St. Helen's Bishopsgate: The monastic buildings

Pages 24-28

Survey of London: Volume 9, the Parish of St Helen, Bishopsgate, Part I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1924.

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Apart from the nuns' church nothing now survives of the buildings of the Benedictine Priory, which covered a considerable area of ground immediately to the north of the existing buildings. The eastern range, with gardens to the east of it, was acquired by the Lcathersellers' Company in 1543 and the buildings adapted for use as their Livery Hall. This range, altered in the time of Elizabeth and no doubt subsequently, survived until 1799, when the whole site was cleared and the new St. Helen's Place laid out.

Information available as to the plan and disposition of the monastic buildings is to be derived, mainly, from three sources: (a) a fairly detailed survey of the buildings of the priory taken at the Dissolution (fn. 1); (b) plans and drawings of the remains taken before the demolition of Leathersellers' Hall in 1799, and (c) the excavations undertaken when the site was cleared in 1922.

The survey of 1541 runs as follows:—

The late Priory of St. Elenes within the City of London.

The View and Survey ther taken xxist daye of June in the xxxiij yeare of the raigne of our Soveraigne Lord Kinge Henrye the VIIIth by Thos. Mildmay, one of the King's Auditors thereunto assigned.

First the cheaf entre or comminge in to the same late Priory is in and by the street gate lying in the parishe of St. Elenes in Bysshopsgate Streat which leadeth to a little cowrte next adjoyning to the same gate having chambers, houses and buyldinges environning the same, out of which cowrte there is an entre leading to an inner cowrte which on the north side is also likewise environed with edificyons & buildings called the Stewardes lodging with a countinge house appurteining to the same.

Item next to the same cowrte there is a faire kechinge with a "Pastery house," larder houses & other houses of office appurteininge to the same & at the East ende of the same kitchen & entre leadinge to the same hall with a little parlor adjoining having under the same hall & parlour sondrie howses of office next adjoining to the cloyster ther & one howse called the Covent parler.

Item iij fair Chambers adjoininge to the hall whereof the one over the entree leadinge to the cloyster thother over the Buttree & the third over the larder.

Item from the said entre by the hall to the cloyster which cloyster yet remaneth holly leaded & at the north side of the same cloyster a fare long howse called the fratree.

Item at the est ende of the same cloyster a lodginge called the Supprior's lodging with a litle gardin lieing to the same And by the same lodginge a pare of staires leading to the Dortor at the southend whearof ther is a litle hows wherein the evidence of the sd. hows nowe dou remayne with all howses & lodginges under the same Dortor.

Item at the westende of the same cloyster a dore leadinge into the miñes late Quire extending from the dore out of the churcheyarde unto the lampe or particyon deviding the priorye from the parisshe which is holly leaded.

Item at the estende of the said cloyster an entre leading to a little garden & out of the same littell garden to a faire garden called the Covent garden contening by estimacon half an acre. And at the northend of the said garden adore leading to an other garden called the ketchin garden & at the west ende of the same ther is a dovehowsshe & in the same garden a dore to a fair woodyerd with houses, particons & gardens within the same woodyerd & tenement with a garden a stable & other the appurtenances to the same belonginge called Elizabeth Hawtes lodginge All which premisses ben rated extendyd & valued. The Kinges Highnesse to be discharged of the reparations of the yerely value of £6 13s. 4d.

Item one tent. there in the hold of Willm. Baker by the yeare 20s.

Item one other tent. in the hold of Jane Julian by the yeare 13s. 4d.

Item one other tent. there in the hold of Edmunde Brewer by the yeare 13s. 4d.

Item one other tent. there in the hold of Eye Sturdye by the yeare 13s. 4d.

Item one other tent. there in the hold of Lance Harryson by the yeare 13s. 4d.

iii£ 13s. 4d.
Sum, £10 6s. 8d.
Exnd. per/by me Thomam Mildmaie, Auditor.

There is also a short inventory (fn. 2) of moveables of slightly later date which gives some further particulars:—

Inprimis in the kechyn a dowble cestern of leade, thre dressynge boords, a choppyng blokke, a shelffe, a covering of an oven of iron, a shelffe boorde, a skrene.

