At Shoreditch, just to the north of Bishopsgate, the Priory of St. John the Baptist was founded in about 1150 for Augustinian canonesses. Robert FitzGeneran, a canon of St. Paul’s, provided an endowment of three acres of land. It was from there that the Holywell spring flowed and thus it is usually known as Holywell Priory. Further endowments were made and by the time of its suppression in the 16th century it was the ninth richest nunnery in England.
South of Holywell, in around 1197, Walter Brune and his wife Roisa purchased land on what was then known as Lolesworth Fields to the east of Ermine Street, on the northern section of the old Roman cemetery. It was consecrated ground because earlier in the century a large number of Londoners were buried at that place following a famine or other such catastrophe. There the Brauns founded the Augustinian Priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, more commonly known as the Priory of St. Mary, or St. Mary Spital. The couple were eminent Londoners and Walter was a Sheriff of the City of London. During the Middle Ages wealthy people carried out charitable acts, such as funding chapels, churches and other religious institutions on the belief they would be rewarded in heaven.
The Priory of St. Mary grew over the following three centuries and more, from a simple hall into an impressive series of buildings, being both a monastery and hospital. There Augustinian canons and lay sisters cared for the sick and distressed, and in particular as a lying-in hospital for woman giving birth. Orphans of women who died in childbirth were looked after and educated until the age of seven. It became known as the hospital in the fields, or simply the ‘spital’, and the area as Spitalfields.
At its greatest, the priory complex consisted of a range of buildings around small open spaces and a cloister. The largest and most important of the buildings was the church. An infirmary consisted of male and female wings, eventually accommodating up to 180 patients. A gatehouse led out onto Ermine Street where those entering were checked to ensure they were not lepers. In 1235 the priory acquired additional surrounding land and from then covered thirteen acres.
On the southern side of the priory complex was the cemetery and charnel house. During an archaeological dig of that section during the 1990s the skeletons of over ten thousand bodies were found, some of which were Roman but mostly from the Middle Ages and early Tudor periods, indicating that St. Mary’s was a popular place to be buried. Many of the deceased were buried at the time of a great natural catastrophe in the mid-13th century (thought to be caused by a huge volcanic eruption on a distant continent) and the Black Death of 1348. As space was required for new burials the skeletal remains of earlier bodies would be taken out of the ground and the bones carefully stored in the charnel house. The remains of part of the charnel house can still be seen (and occasionally visited) below ground on the western side of the modern-day Spitalfields market.
By the early 16th century St. Mary’s had become a major London institution. It was then the size of a small, bustling village, accommodating hundreds of people. The church was one of the largest in the London area, with a nave measuring seventy-five metres in length. The tall, square-plan tower over its crossing was one of London’s landmarks, especially when approaching the City along Ermine Street. The priory’s hospital was the largest in London.
Beside the priory cemetery stood Spital Cross. From the 14th century one of London’s great annual public events were the Spital Sermons. They were given there on three days of Easter week by specially chosen preachers, by royal decree, attended by the Lord Mayor and City aldermen in their state robes, with sermons on other days of that week given from Paul’s Cross at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
A century after the foundation of the Priory of St. Mary’s at Spitalfields, Blanche, Queen of Navarre, brought a group of Franciscan nuns to England from Spain. In 1293 her husband, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, brother of King Edward I, founded the Abbey of St. Clare to receive them. St. Clare, who had died a mere fifty years earlier at Assisi, was an Italian follower of St. Francis. The abbey was located in the Portsoken, outside of the City wall between Aldgate and the Tower. The land must have been given over to the new abbey because it became a ‘close’ of its own and was from then not part of the property of the Priory of Holy Trinity. The nuns, known as ‘Minoresses’ from the Latin sorores minores meaning ‘lesser sisters’, lived an enclosed life. Long after the abbey was dissolved the memory of the nuns is perpetuated by the street name Minories, which runs on the east of side of where the abbey stood. Part of the grounds of the former abbey became a farm, which was later known as Goodman’s Fields.
The City’s cemeteries were full to overcrowding during the Black Death plague of 1349, during the reign of Edward III, and decaying corpses were creating a health hazard. A cleric by the name of John Corey, together with a group of influential men of the City, persuaded the prior of Holy Trinity to give over a piece of the Portsoken at East Smithfield, close to the Tower and St. Katharine’s, to be used as a burial ground. The prior agreed providing it would be called the churchyard of Holy Trinity. The area was walled and consecrated by the Bishop of London. There “innumerable bodies of the dead were afterwards buried, and a chapel built”, according to Stow. The King had previously made a vow when he survived a storm at sea that he would build a monastery to honour “God and our Lady of Grace”. This he fulfilled by founding a monastery for Cistercian monks over the burial ground, to be known as the Abbey of St. Mary of Graces. At the time of its dissolution in 1538 it was the third wealthiest Cistercian abbey in Britain.
At the start of the 17th century the only one of these East London religious houses that remained was St. Katharine’s, due to its protection by the queen consorts. The chapel of the Abbey of St. Clare was turned into a parochial church. Otherwise, so thorough was the destruction of London’s monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII that almost no trace of them survived into modern times, except as a few street names, as well as Spitalfields, and St. Katharine Docks.
Sources include: Sir Hubert Llewelyn Smith ‘The History of East London’ (1939); Dan Cruickshank ‘Spitalfields’; Christopher West ‘The Story of St Katharine’s’; John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598); Christopher Brooke ‘London 800-1216: The Shaping of a City’; Chris Thomas ‘Life and Death in London’s East End’; Caroline M. Barron ‘London in the Later Middle Ages’; L. Grenade, ‘Les Singularitez de Londres’ (The Singularities of London, 1578), edited by Derek Keene & Ian W.Archer, London Topographical Society (2014).
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