St Mary of Bethlehem, Priory of

Above: City Plaque mounted on the wall of the Great Eastern Hotel, on the north side of Liverpool Street.

The subject of religious houses in London is a large and complex one. The City of London certainly had a large number of religious houses – both within and just outside its ancient Roman Wall. This particular priory is a good example. We shall look at its full history and of what became of it after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536). We will explain how the Priory came to be founded and how it started to care for the mentally insane. The other sites that the hospital occupied will be listed but they will not be described in detail.

Before we go any further, it should be pointed out that, from early times, the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem started to care for people who were suffering from many different mental disorders. For us today, living in the 21st century, most of these mental illnesses have names but in medieval times they were not fully understood – being mainly attributed to a condition they simply called ‘madness’. With time, the priory was dissolved but its care of the mentally ill continued under the name of ‘Bethlehem Hospital’. It has existed on three different sites and is now better known as ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital’.

Above: The priory and hospital stood between Bishopsgate (Street) and the open ground then called Moorfields which is now known as Finsbury Circus. The incomplete Copper Engraving was probably produced about 1559. A detailed section of the same map is shown below.

The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was founded in 1247 when Simon FitzMary, alderman and sheriff, gave his land and houses for a priory which also had a hospital. It was a priory of canons with brethren and sisters of the Order of St Mary of Bethlehem and as such was subject to the Bishop of Bethlehem. The members of the Priory and Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem wore a distinctive red star on their mantles and capes.

The first reference to the site having a hospital was 1329. By 1377 it was in use for the care of the insane. From 1407 the building was taken over by the City Corporation and became an institution for the insane. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536) the priory was closed but in 1546 it was given by Henry VIII to the City and converted into the ‘Bethlehem Hospital for lunatics’.

Looking after mental patients at such an early date makes it England’s first mental institution. Although we know it specialised in ‘madness’, its patients also included people with learning disabilities, ‘falling sickness’ (or epilepsy) and dementia. Those who became patients were usually the poor and marginalised members of society – sometimes believed to be dangerous – who usually lacked friends or family to support them. In the days of the priory, it was seen as a religious duty to care for and feel compassion for people afflicted by madness.

Above: Detail from the previous map. The probable extent of the site of the priory and hospital is shaded in YELLOW.

On the detailed map, the main entrance from Bishopsgate (Street) is shown as ‘Bedlam Gate’. Below the other label of ‘Bedlame’ is shown the hospital chapel and its little graveyard (on the right). The priory had a path leading west to a covered gateway leading to Moorfields over the River Walbrook. Notice the church of St Botolph Without Bishopsgate and its churchyard is shown near the bottom of the map.

It can be seen from the two maps that the buildings stood on the west side of the street called Bishopsgate and extended north – covering land that later became Liverpool Street, the old Great Eastern Hotel and the southern parts of Liverpool Street Station. The gate to the property (from the street called Bishopsgate) stood immediately north of the White Hart Inn. Part of the site of the inn became a pub which only closed about 2010. The premises are now in use as Metro Bank.

The site in Bishopsgate (Street) continued as Bethlehem Hospital until 1674 when new premises were built on the south side of Finsbury Circus. The buildings at the original site are now covered by Liverpool Street, the old Great Eastern Hotel and part of Liverpool Street Station. The buildings at Finsbury Circus were demolished and new offices erected. The hospital made a second move in 1812 when new buildings were erected on a large site at St George’s Fields, in Southwark. The building and its grounds remain to this day and are now used by the Imperial War Museum.

The buildings in Southwark were vacated in 1931 when the hospital transferred its present site at Monk’s Orchard Road, in the London Borough of Bromley. Its name is now ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital’ but it is also known as ‘St Mary Bethlehem’, ‘Bethlehem Hospital’ and ‘Bedlam’. The psychiatric hospital is closely associated with the Maudsley Hospital, which is part of King’s College Hospital, at Camberwell.

See also: Bethlehem Hospital, Bishopsgate – SHOW_THE_WEBPAGE


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1 Response to St Mary of Bethlehem, Priory of

  1. John Smith says:

    Thank you these are all very interesting. John A Londoner Living in Canada


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