St Clare, Abbey of

Above: The Abbey as it appears on the Agas map of about 1561. The Roman Wall can also be seen along the medieval gateway called Aldgate. Drawn on the west side of the Abbey is a wide cart-track, known as Minories in the days of the map, has become a modern street with the same name today.

If only you did but realise the significance of the street names on a modern map of London, you only need to look at it to see where all the historic places once stood. Our story concerns an ancient abbey, situated near the eastern boundary of the City of London, and we are on the lookout for two street names in particular. Since 1994 there have been various boundary changes to the City London which also affect the boundaries of some of the surrounding London Boroughs. In earlier times, the Abbey of St Clare, which stood on the east side of the old Roman Wall, was outside the boundary of the City of London. It was on land in the old Metropolitan Borough of Stepney (which is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets). However, the boundary changes since 1994 have affected the land on which the Abbey once stood and so the ancient site was on land that is now part of the City of London.

Above: The Abbey perimeter, with its church and cloisters, have been added a Google map. Notice the two streets named after the Abbey.

The Abbey of St Clare was founded in 1293, just outside the wall of the City largely due to Edmund, the Earl of Lancaster, and his wife. Edmund was the brother of Edward I. The Abbey was also called the ‘Nunnery of the Poor Clares or Minoresses’. This community, described as the ‘Abbess and Sisters Minoresses of the Order of St Clare of the grace of the Blessed Mary the Virgin’, belonged to the second order of St Francis of Assisi, who founded the ‘Fratres Minores’ or Friars Minor, better known as the Greyfriars.

The sister order was founded by St Clare of Assisi, a contemporary of St Francis, with rules along the same lines as the Greyfriars, who were Franciscans. In Latin, the Friars Minor (Greyfriars) were called ‘Fratres Minores’. The Clares in Latin were ‘Sorores Minores’ – Sisters Minor – shortened to Minoresses, which gave the nearby street called Minories its name.

There were only three religious houses of the Poor Clares in England – (1) The Abbey of St Clare, just outside Aldgate, in London. (2) The Abbey of Bruisyard, in Suffolk. (3) The third was originally Waterbeach Abbey, in Cambridgeshire, but the Poor Clares on that site moved to nearby Denny Abbey, also in Cambridgeshire. Parts of Denny Abbey remain today and are looked after by English Heritage.

Although the London Abbey of St Clare had been founded for nuns to live there under strict rules of poverty and chastity – the nuns were not allowed to wear any form of woollen stockings on their legs and no sandals on their feet – the inmates gradually relaxed the rules so that they were living very easy lives. This abbey was no different from others (for men or for women) and it could be said that, by the 16th century, life in the Abbey of St Clare was quite a comfortable one.

The land on which the Abbey stood was a liberty – that means it was not under any local administration. It was not even part of a parish. This was the case for all religious houses across London and in other towns and Cities in England. Long after they were closed in the 16th century an Act of Parliament was passed in the 19th century to finally repeal all liberties. This was necessary because criminals were deliberately living on land that was a liberty and escaping arrest because they claimed that the land was outside any form of administration.

Above: The street name Minories is a reminder of the Abbey that once stood beside it.

The Abbey of St Clare in London was surrendered to the Crown in 1538. Their church later became a parish church called Holy Trinity, Minories. A considerable part of the abbey buildings remained until they were destroyed by fire in 1797. No evidence for the abbey church or any other parts of the Abbey remains today. St Clare Street, running east off Minories, is a reminder of the name of the abbey.

The Two Princes of the Tower

The Abbey has a surprising connection with the two young princes who are believed to have been murdered in 1483 in the Tower of London on the orders of their uncle, Richerd III. The two young boys were Edward V (aged 12) and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, first Duke of York (aged 9). They were the sons of Edward IV.

On 15 January 1478, when only four years old, the younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, was married in St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, to Anne Mowbray. Aged only five, she was the 8th Countess of Norfolk, later Duchess of York and Duchess of Norfolk (10 December 1472 – c. 19 November 1481).

Anne was born at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, the only surviving child of John de Mowbray, 4th Duke of Norfolk and Lady Elizabeth Talbot. The death of her father in 1476 left Anne a wealthy heiress. Anne died at Greenwich, at the age of eight, nearly two years before her husband disappeared in the Tower of London with his older brother, Edward V.

Anne was entombed in a lead coffin in the Chapel of St Erasmus of Formiae in Westminster Abbey. When that chapel was demolished in about 1502 – to make way for the Henry VII Lady Chapel – Anne’s coffin was moved to a vault under the Abbey of St Clare. Her coffin eventually disappeared. In December 1964, construction workers in Stepney accidentally dug into a vault on the site of the Abbey and found Anne’s coffin. It was opened, and her remains were analysed by scientists and then entombed in Westminster Abbey in May 1965. Her red hair was still on her skull and her shroud was still wrapped around her. The Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey is the presumed resting place of her husband, Richard Duke of York, and his brother Edward V.


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