stock & Sharebrokers, 2nd door on right, & Stock Exchange’. The company was run by Arthur Long and Edgar John Blackburn Pater and traded from the 1860s to 1923.
The south entrance to Austin Friars from Old Broad Street is through a Victorian archway, part of the building at No.123 Old Broad Street. The building itself is Grade II listed and in a High Victorian, Gothic style, dating back to the mid 19th century. The archway features a segmental arch on columns with the road name ‘Austin Friars’ carved on scrolls into the stone. Many of the buildings in Austin Friars date back to the 19th century, replacing the previous Georgian-era offices and homes. A more modern addition to the road is a sculpture of a friar on the façade of No.4, sculpted by T Metcalfe in 1989.
- Austin Friars, City of London, EC2N. Nearest station: Bank.
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