The fascinating history of Blackfriars | Norman castles, a priory, theatres and Shakespeare’s home
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.
If those tiles could talk! The remains of Queen Caroline’s bath in Greenwich Park
Have you spotted the hidden ruins of Queen Caroline’s Georgian mansion?
When visitors come to Greenwich Park, they usually make a beeline for the Royal Observatory with its historic GMT line and stunning views. However, in the south-west corner of the park, there’s a fascinating piece of London’s royal history hidden behind a hedge. Situated just a metre from the park’s wall is the remains of Queen Caroline’s bathhouse.
Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, Princess of Brunswick (1768-1821), was born in Germany and was betrothed to her cousin, the future King George IV (1762-1830) in an arranged marriage. The pair wed at St James’s Palace in April 1795, with the heir-to-the-throne apparently drunk during the ceremony! Their coupling was a disaster and they separated shortly after the birth of their daughter Princess Charlotte (1796-1817). By the time their child was a year old, Princess Caroline was living in a separate house in Charlton, eventually moving a few miles away to Montagu House in Blackheath around 1797-1799 (see a sketch of the house in 1800).
Montagu House was built in the late 17th century for Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu (1638-1709). His son John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) employed Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) as a butler at the house for two years. Sancho was born on a slave ship, but gained his freedom and educated himself, partially with the books from the library at Montagu House. He went on to become an early prominent figure in the fight for the abolition of slavery and wrote many letters on the subject. Today, there is a plaque commemorating Sancho on what was the wall of Montagu House. The bathhouse is believed to be an addition added by Princess Caroline in the early 19th century. It was a structure of glass and light lattice, with an adjoining greenhouse. Bathhouses were trendy in Georgian times for improving health and entertaining guests. Surprisingly to us 21st century Brits, the Georgians usually wore their clothes while bathing.
Returning to Princess Caroline, by the time she moved into Montagu House she was being subjected to harsh custody arrangements over her daughter Charlotte. Under English law at the time, the father’s rights were considered more important than the mother’s, and partially out of hatred for his estranged wife, George made things incredibly difficult. Princess Caroline was only allowed to see her daughter in the presence of a nurse and governess, overnight stays were forbidden and she was banned from making any decisions about Charlotte’s care or education.
During her 15 years or so living at Montagu House, Princess Caroline was the target of some wild rumours. A sociable and confident woman, Charlotte hosted famously wild parties at Montagu House and was romantically linked to several men. She was accused of flirting with Naval heroes, Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith (1764-1840) and Captain Thomas Manby (1769-1834) and having a brief relationship with politician and future Prime Minister George Canning (1770 –1827). She wasn’t just a known for her social skills, but also her generosity with poor neighbours. In 1802, Caroline adopted a baby boy William Austin when his desperate mother brought him to the house. Read the rest of this entry
Roman Fort West Gate ruins | A tiny bit of Londinium… hidden in a car park
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.
Read about the history of the nearby Aldersgate or Ludgate.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
‘Roman’ bath at the Strand | What the Dickens is the history behind this old watering hole?
Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.
Known as the ‘Roman’ Bath on Strand Lane, the building is rarely open to the public. I visited a few months ago during Open House London and found the origins of the baths weren’t quite as romantic as they sounded. At one point there were two baths on the site – named ‘Essex’ and ‘Roman’ respectively, however it is the latter (which is also the oldest), that can be seen today.
Thanks to centuries of redevelopment, bombing and fires, there isn’t much left of Roman London today. Within the borders of old Londinium, we have some of the Roman wall at Tower Hill, the remains of the Amphitheatre at Guildhall and an old bathhouse at Lower Thames Street. While the bath at The Strand continues to be named ‘Roman’, it turns out it is significantly younger than two millennia.
Recent research by historians at nearby King’s College London has found the bath was originally constructed in 1612 as a feeder cistern for an elaborate fountain in the gardens of an earlier incarnation of Somerset House (prior to the current building, which dates back to 1796). At the time, the house was the residence for Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of King James I of England (1566-1625). Following their deaths, it is believed the fountain was demolished around 1630 during extensive remodelling under the reign of their son King Charles I (1600-1649). This research by Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward rejects an earlier theory the bath was a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, home to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl Of Arundel (1586-1646). Read the rest of this entry
A hidden garden in the City | The ruins of St Dunstan-in-the-East
The bombed out ruins of a Christopher Wren church is now a public garden.
The City Of London is a bustling, noisy place, especially on weekdays. For hundreds of years, the City’s churches have always been a place of solitude for those seeking quiet and today that is no different. However, not all churches consist of four walls and a ceiling thanks to the damage ravaged by the Nazis during World War II. Located just north of Lower Thames Street is a hidden garden in the ruins of a former church. Although the steeple and tower and some of the walls now remain, the roof and interiors are long gone, having been replaced by a peaceful garden.