Item yn the larder house a cupborde and twoo dressyng boordes.

Item yn the pultry house a greate cowpe.

Item yn the pastrye house fower pastyng boordes and fower bowtyng bynnes.

Item yn the drye larder house twoo cupbordes with a dowble hangyng shelffe and a chyeste.

Item yn the pantry a brede bynne, fyve shelffs, a joyste for byere, a perche to hang on table clothes.

Item yn the hall twoo portalls, a cupborde, and the sayd hall selyd rowndeabowt with waynscotte.

Item yn the frater two standyng tables . . . frater celyd rownde about with waynescotte.

Item yn the lowe p'lure, under the hall a portall with a lytell shelffe.

Item yn the beere celler thre joystes for beere and a chese rakke.

Item yn the chappell a closet.

Item yn the chamber over the entre a cupborde celed rownde about with waynescott.

Item a lodgyng nowe yn the occupyeng of Master Wate. Crumwell two portalls of waynescotte with all the doores.

Item yn the gardeyn the same rayled rownde about, a dyall, three rakkytes to hange clothes upon with polles.

Item a welle whele with one bukkytt and a wynche. All the glasse and all the other portalls, doores, lokks, keyes, and boltes to theym belongyng and all the other tymber, stones and ironwoork.

Item one cheste above yn the house for easement callyd the Jake or Jaks.

It is evident from the description in Mildmay's survey that the normal arrangement of a Benedictine house was followed at St. Helen's, the chief buildings being grouped in their traditional positions round the cloister. The survey begins with the west range, containing on the ground floor the buttery, larder, passage to the cloister, the convent parlour (fn. 3) and various houses of office no doubt appertaining to the cellaress. On the first floor was the hall (no doubt the Guest Hall) a little parlour (perhaps the guests' solar) and three fair chambers, over the entry, buttery and larder respectively. On the north of the cloister was the conventual Frater, a large hall on the ground floor, occupying the whole length of the range and extending to the west beyond it. The view of it in ruins given by Wilkinson, (fn. 4) and another in the Gardner Collection show it to have been a 13th-century structure, lit by a range of lancets in the north wall, of which four are shown as still intact. That the Frater range extended beyond the western limit of the cloister is indicated in this view by a break in the south wall, where the west wall of the cloister joins it, and is also clearly shown in Ogilby and Morgan's map, where the building of the Frater appears in block; the western part, however, was probably the kitchen or offices and the three lancet-shaped windows in the west wall are evidently, from the Gardner drawing, a more or less modern arrangement.

The cloister itself was a rectangle 71¼ feet north to south and probably about 70 feet east to west. Portions of the foundations of the arcade walls of the north, south and east were uncovered during the excavations of 1922 and are shown on the plan. The alleys were 10 feet wide and the arcade walls 1¾ feet thick. Near the middle of the east side was an added buttress projecting into the garth. No trace was found of the western arcade wall, and the foundations of the south arcade appear to indicate that the cloister on this side was not conterminous with the west end of the church. As, however, Ogilby and Morgan's map shows a building on the site of the west range and closing the cloister in at this point, it must be supposed that the overlap, if any, cannot have been more than a foot or two in extent. The Frater was entered from the cloister by a doorway at the end of the west walk, shown in the view of the ruins. The position of the kitchen, mentioned in the Survey, is not certain; it may have adjoined the west end of the Frater or the north end of the western range or may even have formed part of the western range itself. The eastern range is that which till 1799 formed part of Leathersellers' Hall. According to the Survey it contained on the ground floor, the "sub-prior's" (sub-prioress') lodging, (fn. 5) a passage to the garden appertaining to it and various houses and lodgings and on the first floor the nuns' Dorter, with the Muniment room at the south end of it. The existing plans and drawings of these buildings together with the recent excavations give considerably more information than the survey. Adjoining the church was a narrow building (46½ feet long by 13 feet wide in the eastern part and 12 feet in the western part), undoubtedly the sacristy. The western part was roofed with two bays of 13th-century quadripartite vaulting with chamfered ribs springing from moulded corbels. It was entered from the cloister by a doorway of two recessed orders, and opened into the eastern part of the building by an arch springing on the south from a plain respond with two attached shafts on the east face. The eastern part of the sacristy was not vaulted, and the roof was at a higher level. It has a plain pointed recess in the south wall (the church wall) and east of it is a 13th-century piscina with a shouldered head. The various openings in the wall between the sacristy and the church will be described under that building. The whole of the south side of the sacristy with the base of the west doorway was uncovered in 1922, and showed that Wilkinson's plan was not accurate in several particulars, notably in the projection of the west wall into the cloister, which projection was non-existent.

