Why Blackfriars is called Blackfriars and the pre-railway history of the area.
Blackfriars is an area by the southern fringes of the City of London, familiar to many City workers. Now dominated by office blocks, the district used to be a hub for religion and entertainment. Until the early 13th century, the area was home to Norman fortresses Mountfiquet Castle and the original Baynard’s Castle. Mountfiquet was likely named after the Baron of Mountfichet (of the Stansted Mountfichets in Essex), while Baynard’s was built by Ralph Baynard (a sheriff of Essex). Both castles were demolished by King John (1166-1216) in 1213 after their then-residents Robert Montfichet and Robert Fitzwalter took part in the barons’ revolt against the monarchy the previous year.
The name Blackfriars dates back to the 13th century when Dominican Friars established a priory on the site. The Friars first came to the capital in 1221 and established their first London monastery on the outskirts of the City near Lincoln’s Inn at Holborn. However, in 1276 they obtained permission from King Edward I (1239-1307) to move to the area we now know as Blackfriars. The King approved the levelling of the remains of Mountfiquet and Baynard Castle and the demolishing and rebuilding of the Roman City walls to incorporate their priory in 1282. The plot covered around 8 acres and incorporated the main church, a tower and five chapels (the Virgin chapel, a Lady chapel, St John the Baptist chapel, a pardon chapel and the Chapel of St Ann). The name Blackfriars started being used around 1317 to describe the Friars, who were recognised by their black cappas. The City also included Grey Friars (Franciscan), Austin Friars, Crutched Friars, White Friars (Carmelites), and the Holy Trinity and St Helens Priory priories. In 1322, the Blackfriars was the scene of tragedy when a large number of impoverished Londoners were crushed to death in a rush to beg for food and money at the gates.
The history of the City of London’s Carmelite monastery.
Most Londoners are aware of Blackfriars, as it lends its name to a bridge and busy train and tube station. The name stems from the Dominican Friars – who wore black mantles – who had a priory in the area. Although the Blackfriars priory was closed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the name remained. However, the names of some of the City of London’s other monasteries and priories weren’t so durable throughout history.
In Medieval London, a number of monastic organisations owned a lot of property in and around the city. After King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a large number in London were closed. Among those shutting their doors were Grey Friars in Newgate Street and Whitefriars at Fleet Street. Grey Friars managed to survive in name after the King gave its 14th century church to the City Corporation and it was renamed Christ Church Greyfriars. After it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed its replacement, which hosted worshippers until it was bombed during the Blitz and now its ruins survive as a public garden.
White Friars was a Carmelite religious house which sat between Fleet Street and the River Thames, spreading west to Temple and its eastern boundary at Whitefriars Street. The order was originally founded on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel in 1150. After fleeing the Saracens in 1239, the White Friars travelled to England and established a church on Fleet Street in 1253. Their name White Friars comes from, you guessed it, the colour of their mantles. In 1350, it was replaced by a larger church, rebuilt by Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon (1303-1377). The White Friars were popular with nobility and Londoners, with many leaving money to the monastery in their wills. The friars’ extensive grounds included cloisters, a cemetery and garden, along with the church.
After nearly three centuries in the capital, the White Friars monastery was closed by Henry VIII in 1538. The king gave the White Friars chapter house to his physician, Doctor William Butts (1486-1545) as a residence. The king’s son and successor King Edward VI (1537-1553) ordered the church’s demolition and allowed noblemen’s houses to built on the site. One of the few surviving buildings, the refectory of the convent, became the Whitefriars Theatre. Established in 1608, the Jacobean theatre only lasted for around a decade and was thought to have been abandoned by the art scene by the 1620s. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) often frequented the establishment and noted his visits in his famous diary. At the time, the surrounding area was pretty notorious, with refugees, prostitutes and debtors known to hide there from the authorities. This bad reputation lasted well into the 19th century, with Charles Dickens writing about the area in the 1830s.
Now, all that remains of the friary is a 14th century cellar or crypt, believed to be part of the priory mansion. It was discovered in 1895, later being restored in the 1920s when the News of the World were developing their Fleet Street offices. After the NotW moved east to Wapping in the 1980s, a new building was constructed on site. During building in 1991, the ruins were lifted up on a crane and replaced in a slightly different location. Today, the basement of 65 Fleet Street features a large window so the ruins can be viewed from Magpie Alley.
- Ruins of Whitefriars, Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street), City of London, EC4Y 8DP. Nearest station: City Thameslink, Temple or Blackfriars.
Find out more about London’s lost monasteries
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Roman ruins of the gateway to the Cripplegate Fort were uncovered in the 1950s.
There aren’t many Roman remains visible in London today, with most destroyed over the centuries by evolution of building and war. In the early centuries of the 1st Millennium AD, the area we know today as the City of London was home to a population of 60,000 people. Although provincial by today’s city standards, Londinium was a bustling centre of trade and industry and included a Basilica, Forum, Amphitheatre, Temples, Bath houses and a Fort.
Roman London had a tricky start and was razed to the ground by Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in 60/61AD, when it had only been established around 20 years prior. The invading Romans were undeterred and rebuilt, creating a stone fort just outside the main town in the north east around 110AD. Built in what we know as the Barbican area today, the Cripplegate fort was home to the city garrison with an estimated 1,000 soldiers.
