10 subterranean sites in London – 5. Whitefriars Priory crypt…

November 15, 2017

Located in the basement of a modern office building (and visible through glass) are the remains of a 700-year-old crypt that once lay beneath Whitefriars Priory.

Reached via Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street which runs south from Fleet Street), the remains are all that is visibly left of the priory, founded here in the 13th century.

Known as ‘White Friars’ because of the white mantle they wore over their brown habits, the Carmelites (their proper name) were founded in what is now Israel in the mid-12th century. After the region fell to the Saracens in the mid-13th century, some members of the order made their way to England with the aid of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III. In  1241, Sir Richard Grey of Codnor founded the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on this site.

The priory – which counted towering medieval figure John of Gaunt among its patrons – once stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames and to the Temple in the west and what is now Whitefriars Street in the east. It included a church – enlarged in the 14th century – as well as cloisters, a garden and cemetery.

The priory survived until the Dissolution after which King Henry VIII granted various buildings to the King’s Physician and the King’s Armourer and the great hall become the famous Whitefriars Playhouse.

Whitefriars became part of the rather infamous slum known as Alsatia, a ‘liberty’ seen as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing the law. The priory was gradually subsumed into the slum – there’s a suggestion that the crypt may have been used as a coal cellar.

The remains of the 14th century vaulted crypt, which had been located beneath the prior’s house on the east side of the former priory site, were apparently found in the late 19th century and restored in the 1920s when the now defunct newspaper News of the World was expanding. During a redevelopment in the 1980s (which came after News International moved out to Wapping), the remains were moved to their current location.

WHERE: Whitefriars Crypt, Ashentree Court, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Temple and Blackfriars); WHEN: Daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: None.

PICTURE: The crypt at seen at this year’s Open House London event. (Andrea Vail licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

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