The Chapter House adjoined this building on the north. It was 46½ feet long by 21 feet wide, and portions of the north, south and west walls were recently uncovered. The plans and views of this building before its demolition show that it had four bays with a ribbed quadripartite vault of stone, three lancet-windows in the east wall and a doorway from the cloister in the west wall having a central and two side shafts. (fn. 6)

Extending north from the Chapter House was a vaulted undercroft (63½ feet by 26½ feet) of similar date and character to the rest of the range, and divided into five bays in length and two in breadth by a row of octagonal columns with moulded capitals and bases. The ribbed vault, in quadripartite bays, rested on these columns and on moulded corbels in the side walls. The narrow second bay from the south probably formed a passage and was entered from the cloister by a pointed doorway.

The two passages shown on Wilkinson's plan extending to the west and south of this undercroft, were probably neither of them mediæval, the western not according with the known position of the Frater walls and the northern extending much too far (56 feet) to have served any monastic purpose. (fn. 7)

The Dorter, extending over probably the whole of this range (except the south end), was so entirely altered by being transformed into the Leathersellers' Hall and Court Room as to leave no traces of its mediæval features in the drawings of it that have survived. The Muniment Room, or place where the evidences of the house were kept, must have been above the sacristy already described. The Dorter was approached by the night stairs (see church) from the church and by the day stairs, mentioned in the Survey, somewhere near the east end of the Frater. Before leaving this range, it may be mentioned that during the excavations two masses of foundation were discovered projecting, at a slight angle, eastwards from the Chapter House. They no doubt formed the substructure of the Elizabethan or Jacobean building added by the Leathersellers' Company, and indeed the massive southern foundation exactly represents in plan a chimney stack shown on several old views of the building.

Three buildings, essential to the later monastic economy, are absent from the list in the Survey—the Infirmary, the Rere Dorter and the lodging of the prioress. The Infirmary is mentioned in the Kentwood Injunctions (ante p. 8) in a way that implies that there was then no separate building for that purpose; possibly it had been put to other uses or leased to a lay tenant. The Rere Dorter is referred to (as the Jake or Jaks) in the Inventory of moveables. The Infirmary should lie east of the Dorter Range, the Rere Dorter in immediate connection with the Dorter and the lodging of the prioress in any position dictated by local conditions.

The buildings of the outer and inner courts are also lightly touched upon by the surveyor. The gate house in Bishopsgate Street is indeed mentioned, but the bake and brew-houses, stables, etc., must be included in the general terms—" Chambers, Howses and Buildings," surrounding the courts. The gate house is undoubtedly represented by the present entrance from Bishopsgate Street and the taking down of the old building in 1696 has already been referred to (p. 21).


  • 1. MS., Soc. of Antiquaries, 521—printed in Archœologia, XVI, p. 29, London and Middlesex Archœological Society, II, p. 192, and in Cox, op. cit., pp. 29–30.
  • 2. Add. Char 39406 B.
  • 3. In large monastic houses there were commonly two parlours, the inner on the east and the outer on the west of the cloister. The outer parlour was often used as the entry from the outer court, and as a parlour and entry are mentioned at St. Helen's it seems likely that the inner parlour was here dispensed with.
  • 4. Londina Illustrata.
  • 5. That the lodging of the sub-prioress or even of the prioress was in this position is very unlikely; the apartment referred to was more probably a checker.
  • 6. Portions of the mediæval pavement of red tiles were found during the recent excavations. They showed that the original level of the chapter-house floor must have been below that of the cloister, a not uncommon arrangement, to provide greater height, without interrupting the level of the dorter above. Traces were also found of a subsequent raising of the floor, probably also mediæval.
  • 7. There is a view of this passage in the Gardner Collection. It was built entirely of brick and apparently was of no great antiquity.