Above: Stones from the part of the base of the south wall of the abbey church discovered in the ground during an archaeological dig in 2006.
One of the largest abbeys within the large piece of land now known as Inner London was in Bermondsey. Today that seems almost impossible to believe because a stroll around the area where it once stood will not reveal anything that remotely looks like an abbey. However, the clues are there, if you look carefully. The great abbey church stood on a site that is now an uninteresting crossroads where Abbey Street crosses Tower Bridge Road. Of course, Tower Bridge Road was not laid out until Tower Bridge was constructed in the 1890s. Abbey Street is not an ancient street either. The nearby Long Lane and Bermondsey Street are shown on the earliest maps for that part of London. They probably came into existence as footpaths leading to the Abbey from Borough High Street and from Tooley Street.
It is hard to imagine an abbey church that was at least as large as Southwark Cathedral standing at the crossroads and extending across Bermondsey Square. The large scale map should help to show exactly where the church stood. Within the last 100 years, there have been three archaeological digs which means that the exact sites of most of the monastic buildings are now known. The first dig was conducted in the 1950s, which established the footings of walls which had once been part of the eastern end of the abbey church. The second dig in 1984 found evidence for the monk’s graveyard and established the position of the base of some of the walls of the monks’ sleeping quarters (known as the Dorter). In 2006 a further dig in Bermondsey Square found the footings of more of the walls of the abbey church.
The history of the religious house at Bermondsey began between AD 708 and 715 when records show that a small monastery was founded by monks from the Abbey of St Peter, at Peterborough, in Northamptonshire. It was on the same site as the later abbey church. In 1082 Aethelwine or Alwyn Cild (often written Aylwin Childe), described as a ‘citizen of London’, gave the rents of some property in the City to the Cluniac monastery of La Charite-sur-Loire in France. Alwyn was English and not a Norman. The name ‘Cild’, pronounced ‘child’, was a title of honour. The priory at Bermondsey was not established until 1089 when monks from the monastery of La Charite were invited to come and start a monastery at Bermondsey. The charter was granted by William II who was not known for founding such establishments. It was dedicated to ‘Our Holy Saviour’ usually written ‘St Saviour’. The word ‘Saint’ in front of ‘Saviour’ arose from transliteration from the French. At first, it was called a priory since it came under a prior who himself, who came under the Abbot of Cluny, in France.
Above: An outline of the abbey church and gatehouses of the abbey plotted onto a large scale modern street map. The plan shows the walls that have been found during archaeological digs.
The abbey stood on gravel, on low lying marshy land with the River Neckinger flowing nearby and navigable up to the priory. It should be remembered that the Neckinger flowed across the land of Bermondsey and into the Thames at the inlet we now know as St Saviour’s Dock. The abbey became one of the most important religious houses in England, owning manors and churches from Kent to Somerset and as far north as Norfolk. The abbey also owned property all over London including the manors of Bermondsey, Charlton and Dulwich, as well as owning the liberties of Clink and Paris Garden. The parish of St George the Martyr and the advowson of St Giles, Camberwell, were also under its control.
The abbey was connected to people with influence. At Christmas 1154 Henry II held his Court at the priory. In 1399 the priory became wholly English and its Abbots were sent to sit in Parliament. At this time the name was changed to the ‘Abbey of St Saviour’. In 1437 Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, died at the abbey. Another Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, was condemned by order of Council to forfeit all her lands and goods and be confined to the abbey from 1480. She died there in 1492.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, then known as the ‘Abbey of St Saviour’, it was surrendered to the Crown in 1538. Many of the buildings remained until a much later date. The name of St Saviour was transferred to the church at Southwark. The first contemporary view of the abbey was made by Anthony van den Wyngaerde in 1543, just a few years after the Dissolution.
The abbey lands extended from the present church of St Mary Magdalene, across today’s Tower Bridge Road. There were three gateways into the abbey land. Evidence for where the South Gateway stood can be seen beside Grange Walk where hinges are still to be seen on a wall. The Grange, or monastery farm, whose produce fed the monks of Bermondsey Abbey, stood at the present junction of Spa Road with Grange Road. A street called simply ‘The Grange’ is a reminder today of the old abbey farm.
At the Dissolution, the property passed into the hands of Sir Robert Southwell, Master of the Rolls, who sold it to Sir Thomas Pope in 1542. Pope, who held the manor, built Bermondsey House in the ‘33rd year of Henry VIII’. It stood on the cloisters, beside the present Bermondsey Square, built from masonry obtained by pulling down the conventual church. Pope built a walled garden on the site of the church. By 1555 the house was apparently complete when Pope sold it. From 1556 until about 1610 it was owned by the Radcliffe family, Earls of Sussex. The house appears to have been in decay but it survived until the early 19th century.
The inner gatehouse of the abbey (called the Great Gateway) and a large arch and postern on one side, were still standing until 1807 when they were pulled down for the formation of Abbey Street. The Great Gateway stood at the entrance to Bermondsey Square from Long Lane. Many of the buildings remained until the 1820s when most of them were demolished after being in use latterly as farm buildings.
It seems remarkable that the abbey buildings remained standing for almost 300 years after the religious house had officially closed. If the buildings had remained for another 100 years there is a good chance that they would have been preserved where they stood. Sadly, there is now no masonry above ground from the abbey to be seen today. One of the restaurants in Bermondsey Square has glass panels on the floor through which it is possible to see the footings of part of the abbey walls.
A look at a street map will reveal further clues to the abbey’s existence in names like Cluny Place, Grange Walk, Grange Road, Grange Yard and the street called The Grange. One final piece of evidence is the site of the parish church of St Mary Magdalen, at the southern end of Bermondsey Street. The monks in Bermondsey worshipped in their abbey church but those working for the monks were many lay-people who lived around the Abbey. There were farmers, stable-lads, blacksmiths and many other trades, all deriving a good living by working for the monks. These people worshipped in the lay-church which became the parish church of Bermondsey.
The story of Bermondsey Abbey is a remarkable one and, unlike many monasteries around England whose ruins remain to this day, the site of this Abbey has quietly passed into history with few people today realising where it stood.