St Dunstan-in-the-East is located in the south-east corner of the City of London, a short walk from the Tower of London. The original St Dunstan church was originally built in 1100, but like many in the City, was damaged in the Great Fire Of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) was given the responsibility of repairing and renovating the church. The building was patched up between 1668 and 1671 with Wren adding a needle spire during 1696 and 1701. Inside, the church contained carvings by Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), whose work also features in St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.
In 1817, the church was in a sorry state so it was rebuilt in a perpendicular style to a design by architect David Laing (1774-1856), who designed the New Custom House and was a former apprentice of Sir John Soane. Laing was assisted by architect William Tite (1798–1873), who went on to design the Royal Exchange, West Norwood Cemetery and various train stations, including Vauxhall, Barnes, Chiswick and Kew Bridge. The heavy weight of the roof of the nave had been pushing the walls out seven inches, so it was decided the whole structure – bar Wren’s tower – should be rebuilt. The new design was built with Portland Stone, cost £36,000 and spanned 115 feet by 65 feet. The makeover was revealed to the congregation on January 1821 and could accommodate up to 600-700 parishioners. (For a photo of the church interior, click here or exterior in 1910, click here.)
However, Laing’s redesign was not to last either, with the Nazi bombing campaign of World War II wreaking havoc on St Dunstan’s 120 years later. On 10 May 1941, the bomb destroyed the nave and roof and blew out the stained glass windows. In 1960, St Dunstan was linked with All Hallows by the Tower. The City of London Corporation decided not to rebuild and instead turn the ruins into a public garden, which opened in 1971. The tower’s eight bells were transferred to the Sterling Winery in California’s Napa Valley.
Today, the garden contain lots of plants, trees, a fountain and benches, while the tower is home to a wellbeing foundation. Occasional religious services are held in the open air in the garden, such as Palm Sunday, organised by All Hallows.
- St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill, off Lower Thames Street, City of London, EC3R 8DX. Nearest stations: Tower Hill or Monument.
Read more about Sir Christopher Wren’s churches and life:
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.
A king’s country escape… in the middle of Rotherhithe | The ruins of Edward III’s Manor House
The history of 14th century ruins of a former royal residence.
There are many royal London residences past and present visited by tourists today, such as Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court Palace. However, not all monarchy’s abodes have survived the test of time. The remains of one such royal residence can still be seen today, and in an area somewhat off the usual tourist trail.
The foundations of King Edward III‘s (1312 – 1377) manor house stands near the River Thames in Rotherhithe. With the grass surrounding the ruins dipped low, you could easily imagine where the former moat used to flow around it. The house was built as a country escape outside the City of London by the King in 1353. At the time, the land upon which the foundations were laid was a low-lying island surrounded by marshland. The original manor house comprised of several stone buildings around a court. Water flowed around three sides of the complex so the king could arrive by boat along the Thames. On site included a gatehouse, hall with grand fireplace, kitchens and the king’s private chambers.
Although many royal residences were established as bases for hunting, Rotherhithe had no royal park so this function was ruled out. However, King Edward III was known as a keen falconer, with some historians believing he used the manor house as a base for falconry over the river or surrounding marshland.
Following Edward’s death, the waterline changed in the decades that followed, so by the late 16th century, the south bank of the river had reclaimed some of the Thames, pushing the waterline north so a road ran alongside it. However, the moat remained and eventually surrounded the manor house on all four sides. The Crown sold the property to private owners and it was known as ‘the moted place’. In the 17th century, there was a pottery on the site, followed by warehouses during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1907, the façade of the north wall of the house had actually been incorporated into a warehouse building. The warehouses were eventually demolished in the 1980s as part of a redevelopment plan, giving archaeologists at the Museum Of London the chance to excavate and restore the site in 1985. Fortunately, the remains weren’t rebuilt over and are visible to the public today to visit.
Metro Girl likes: While you’re in the area, check out the nearby Angel pub, with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Thames.
- Bermondsey Wall East, Rotherhithe, SE16. Nearest stations: Bermondsey or Rotherhithe.
To read about the Medieval ruins of Winchester Palace, just over 30 minutes walk away, click here.
To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the Thames Tunnel built by Brunel, click here.
For more Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Visit the ruins of a Billingsgate Roman bath house
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.
Winchester Palace ruins | A surviving piece of Medieval London amidst the wharves
The history of these striking 12th century ruins on Bankside.
While London has been in existence for over 2000 years, there is little that remains from the earlier centuries. The Tower Of London and sections of the old Roman Wall are just a few pre-17th century remnants of the City of London. Over the centuries, the city has been ravaged by fire, plagues and bombs. Back in the 13th Century, the population of London was extending beyond the City walls, as the adjoining City of Westminster was also rapidly growing since the 11th century – with people spreading across the River Thames to the South Bank.
Of course, during William Shakespeare‘s times, Bankside would have been comparable to Soho or Shoreditch today – where the population went to party and be entertained. However, a few centuries before the Elizabethan playhouses entertained the masses, Bankside became home to Winchester Palace – a city base for religious leaders.
