Above: Probably the only contemporary drawing of the Priory and Hospital. It is part of a large panorama drawn by Wyngaerde in 1543, only six years before its final closure. Whether the buildings are to scale is doubtful. Charing Cross is shown much larger than it would have been when compared to the size of the hospital. The long low building of the hospital, with buttresses against the wall, is seen standing on a large piece of open land.
Its always sad in London when something vanishes completely. The inevitable march of progress – when old buildings are removed to make way for new ones – has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This is a story about a little-known religious house that at one time stood on the south side of the Strand on land that is now covered by Northumberland Avenue, near the junction with Strand and Trafalgar Square.
In the grand picture of monastic life in England, this rather insignificant religious order played a very small part but it had its moment of glory — as we shall soon find out.
To start at the beginning if the story, the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Rounceval was founded 1231 by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, to aid travellers on their way to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. It should be remembered that any organisation — whether solely monastic, a hospital or a school, for example – was nearly always set up along religious lines. England in those days was under the religious supervision of the Pope. This particular religious house would have had monks who, as well as taking religious vows, were also dedicated to helping the sick. To call an organisation ‘a hospital’ in the 13th century bears no comparison with a hospital today. The best that anyone who was taken ill could expect was to be given a bed, food and someone to comfort you in your ‘hour of need’. Medical help was almost non-existent other that a basic knowledge of herbs and of their mild curative properties.
The Priory and Hospital of St Mary Rounceval (or Rouncivall as it was sometimes spelt) was a ‘daughter house’ of a large monastery at Roncevaux which stands at the southern end of the pass through the western Pyrenees on the road from Bayonne to Pamplona. The Augustinian abbey in that village was founded about 1130 by Sancho de la Rosa. The Augustinian monks came to England in 1199.
Although a very modest building, standing a short distance south of the busy Strand, it had its moment of glory and that came in the year 1290. While travelling north, Eleanor of Castille, Queen of Edward I, was taken ill near the City of Lincoln. She was so ill that she died quite unexpectedly. Edward was heartbroken, from all accounts, and ordered that her body be brought in ‘solemn procession’ from the village of Harby, near Lincoln (where she had died) and conveyed to London – to be buried in Westminster Abbey. That meant that a procession of all the lords and ladies of the day had to walk behind the coffin as it made its way to London — a distance of over 200 miles! Some days the procession had to walk nearly 20 miles! Each evening the coffin was laid in a suitable building – like a church or an abbey – for safe-keeping overnight. It was the longest formal procession that England has ever witnessed.
As the procession approached London, the coffin was rested overnight in the church at Waltham Abbey. The following day the procession walked the 15 miles from that point to Cheapside, where the queen’s body lay in the church of St Mary le Bow for the night. On the next day the route was quite short, being only from Cheapside to the western end of the Strand where – you have probably guessed the next part — it was laid overnight in the church of St Mary Rounceval. On the day of the funeral service, the procession completed the short distance from the little priory to Westminster Abbey.
Not content with having marked the queen’s death with an epic funeral procession of over 200 miles, Edward ordered that every place where Eleanor’s body rested be marked with a commemorative ‘cross’. As as example of this, Waltham had Waltham Cross erected which is still there today. The ‘cross’ at Cheapside was torn down by the Puritains as was the ‘cross’ at the village of Charing where the little priory was situated. The latter ‘cross’ was, of course, known as Charing Cross. When the station was erected, the directors called the station after the ‘cross’ and had a replica made which still stands in the station forecourt. As can be seen by looking at the ‘cross’ it was not in the form of a cross but more of a large ornamental monument.
The Priory certainly had its good days but it also had its bad days as well. In 1382 the Hospital — one of the less important of London’s 13 hospitals — was involved in an incident in which persons who had collected alms on its behalf had evidently used the proceeds for themselves. Therefore St Mary Rounceval acquired a certain notoriety – due to false alms-collectors.
All this took place either just before or during the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was writing his ‘Canterbury Tales’ – around 1386. In his narrative Chaucer describes the Pardoner as ‘of Rouncivale’. Pardoners were a medieval preachers delegated to raise money for religious works (and also religious houses) by soliciting offerings and granting indulgences. Chaucer’s readers would probably have interpreted the mention of Rounceval as an allusion to this incident. Such an interpretation would presumably have been foreseen by Chaucer himself.
According to Stow ‘Our Lady of Rouncival, Charing Cross’ was suppressed by Henry V, which would have been some time around 1420. In 1475 Edward IV re-founded the fraternity but the Hospital was finally dissolved and the brethren pensioned off in 1549.
The chapel and appurtenances were granted by Edward VI to Thomas Cawarden. In 1605 most of the hospital was removed and the land became part of the large site on which Henry Howard built Northampton House. That property later became known as Northumberland House. Over the years the priory land was gradually encroached on by Northumberland House. The chapel was demolished 1608. Some of the monastic quarters remained as a private residence until they were demolished in 1705.
Completing the story, the enormous mansion called Northumberland House remained standing at the western end of the Strand, on the south side, until 1874 when it too was demolished. Northumberland Avenue derives its name from being laid out on part of the estate. Today, there is not even a Blue Plaque recording the original site of this religious house and few people would ever imagine that there had been a priory and hospital in such a busy part of the West End.