Between 190 and 225AD, the north and west walls of the Fort were incorporated into the new London Wall, part of an extensive programme of public works. The new wall, made of mostly Kentish ragstone, enclosed the city from Tower Hill to Blackfriars and was over 3 kilometres long and surrounded by a defensive ditch. If you wanted to enter Londinium, you had to do so via one of the main gates: Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate and Newgate. Meanwhile, the Fort had two gates on the north and west, with remains of the latter still visible.
Today, what’s left of the West Gate is protected in a locked room in a car park in the City. I recently had the chance to visit the ruins on a tour by the Museum Of London. The remains were discovered in 1956 during extensive excavation and rebuilding after the City was seriously damaged during the Blitz. You can see the foundations and lower parts of the Fort Wall, North Turret and Guard Room and the Central Pier of the Double Gateway. Parts of the South Turret were excavated at the time, but were not preserved. There is also a scale model of how the gate would have looked in its heyday.
- The Museum Of London run occasional tours of the Western Gate ruins. Keep an eye on the MOL’s events page for dates and booking.
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Did you know there’s some 2nd century ruins hidden underneath a City of London office block?
This weekend sees the return of Open House London – an annual event which has been growing rapidly every year. I went to my first Open House in 2012 and managed to see three very different buildings in one day. It involved a lot of queuing, but it was worth it to get the chance to see inside some historical and unique London buildings which are normally off limits to the public.
One such ‘building’ I saw last year was Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, which will again be open on Sunday this year. The ruins are located in the basement of an office block in Lower Thames Street in the City of London, so are rarely open to the public. Due to health and safety reasons and space in the basement, only small groups are allowed at a time to see the ruins so be prepared to queue. I waited about 90 minutes to get inside, but it was thoroughly worth the wait and I would do it again. As you may know, there’s not much left of Roman London in the capital. Above ground there are parts of the old city wall of Londinium in Barbican, Tower Hill and Cooper’s Row. Meanwhile, there’s probably a lot of Roman London deep below ground, but only a small amount we know about or are able to access. This is why Open House London is so special, because it gives us the chance to visit one of the city’s few accessible Roman ruins.
The remains at Lower Thames Street were first discovered in 1848 by workmen constructing the Coal Exchange. Archaeologists have dated the house from the late 2nd century AD, with the bath house within its courtyard from the 3rd century. It is believed the building was still in use up until the early 5th century AD when Roman Londinium was in decline. When the house was built, it would have been by the waterside of the Thames. The adjoining bath house includes a cold room, warm room and hot room – which can be seen today when you visit the ruins. On your visit, you will be given a tour by volunteers from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, supported by the Museum of London, City of London and English Heritage.
- Billingsgate Roman House and Baths is usually open for Open House London in September each year or the Museum Of London run occasional tours. 101 Lower Thames Street, City of London, EC3R 6DL. Nearest station: Monument. For more information visit Open House London website or the official blog for the Billingsgate Roman Bath House or check out the Museum Of London’s event page.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.
For other blog posts on Open House London, read:
- ‘Roman’ bath at The Strand: What the ‘Dickens’ is the history behind this old watering hole?
- Inside out: A rare chance to step inside the Lloyd’s Building at Open House
- Open House London 2015: Royal residences, Roman baths and more.
- Open House London 2013: Highlights gallery from Royal Courts of Justice, Foreign Office & City Hall
- Middle Temple Hall: Legal life, Twelfth Night and a rare survivor of Elizabethan architecture
- Knights, Shakespeare and lawyers: Visit the Medieval Temple Church at Open House London.
- Derelict beauty: A visit to Caroline Gardens Chapel with Open House London
- Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: Visiting The Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace with Open House.
- Neo-classicism, masques and an execution site: The history and beauty of Banqueting House.
The Complete History Of London is an abridged play covering the history of our fair city in one hour… sounds like quite a feat doesn’t it? Last week, I managed to obtain tickets to see the new play from ex-City worker Tim Chapman, who conceived the production while in Borneo. Being both a fan of history and London, I was hoping it would fulfil my expectations…. which it did. But also part of the attraction was seeing the play amongst the remains of London’s old amphitheatre in the Guildhall Art Gallery basement. The seats were placed roughly in the same area as the Roman Londoners would have sat – with the remains of the ancient walls either side of us. The ruins were only discovered in 1988 and dated back to AD70 and seated an estimated 6,000-7,000 people. Fortunately for us, the audience was a more manageable size.
With the play covering two millennia of history, it required a basic set of bench and British flags. On the night in question, the entire play was performed by a cast of three – Mark Steere (first narrator), Olivia Jewson and Dewi Evans (second narrator). Between them, I couldn’t even attempt to count the amount of characters they played because it was so fast-paced. With two narrators keeping the flow going by linking the different periods of history, the audience are given the story of how different invaders, diseases, fires and royals shaped the city. Starting with the Romans establishing Londinium, it goes on to cover the Vikings, Danes and Saxons. Royals including Henry VIII and his many wives, Queen Elizabeth II, William The Conqueror and King Charles II make an appearance as the cast bring the long-dead characters to life in humorous ways. Towards the end of the play, we were still quite a way off 2013, so the city’s modern history was summarised in a clever poem. Overall, I found the play informative, funny and entertaining. The historical setting could not have been more apt and it was quite a treat to see a play within the ruins. With tickets at just £15, it’s an affordable piece of theatre when money is tight for many. Highly recommended.
N.B. Photos during the play were not allowed, hence the before shots.
- A Complete History Of London runs at various locations and dates in London. Check out their website or follow their Twitter page to find out when the next shows are. Alternatively, if you want to find out more about the Roman Amphitheatre remains, visit the Guildhall Art Gallery website.
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