Little remains of this priory which once stood on the banks of the River Wandle in Surrey (and is now encompassed in Greater London).

The priory, which was founded as an Augustinian house in the early 12th century, rose to become one of the most influential in all of southern Britain.

The institution was created thanks to Gilbert, the Sheriff of Surrey, Huntington and Cambridge, who was granted the village of Merton by King Henry I. Gilbert came to live in Merton and there established a priory, building a church and small huts on land thought to be located just to the west of where the priory was later located.

Gilbert had been impressed with what he’d seen of the Augustinians, also known as the Austin friars, at Huntington and so gave control of the new church to their sub-prior, Robert Bayle, along with the land and a mill.

It was based on Bayle’s advice that the site of the priory was then moved to its second location and a new, larger wooden chapel built with William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester, coming to bless the cemetery. The canons – there were now 17 – moved in on 3rd May, 1117.

Among the high profile people to visit the new priory was Queen Matilda, who brought her son William with her. In the early 1100s, a certain Thomas Becket (later the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury) received an education here as did Nicolas Breakspeare (later the first English Pope, Adrian IV).

The priory expanded considerably over the next century and in 1217 its chapter house was the location of a peace conference between King Henry III and Louis, the Dauphin of France. The Statutes of Merton – a series of legal codes relating to wills – were formulated here in 1236.

The connection with royalty continued – in the mid-1340s, King Edward III is thought to have passed the Feast of the Epiphany here while King Henry VI apparently had a crowning ceremony here – the first outside of Westminster Abbey for more than 300 years – in 1437.

The priory remained in use until the Dissolution of King Henry VIII. The demolition of the buildings apparently started even before the priory had been formally surrendered to the commissioners – stones from its building was used in the construction of Henry’s new palace – Nonsuch – as well as, later, in the construction of local buildings.

The site came to be referred to as ‘Merton Abbey’ and, passing through various hands, was used to garrison Parliamentarian troops during the Civil War. It later became a manufacturing facility, works for the dying and printing of textiles, one of which became the workshops of William Morris.

Some of the priory buildings survived for some years after but the only remains now left as sections of the perimeter wall (the arch which now stands over the entrance to Merton parish church is reconstructed – there’s another ornamental gateway in the outer court wall which was also replaced with a replica in the 1980s).

The foundations of the unusually large chapter house, meanwhile, have been excavated and are now preserved in a specially constructed enclosure under a roadway. Construction is now underway to build better public access to the remains.

PICTURE: A ceiling boss from Merton Priory which still bears traces of its original red paint and guilding. It was found during excavations at Nonsuch Palace in 1959-60 is now on display in the Museum of London. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) (licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0).

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st-katharine-docksThe name for this dock, located just to the east of Tower Bridge, comes from a 12th century established to help the poor known as St Katharine’s Hospital which was once located in the vicinity.

The hospital, which was named at St Katharine – whom tradition holds was martyred in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Maxentius – was founded by Matilda, the wife of King Stephen, in 1147, for the maintenance of 13 poor people.

It was supported by various English queens over the ensuing centuries, including Eleanor, beloved wife of King Edward I, who granted it a new charter in 1273, and Queen Philippa, wife of King Edward III, who drew up new regulations for the running of the hospital in 1351.

Having survived an attempt to have the hospital abolished by Puritans in the 17th century and an attempt to burn it down during the late 18th century Gordon Riots, in the early 19th century demand for new docks brought about the old hospital’s final demolition.

In 1825, the hospital relocated to Regent’s Park. Now known as the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, it is currently located in Limehouse, having moved there in 1948 (we’ll take a more in depth look at the history of St Katharine’s Hospital in an upcoming post).

The docks, meanwhile, was opened in 1828 following the removal of more than 1,200 homes and a brewery as well as the old hospital – works carried out despite a public outcry and, apparently, no compensation. Designed by Thomas Telford (of the Iron Bridge fame – this was apparently his only London project), the docks occupy a 23 acre site and featured a central basin opening to two docks lined with brick warehouses.

The docks were closed in 1968 and in the years since, the warehouses have been converted into shops, eateries, offices and residences while the waters are now used as a marina for luxury yachts.

Lost London – Queenhithe…

September 7, 2012

Not, strictly speaking, lost, Queenhithe – a dock on the north bank of the Thames – is nonetheless these days merely a shadow of its former self.

There has been a dock here since Saxon times when it is recorded that King Alfred (he of ‘The Great’ fame), established a harbour here in 883. It was then known as Ethelred’s Hythe (the Ethelred being that of his brother-in-law and ‘hythe’ being a Saxon word for a trading shore where goods could be traded directly out of boats).

Queenhithe took its name from Queen Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, who was granted dues from goods being traded at the dock in the early 1100’s – a right which was later inherited by future English queens.

The dock reached the peak of its popularity in the 13th century when it became the principal site for the landing of grain and other food supplies to feed London but in the 15th century, the dock’s importance waned as other docks downstream, better suited to larger watercraft, took over much of its trade.

Remains of the wooden timbers which in medieval times lined the Thames waterfront have been found here. The inlet for Queenhithe’s harbour (pictured above) is one of few left on The Thames.

The name these days gives itself to Queenhithe street (which leads to the inlet) and the Queenhithe Ward, one of 25 wards in the City of London. There was also a former church known as St Michael Queenhithe – it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and then demolished in the late 19th century.

London’s oldest hospital – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in what is known now as Smithfield – was founded in the 12th century.

