The Friaries of Medieval London

From Foundation to Dissolution

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Nick Holder
  • London, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , October
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The raison d’être of the late medieval mendicant orders, broadly speaking, was to recover the poverty of Christ in the lives of the friars—a response to the wealthy monastic orders that had risen to prominence in the first millennium of Christianity. The very structure of these new mendicant orders (including Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, and other smaller orders) as they were originally founded was a radical change from the isolation of the monasteries, rooted in the Rule of Benedict, where all things were owned in common. The friars were begging brothers, rejecting the vow of stability so essential to the Benedictine rule that held sway in the monasteries, and relying on alms for survival. In addition to being living examples of Christ’s poverty, they were to preach the Gospel gospel and to hear confession, and they did this primarily in the cities that were growing quickly in this period. This somewhat vague structure made efficient administration difficult for the orders, and also made it difficult for Rome to keep tabs on the brothers. It is not surprising, then, to see the mendicants becoming over time a little bit more like their Benedictine predecessors, establishing houses and adopting a kind of geographical permanence to their ministry, even if stability was never one of the vows taken when joining the order.

London, the largest city of the late medieval Western world, was an almost inevitable destination for friars and their essentially urban work. Second only to Paris in the number of conventual houses for mendicant orders, the brothers must have had a significant role to play in the life of the city, and several historians have attempted to demonstrate what that role was. In this study, Nick Holder uncovers further layers of London mendicant history by investigating the literal spaces that they occupied, insofar as those spaces can be reconstructed. Holder divides the work into two primary sections. The first section (chapters 1-9) is an investigation of individual friaries in London (the chapters cover three different locations of the Dominicans, or Blackfriars, and the individual locations of the Franciscans or Greyfriars, the Carmelites or Whitefriars, the Augustinians or Austins, the Crossed or Crutched, the Friars of the Sack, and the Pied Friars). The second section (chapters 10-19) views the friars more thematically: aspects of the physical space or particular roles that they played as both religious figures and as residents of London.

The first section is the most helpful, more for its method than its revelations which, because of a dearth of evidence, will always need to be hesitant at best. But Holder’s use of “a combination of documentary, cartographic, archaeological and architectural evidence” is helpful to students of history who are learning to gather multiple kinds of material, not only for their evidentiary value, but also to determine how those many and different materials speak to each other and inform each other to provide us with helpful facts understandings about the past. In particular, students can benefit from Holder’s use and explication of map regression, which has become a much easier practice with advances in computer technology. This enhanced ability to reconstruct historical maps allows us a much more vivid sense of the spaces that the friaries occupied in London and to think more creatively about their roles in the city. This section, then, provides a kind of landscape of medieval mendicant London, showing where and when the brothers developed their precincts: their churches, their cloisters, their libraries, priories, their kitchens and outbuildings, and their tenement houses.

The second section seeks to expand on particular aspects of those spaces. Chapters 10 to 14 investigate the churches, precincts, architecture, floor tiles and other building materials, and water supplies. Much of the information here is repeated from the first chapters, but thematically. Chapters 15 to 18 seek to uncover more about the lives of the friars in London: the economic operations of the friaries; the friars’ spiritual lives and education; burial and commemoration; and the interactions between the friars and lay Londoners. The final chapter looks at how the dissolution of the monasteries affected the London friaries specifically.

I confess to a disappointment in this section of the book, which I had anticipated would provide a kind of “so what” for the first section (especially in light of the fact that several chapters here are contributions from other authors who utilize their expertise). There are some good moments, such as the recognition of the technologically advanced water supplies available to the precincts as further evidence that the friars had become “institutionally wealthy preacher-monks, no longer the poor preachers of the days of Francis and Dominic” (250). I would wish for more of these connections to the broad purpose of the orders, however. Too often the book feels like a recitation of facts with no attempt at interpretation.

The final chapter also seems to abandon the reader without really considering the greatest question of the monastic dissolutions under Henry VIII: why, if these friaries were so powerful and so deeply involved in the lives of lay Londoners through their work of preaching and hearing confession, and their participation in the industry of death was such an essential part of late medieval life, were Henry’s commissioners able to shut them down without, apparently, any real resistance from those laypeople or, indeed, from the friars themselves? The facts suggest that the friars had, after a fashion, “lost their touch.” Indeed, the thoroughness of the dissolutions in London can best be seen by the fact that so little evidence remains of the friaries themselves: a fact bemoaned by Holder himself as he begins the book. That he does not seek to answer the question, or even really to ask it, is ultimately frustrating in an otherwise interesting book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter P. C. Carlson is Associate Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nick Holder is a historian and archaeologist at English Heritage and the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on medieval and early modern London.


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