The town of Southwark belonged to the old Diocese of Winchester – when the Hampshire city was the capital of Saxon England – and was a handy base for the Bishop when he needed to visit London for royal or state business. Henry of Blois (1096-1171), the Bishop of Winchester at the time, decided to construct the palace in the 12th century as a permanent base. The palace included a Great Hall, prison, wine cellar, brewery and butchers, among other buildings on the large site. As well as providing somewhere to rest, it soon became a place for entertainment. The palace played host to royal guests over the decades and was the location of James I of Scotland (1394-1437) and Joan Beaufort’s (d.1445) wedding reception in 1424. The bishops certainly lived well – even having access to tennis courts, garden and bowling alley. In 1642, the palace was converted into a prison to hold royalists during the English Civil War. One notable prisoner was Sir Thomas Ogle.
The palace remained in use for nearly 500 years until the 17th century when the building was divided up into warehouses and tenements. However, like many of London’s greatest Medieval buildings, it was largely destroyed by fire in 1814. The existing ruins, which lie on the Thames Path, were partially re-discovered in the 19th century following another fire and thought to be mostly 14th century. Further redevelopment of Bankside in the 1980s uncovered more remains. The ruins were Grade II* by Historic England in 1950 and have been deemed a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Today, all that’s left is the stunning, 14th century rose window and the gable wall with doors leading to the pantry, buttery and kitchen. The lower level would have featured a vaulted cellar, with direct access to the river wharf. The window was restored in 1972.
- The remains of Winchester Palace lie on the Thames Path at Clink Street, Bankside, SE1 9DG (just west of the Golden Hinde ship replica). Free to visit. Nearest station: London Bridge. For more information, visit the English Heritage website.
For the rest of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.
A Complete History Of London: Funny, abridged story of the city in a Roman amphitheatre
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.
To find out about the ruins of a Roman bath house in London, click here, or to read about the remains of the Roman fort in a London car park, click here.
Or for more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.
A look inside Battersea Power Station before the developers move in
Check out photographs of the derelict Power Station before the multi-million pound renovation and conversion to shops and homes.
Battersea Power Station has come to symbolise many things over the decades – industry, dereliction, Pink Floyd. Since it was decommissioned in 1983, Londoners have witnessed the iconic 1930s landmark lie ruined and neglected over the past 29 years – with the decline of the building sped up following the removal of the roof in the late ’80s (thanks Margaret Thatcher, for approving THAT decision!). It’s no surprise the Power Station has been on English Heritage’s At Risk register for a while.
Growing up in south London, I regularly passed the Power Station on the train or in the car as I made my way back and forth over the River Thames. Throughout my life there has been various plans – and long periods of inactivity – of what to do to the former station and its huge 39 acre site. In terms of the capital, the Power Station’s land overlooking the river is a prime spot of real estate and I think it’s a crime it has been left to rack and ruin for so long. Years of neglect mean the Malaysian consortium who bought the land in 2012 will sadly have to knock down the Grade-II listed chimneys and replace them with replicas.
Of course, the main obstacle of turning this huge space into something usable has been the cost. The Power Station has been owned by various companies over the years and at one point in the ’80s was going to be transformed into a theme park, a prospect which excited me greatly as a child at the time, but in hindsight I’m grateful it didn’t happen. So following the purchase of the estate earlier this year and a £400million plan to transform the building and surrounding area into housing, offices and commercial areas, I’m keeping my fingers crossed this plan actually reaches fruition. Preparatory work has already begun on what is the largest brick building in Europe, with the builders moving in next year to start the 800 residential units, with phase one of the project estimated for completion in 2016.
Although Battersea is one of our favourite landmarks now, when it was being built from 1929 onwards, many complained it would be an eyesore. Londoners moaned it would spew out pollution into the nearby areas and there were even fears it could damage the paintings at the Tate Britain gallery a short distance down the river. In an attempt to appease concerns, acclaimed architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) was hired to design the Power Station. Scott, grandson of St Pancras architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), was famous for designing the red telephone box, the Tate Modern building and Liverpool Cathedral. Construction of the A station started in 1929 and opened in 1933, with the creation of B station beginning shortly after the end of World War II and gradually coming into operation between 1953 and 1955. Once B station was up and running, Battersea had a generating capacity of 509 megawatts and was the third largest generating site in the UK and was the most thermally efficient power station in the world when it opened. Although Italian marble and Art Deco features were used in A’s turbine hall, Britain was too poor after World War II to afford the same lavish interiors for B.
Over time, the equipment became outdated. A Station was closed in March 1975, followed by B Station in October 1983. Following closure, there was talk of demolishing the Power Station, but it had been Grade II listed in 1980 ensuring its survival.
A few years ago, when Battersea was still owned by previous owners, Irish developers Real Estate Holdings, I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit the Power Station up close and see the plans. It was amazing seeing inside a building I knew so well from the outside – the Art Deco tile work, the ghostly wall markings of wrought-iron stairwells long since destroyed and the decorative wall in the old staff canteen. So here’s some of my photos of the striking station before it is transformed into a modern living and working space over the next few years.
- To find out more about the current plans for Battersea’s redevelopment, visit the official website.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.