The hospital owes its foundations – like the neighbouring Priory of St Bartholomew (London’s oldest church – see our previous story on this here) – to Rahere, a courtier (possibly a minstrel or jester) at the court of King Henry I who, tired with triviality, may have become a priest.

In any event, after the death of Henry’s son William – he is believed to have drowned when the White Ship foundered in November 1120 – and that of his wife Queen Matilda, Rahere went on pilgrimage to Rome. He did so but contracted malaria while there and, while under the care of  monks, he vowed to found a hospital for poor men if he recovered.

He did recover and on his return journey had a vision of St Bartholomew who informed him that it was he who had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield (then known as Smedfield).

Back in London, Rahere as he’d promised and, after petitioning the king, was granted a royal charter in 1122 to found the priory of Augustinian canons and the hospital.Work began in March 1123 and it was completed by 1145 when Rahere died (his tomb can still be seen in the church).

The hospital – one of a number in London at the time – was probably little more than a single hall with a chapel at one end. Other buildings and some cloisters were added later as was the Church of St Bartholomew the Less.

Under a charter of 1147, it was open to the needy, orphans, outcasts and the poor as well as sick people and homeless wanderers. In the 14th century, the definition was honed to include the sick until they recovered, pregnant women (until delivery) and for the maintenance of children born there until they were seven-years-old.

As well as the master (Rahere was the first), other ‘staff’ at the hospital initially included eight Augustinian brothers and four sisters but the hospital gradually became independent of the priory and by 1300, the hospital has its own dedicated master. By 1420, the two institutions had apparently become completely separate.

Following the Dissolution in 1539, the hospital was refounded in the 1540s thanks to a deal brokered between King Henry VIII and the Corporation of the City of London. Along with Bethlem, Bridewell and St Thomas’, St Bartholomews was one of four Royal Hospitals administered by the City.

The first regular physician – a Portuguese man by the name of Roderigo Lopez – was appointed around 1567 (he was later hung, drawn and quartered for an allegedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I). Among the most famous physicians to serve at St Barts in later years was William Harvey, renowned for having ‘discovered’ the circulatory system.

The hospital survived the Great Fire in 1666 but in the 1700s most of the medieval buildings, with the exception of the tower in the Church of St Bartholomew the Less, were demolished as the hospital was rebuilt to the design of James Gibbs. The new design featured a central courtyard with a Great Hall contained in the north wing, reached by a ‘Grand Staircase’ decorated with images of the Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda by celebrated artist William Hogarth.

The famous Henry VIII gate (pictured above) dates from 1702, slightly before Gibb’s rebuilding project. Other buildings have been added in more recent times.

In more recent times, the hospital was amalgamated with The Royal London and the London Chest Hospitals in 1994 with the establishment of The Royal Hospitals NHS Trust (now known as the Barts and The London NHS Trust). St Barts is now a specialist cancer and cardiac hospital.

There is a museum at the hospital which houses exhibits including a facsimile of Rahere’s grant of 1137 (now in the hospital’s archives), amputation instruments dating from the early 1800s once used by surgeon John Abernathy and a display on William Harvey. Hogarth’s paintings are visible from the museum.  There are also guided tours of the hospital.

WHERE: Museum at St Barts Hospital (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday ; COST: Free (donations welcomed); WEBSITE:  www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk/about-us/museums-and-archives/st-bartholomew-s-museum/

Like many of London’s oldest questions, this depends on what you mean – the oldest site of worship, the oldest continuous site of worship, or the oldest building are but a few possibilities. For our purposes, it’s generally accepted that London’s oldest surviving parish church is St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield.

This atmospheric church is now only half the size of what it once was but that part which remains – the original quire, altar, side aisles and lady chapel – was founded in 1123 AD as the priory church for a community of Augustinian Canons.

The church owes its origins to Rahere, a favored courtier of King Henry I, who after the death of King Henry’s wife Queen Matilda and then heir, Prince William, along with some other family members, renounced his way of life and decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

In Rome, he sickened, and fearful for his life, vowed to found a hospital for the poor on his return to London. Subsequently recovering, he was about to head home when a vision of St Bartholomew appeared to him and told him that he had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield.

On his return to London, Rahere did just that – founding the priory with its church and a hospital for the poor. He died 1145. Amazingly, his tomb still lies within the church, on the left hand side of the altar.

The priory grew in importance with income coming not only from offerings and rents but from tolls at St Bartholomew’s Fair which was held on grounds to the north of the the church (as an interesting aside, it’s also known that the church had a low wall built in front of its western facade to separate it from Smithfield. Known as the Cheyne, this could be closed with a chain on market days to stop cattle wandering inside).

The church’s current configuration came about in the Great Dissolution – the priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the church was pulled down, leaving the quire, altar and lady chapel. The church was briefly used by some Dominican friars but since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I has fulfilled the role of parish church. A concerted restoration effort began in the mid-19th century.

Livery companies associated with the church include The Butchers’ Company which still hold a special service here in September prior to electing a new Master. These days, St Bartholomew the Great is a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of the City and still gives a strong sense of the life it has known.

WHERE: Off Little Britain, West Smithfield (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday (until 14th February), 10.30am to 4pm Saturday, 8.30am to 8pm Sunday (except for services) ; COST: £4 an adult/£3.50 concession/£10 a family; WEBSITE: www.greatstbarts.com

PICTURE: Gatehouse leading into St Bartholomew the Great