Most people have heard of that very busy part of London known as Blackfriars but fewer know of Whitefriars. It should be said that the colour here is nothing at all relating to the skin of the friars but rather the colours of the accruements that they wore. The Black Friars were Dominican friars whilst Whitefriars were actually Carmelite and both found a home on opposite sides of the River Fleet near to the where this river reached the Thames.
Originally the Carmelite Friars lived and worked in the Holy Land at Mt. Carmel. The Carmelite order grew, and began to spread to Europe, before being forced to flee the Holy Land altogether when Acre fell to the Turkish Mamluks in 1291. A small group of Carmelites reached England in 1242. Eventually some 40 Carmelite communities were established across Britain, where, because on formal occasions they wore white mantels over their brown habits, they became known as the White Friars.
The White Friars first built a small chapel in London in around 1253 just outside the western City boundary, south of Fleet Street. In time, the Carmelite priory expanded and were the first to develop this once almost semi-rural district into what is know right in the heart of London. Contemporary accounts mention that they seemingly did a good job as the area was famed for its expansive gardens.
Everything went well from them until the infamous King Henry VIII in 1538 closed down the monastery as he did with similar institutions across the country. The estate fell into disrepair and the haunt of criminals that somehow successfully argued the area should retain its Holy right to sanctuary and so be safe from prosecution. In fact it became known as Alsatia, derived from the strip of land between France and Germany that changed hands frequently and was in a perpetual state of lawlessness and discontent.
It also became a centre for theatre and acting as such pursuits were frowned upon in respectable areas, hence The Globe and other attractions to the south of the Thames and some of its street names that still exist include Blood Bowl Alley and Hanging Sword Alley before the area turned to industry and eventually the famous newspaper trade for which Fleet Street is famous.
Naturally with all this going on and centuries of development occurring over what was perhaps the most busy street in London for a time, White Friars didn’t just fall into disrepair but was almost totally forgotten about until in 1896, the owner of 4 Britton’s Court off Whitefriars Street was having his premises surveyed prior to selling them. The estate agent noticed a Gothic vaulted ceiling in the basement.
The room was piled high with centuries of rubbish and coal that had been stored there, and when this was cleared away to it revealed part of a late 14thcentury crypt. The experts concluded that this was a section of cellar from the Prior’s house. The top of the ceiling was a couple of feet below ground level, the room was 12 feet square and with a small doorway, which it is thought once led into the friary grounds.
A few years later, the site was purchased by the News of the World, whose owners decided to restore the crypt in the 1920s. They would also allow members of the public to see it, by prior arrangement. In the redevelopment that followed the departure of News International in the 1980s, however, it was decided that this last visible reminder of the White Friars was in an inconvenient place. So it was surrounded by a steel cradle and lifted to a completely new position though I would say uniquely difficult to find.
According to the plan displayed in the window these ruins are located it’s just about where the latrines would have been which is somehow rather apt.
You can see another old ruin I found a year ago in Aldgate. Aldgate Priory – the medieval ruins inside a 21st century office block.