What is a name?…Spitalfields…

April 22, 2013

This curiously named area in London’s east – located outside the medieval walls – is named for a priory and hospital founded here in the late 12th century.

The Priory and Hospital of Blessed Mary without Bishopsgate (more commonly known as St Mary Spital), was founded by London citizen Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia (both later said to have been buried before the chapel’s high altar), possibly along with other Londoners, in 1197 (although the priory was apparently “refounded” in 1235 when the church was moved).

An Augustinian institution, it also housed what became one of the largest hospitals in England – as well as caring for pilgrims, widows and the infirm poor, it is said to have provided care for pregnant women and the young children of those who died in childbirth – and the site of a large cemetery.

The hospital survived until the reign of King Henry VIII (although apparently barely with the church said to have been in some disrepair by this time) when it fell prey to Thomas Cromwell and his agents in the Dissolution. It was closed in 1539.

The church and most of the buildings were subsequently demolished with part of the area subsequently used as an artillery ground under the jurisdiction of the Tower of London (the area of the inner priory, meanwhile, reverted to the Crown and retained its status outside the jurisdiction of local authorities, known as the Liberty of Norton Folgate).

But the name remained in use for the suburb which had started to appear around the priory and on its former lands (Spitalfields) and in the seventeenth century a market was established here which ensured its longevity. For more on Old (and New) Spitalfields Market and the area’s later history, see our previous post here.

Major excavations were carried out at the priory cemetery between 1991 and 2007 when more than 10,500 skeletons were unearthed. More than 5,000 of these were analysed providing archaeologists with considerable insight into medieval burials. The remains of a charnel house, dating from about 1320, which was once part of the cemetery still exist in Bishop’s Square.

For more, check out Christopher Thomas’ Life and Death in London’s East End: 2000 Years at Spitalfields.

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One Response to “What is a name?…Spitalfields…”


  1. If the Priory and Hospital of Blessed Mary was outside the medieval walls, then calling it Without Bishopsgate would be correct. Clearly I had no idea where the medieval walls had been.

    Spital is modern German for hospital, but was it old English as well?

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