East of the City wall

Of the various medieval religious houses founded on the east side of London, the only one to survive beyond the 16th century was St. Katharine’s, close to the Tower of London. Here is an artist’s impression of the Precinct of St. Katharine’s in the late 18th century.

During the Middle Ages many wealthy citizens of London provided endowments to create the numerous religious institutions in and around London. On the eastern side of London, both within and outside of the city wall, large monasteries and convents were established. Although long gone, their locations are still remembered in names such as Spitalfields, the St. Katharine Docks, and several street names.

In the early 3rd century, about 150 years after the founding of Londinium, the Romans built a defensive wall around the city. Outside of it they left a strip of land known as the ‘pomerium’ on which, for defensive purposes, building was forbidden. In Saxon times thirteen acres of this area east of the wall, down to the Thames, was granted to a guild of knights known as the Cnihtengild, thirteen in number according to the Tudor historian John Stowe, and they used it for jousting. Little is known of them but they may have been a military and religious society formed during the reign of Edgar the Peaceable. The Cnihtengild erected their own church outside of Aldgate, dedicated to St. Botolph, the Anglo-Saxon patron saint of wayfairers.

In the early 7th century King Ethelbert of Kent endowed Mellitus, the Bishop of London, with a large amount of land to the east of the city, forming the extensive manor of Stepney. The former pomerium remained, separating the city from Stepney. It became known by the Saxon name of the Portsoken, meaning ‘Liberty without the Gate’, with Hog Lane, later named Petticoat Lane and then Middlesex Street, forming its border with Stepney.

The Cnihtengild most probably had responsibility for defence of the City from attack from the east and thus William of Normandy’s conquest in 1066 made them redundant in that regard, although their rights were re-confirmed in a charter from King William II, son of the Conqueror. Following the building of the Tower of London in the latter decades of the 11th century the original defensive need for the Portsoken also became obsolete. It thereafter continued as a suburb immediately outside of the City where several religious foundations were located.

Dunstan, Bishop of London during the reign of King Edgar, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, founded several Benedictine monasteries, including Westminster Abbey and (possibly) the Convent of Bromley-by-Bow. In the following centuries there was a reaction against Benedictine rule in which monks and nuns took a vow of poverty, and orders of canons were established in their place. Followers of St. Augustine were known as ‘Canons Regular’ or ‘Austin Canons’. The first house of Austin Canons to be established in England was the Priory of Holy Trinity in 1109, with the encouragement of Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I. It was situated on a formerly empty plot of land just inside the City wall, beside Aldgate, and became the most splendid of London’s religious houses.

The Augustinian Order was named after the early Phoenician Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, who died in 430 and was canonised in 1298. Canons and nuns of the order lived a semi-monastic life, dedicated to pastoral care of the communities in which they lived. They also had a high regard for the spiritual benefits of beauty in architecture, painting and music.

In 1125 the Cnihtengild’s former manorial rights of the Portsoken were transferred to Holy Trinity, most probably under pressure from Henry I:

Henrie, king of England, to Richard Bishop of London, to the shireffes and provost, and to all his barons and faithfull people, French and English, of London and Middlesex, greeting: Know ye mee to have graunted and confirmed to the church and canons of the Holy Trinitie of London, the soke of the English Knighten Guilde, and the land which pertaineth thereunto, and the church of St. Buttolph, as the men of the same guilde have given and granted unto them…

The canons of Holy Trinity continued to appoint a vicar or curate at St. Botolph’s until the 16th century.

The Portsoken became a ward of the City of London, outside of the wall but “within the liberties of the City”. Each prior of Holy Trinity was an unelected alderman representing Portsoken ward, which continued until the priory was dissolved in the 16th century. Thereafter Portsoken was represented by a lay alderman elected by the citizens.

It was not long before disputes occurred between the priory and the Constable of the Tower of London who wished to encroach into their Portsoken land. These disputes continued over several centuries as the Tower was gradually expanded.

As the population of London increased in the 12th century there was a growing need for places to tend to the sick and elderly. The Augustinian monk Rahere founded the priory of St. Bartholomew at West Smithfield in 1123, London’s earliest hospital. The word ‘hospital’ derives from the Latin hospes, meaning stranger or guest. A quarter century later, the Hospital of St. Katharine was founded in 1148 by Matilda, wife of King Stephen, immediately to the east of the Tower of London, in the south of the Portsoken. She established it in memory of her two children who died in infancy and were buried at Holy Trinity, and the hospital initially remained within their custody. St. Katharine of Alexandria, who lived in the 4th century, was a popular saint at that time. The primary purpose of the hospital and its small religious community was to celebrate mass for the souls of Matilda’s family, to care for the poor and infirm, and provide a resting place for travellers. Matilda provided an endowment to maintain a chapter of four brethren, three sisters, and various other staff.

In the mid-13th century there were serious disagreements between Holy Trinity and the brethren of St. Katharine’s, with accusations back and forth, an enquiry by the Mayor of London, and letters to the Bishop of London and the Pope. Matters were finally settled when Queen Eleanor, dowager of the late Henry III, granted the hospital a new charter and decreed that only she could appoint new Masters, brethren and sisters. The Foundation of St. Katharine then ceased to be under the control of Holy Trinity and thereafter remained under the patronage of the queen consorts, queen dowager, or reigning queen.

St. Katharine’s was further endowed by Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, and over time an impressive church was created for the hospital, with a college attached. By the late 14th century the area was referred to as the Liberty or Precinct of St. Katharine’s. A new charter from Henry VI allowed the Precinct to carry out commerce, independent of the regulations of the City of London, and a dock and wharf was subsequently created. The parochial tie with St. Botolph’s was also severed and the hospital church became the parish church of the Precinct.

During the Middle Ages a brew-house was located on the riverside just to the east of St. Katharine’s. It was a public establishment, where Londoners could brew their malt into ale on payment of a fee to the government. In 1492 John Merchaut was licenced by Henry VII to export beer from there. The site was later occupied by the Red Lion brewery, which stood on the same site until the 1930s.

A French visitor to London in the 1570s, L.Grenade, commented:

As for the suburb called St.Katharine, it is one of the largest and most populated [districts around London] of them all. It is inhabited by a large number of sailors and of craftsmen of varying trades such as hatters, makers of harquebuses [a 16th century rifle], shoemakers, brewers and many others like these. This suburb is also the destination point for a vast quantity of wood, which is brought there by boat to supply the city.

Just a few years later, Stow described the Precinct as:

…being now of late years inclosed about… with small tenements and homely cottages, having inhabitants, English and strangers, more in number than in some city in England.

The Precinct of St. Katharine finally succumbed to progress in the mid-19th century when the suburb made way for the creation of the St. Katharine Docks. The foundation itself still exists in East London, although on a different site, with Queen Elizabeth II as patron.

When Richard I was in Palestine for the third Crusade at the end of the 12th century his Chancellor, William de Longchamp, set about enlarging the Tower of London. To do so, he appropriated a piece of the Portsoken from Holy Trinity, a garden and a mill from St. Katharine’s, as well as part of the City. The consequence was an alliance between the City of London and Richard’s brother, Prince John, against Longchamp.

Stay Connected

Be the first to hear when new content is added by joining my email newsletter.

I won't share your details and you can easily opt-out any time. Learn more in my Privacy Policy