The religious houses of London: Introduction

A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.

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'The religious houses of London: Introduction', in A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark, ed. William Page( London, 1909), British History Online [accessed 14 July 2024].

'The religious houses of London: Introduction', in A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Edited by William Page( London, 1909), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024,

"The religious houses of London: Introduction". A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Ed. William Page(London, 1909), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024.

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The religious houses of London were in number and interest not unworthy of the capital. The two which surpassed all the rest in importance were also the most ancient—the cathedral of St. Paul, founded in 604, and the Benedictine abbey of St. Peter, Westminster, which may be as early as the eighth century. The other foundations of secular canons were much later, the college of St. Martin-le-Grand dating from 1067, and that of St. Stephen, Westminster, from 1348, while the only other house of the Benedictine order, the nunnery of St. Helen at Bishopsgate, did not arise before the beginning of the thirteenth century, and the sole Cistercian abbey, St. Mary Graces on Tower Hill, not until 1350. The list of London houses does not include one of Carthusians, for the Charterhouse was just outside the City boundary.

The three houses of Austin Canons may be considered early, since Holy Trinity Aldgate, and St. Mary Overy in Southwark, were founded about 1108 within a very short time of the introduction of the rule into this country, and the priory of St. Bartholomew was begun in 1123. The Knights of the Temple are believed to have settled in Holborn soon after their first arrival in England in 1128, and the establishment of the Knights of St. Thomas of Acon in Cheapside took place in the reign of Henry II, a few years after the death of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, which should also perhaps be included under the heading of Military orders, was founded in 1247. When the Grey Friars came to London in the lifetime of St. Francis, the Black Friars had already settled in Holborn, and during the thirteenth century communities of Carmelite, Austin, Crossed Friars, and nuns of St. Clare, as well as of the short-lived orders of Pied Friars, Friars of the Sack, and Friars de Areno were formed in the City and suburbs.

There were at least twelve hospitals, six for the sick, and six for the poor. Of the first kind were St. Bartholomew's Smithfield, St. James's Westminster, and St. Mary's without Bishopsgate, founded in the twelfth century, and the hospitals of St. Thomas and St. Leonard in Southwark, and St. Mary's Cripplegate or Elsingspital, at the beginning of the fourteenth century; in the second category may be reckoned St. Katharine's by the Tower, which dates from the reign of Stephen, the House for Converted Jews of the time of Henry III, Whittington's Hospital and the Pappey, foundations of the fifteenth, and the Savoy Hospital and Milbourne's Almshouses of the sixteenth century. A community of priests in Dowgate known as Jesus Commons might also be considered a hospital. Besides these there may have been several others. Stow says that there was at one time a hospital for lunatics at Charing Cross, but that the inmates were transferred to St. Mary Bethlehem, to which the house was given. (fn. 1) The Brothers of the Holy Sepulchre, in the first years of Henry III, seem to have had a house in London, (fn. 2) but this cannot have been the hospital in Holborn, which, according to Stow, was suppressed by Henry V as an alien priory (fn. 3) together with others at Aldersgate (fn. 4) and Cripplegate, (fn. 5) for these were all of the Cluniac order.

Except, however, those already mentioned in another connexion, the only alien houses of which any history survives are St. Anthony's Hospital in the parish of St. Benet Fink, and St. Mary Rouncevall near Charing Cross, both founded during the reign of Henry III.

In the fourteenth century colleges were established in the churches of St. Laurence Pountney and St. Michael Crooked Lane, and in the chapels of St. Peter in the Tower and St. Mary in the Guildhall; in the fifteenth in the church of St. Michael Paternoster, and the chapels of Our Lady in Allhallows Barking, and St. Thomas on London Bridge, while the chapel of Leadenhall was entrusted to the charge of a fraternity of sixty priests. The chantry priests of St. James's, Garlickhithe, were constituted a corporate body in 1481, and lived together in a house known as St. James's Commons, (fn. 6) and there were possibly other instances of the kind. This list of religious houses is probably however not exhaustive: a house of St. Bridget in London is mentioned in a document of the time of Henry II (fn. 7); a nunnery is said to have once stood on the ground afterwards occupied by Elsing's hospital (fn. 8); and Arnold in his catalogue of houses includes a chapel of St. Ursula in the Poultry. (fn. 9)

Besides these various associations of religious persons there were always here and there in mediaeval London persons who lived a life of solitude in hermitages or anker-holds.

The relations of the citizens with these religious communities did not generally leave much to be desired. There were disputes with St. Paul's about boundaries, with St. Bartholomew's over the Fair, and with St. Martinle-Grand about sanctuary, but they did not develop into serious quarrels. The only instance of real ill-feeling occurred in the thirteenth century, and was caused by the privileges which raised the abbey at Westminster into a rival. On the whole it may be said that the City was proud of these foundations, most of which owed much to the generosity of the citizens, and that the London houses had a real sense of belonging to and forming part of the City.


  • 1. Stow, Surv. of Lond. (ed. Strype), vi, 2.
  • 2. In 1226 and 1232 the king gave letters of protection to the Brothers of the hospital of St. Sepulchre, London, seeking alms throughout England. Cal. of Pat. 1226–32, pp. 97 and 499.
  • 3. Stow, op. cit. iii, 248.
  • 4. Ibid. i, 124.
  • 5. Ibid. iii, 88.
  • 6. a See volume on Topography, Vintry Ward.
  • 7. Harl. Chart. 43, I, 38. For this, as well as for many references to Charters, the author is indebted to Mr. Ellis of the British Museum.
  • 8. Stow, op. cit. iii, 73.
  • 9. Arnold, Chronicle (ed. 1811), 75.