Above: Archway leading into the thoroughfare called Austin Friars from Old Broad Street.
As we walk around the City of London today, the features that are probably the most noticeable are the tall office blocks. For those who lived in 16th century London, the tallest buildings would have been the numerous large monastic churches – some having large square towers rather like today’s Southwark Cathedral. Within the Roman Wall of the City were at least eight religious houses, each with a church approximating the size of today’s Southwark Cathedral. Although it is not within the City, mention of the Cathedral is made for two reasons. Firstly it was once the church of a religious house and, secondly, because it is about the same size as many of the monastic churches within the City.
The land in the City occupied by the religious houses when combined with the parish churches, the churchyards and various priest’s houses covered about a third of the total area. That gives some idea of the importance of such places in medieval times. Today, money is the driving force in the City and so it is no surprise to find that most of the land is occupied by offices related to financial services.
There are places in the City of London that hardly seem to have changed over the centuries. This is not always because the original building from long ago is still standing. One of those places is definitely to be found in Old Broad Street. In medieval times it was called Broad Street – because it was a ‘main street’ in the city and also because it was an important one. Today, it is probably best known for having Tower 42 standing beside it which, when it was first built, was then called the Nat West Tower.
For those who walked around the City at the times of the religious houses, the street was known for bordering a very large piece of private land – the Austin Friars Priory. Where Throgmorton Street joins onto Old Broad Street today is a stone archway leading to a narrow street called Austin Friars. Almost nothing remains of the ancient religious house but, for some reason, the site of the old priory gateway leading into the priory land is still a gateway today. The street layout leading from the site of the gateway has not changed in over 500 years, maybe longer. The original gateway into Austin Friars was probably more ornate than the one we see today.
Above: Plan of the Austin Friary Priory superimposed onto a modern street plan.
The Austin Friars – called more correctly the ‘Friars Hermits of the Order of St Augustine of Hippo’ – were founded in 1253 by Humphrey de Bohun on a large site beside Old Broad Street. The name ‘Austin Friars’ was a corruption of Augustine Friars. It was the main English house of their order.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536), it was closed by Henry VIII. The priory and its extensive land remained in use until 1538. The church remained standing for several centuries and the alignment of the street called Austin Friars has been influenced by the original layout of the priory to this day.
The western side of Old Broad Street would have been a stone wall forming part of the boundary of the priory land. Behind that wall – land that no members of the public in 15th century London were allowed to visit – was the priory church. In 1550, the nave of the old priory church was given to Dutch Protestant refugees fleeing from religious persecution on the Continent. They were allowed to live in the City and use the old nave for their own place of worship. They have been using that site ever since. It is known simply as the ‘Dutch Church’.
Although all the monastic land is now open for public access, there is still a feeling as you walk along the narrow street called Austin Friars that you are within the ancient religious precinct. Seeing the stone statue of the monk on the corner of the street and finding the Dutch church nearby both help to create the illusion that the monks might still be there today.