He came out of White-fryers: he’s some Alsatian Bully(1)
On 8 November 1895, the Birmingham Daily Post reported on a news item that had appeared in The Daily Telegraph about “an interesting discovery in Whitefriars Street, upon the site of the Carmelite Monastery, from which the street takes it name, founded about 1241.” When one Hurrell decided to sell his freehold property in Britton’s Court, he put the sale in the hands of Messrs Lumley of St. James’s House, St. James’s Street and when one of their clerks noticed a Gothic vault in the cellar of the house, the cellar was cleared to get a better view. According to the paper, “it was obviously a crypt beneath some portion of the ancient church or monastery”. The room was about 14ft square and 5ft high in the centre. When they dug down into the accumulated rubbish, a brick floor was found that had been laid on another layer of rubbish which covered a tiled floor – “possibly the original one” – on a bed of mortar. An opening in the western wall of the chamber lead to a small passageway. At the time of writing, the passage had not yet been cleared of rubbish, but it was suggested that it might lead to more subterranean parts of the old monastery. One week later, on Saturday 16 November, the story was also taken up by The Era who could report that a coffin of Pierbech marble had been found in the passage, besides some old coins, fragments of bone and some clay pipes. They also included a drawing of the crypt.
The Carmelite monastery referred to in the newspaper reports on the discovery of the crypt had been founded on the site by the Carmelites, known as White Friars because of the colour of their habit, or to be precise, the colour of the mantel they wore over their brown habits when travelling and on formal occasions. They had built a small church on the south side of Fleet Street which was replaced by a much larger one a century later. Their land was extended several time until it roughly covered the area between Whitefriars Street (then called Water Lane) and Temple Lane and between Fleet Street and the Thames. The information panel on the site gives the foundation date of the monastery as 1253, about a decade after the order was established in London. The crypt itself is thought to date from the late 14th century. For more on the early history of the order see here.
After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the area fell into the hands of private individuals and the church and other monastic buildings were converted – the Great Hall was used as a playhouse. The area was filled with cheap housing and became known as Alsatia (after Alsace, the disputed area between France and Germany). A slight oversight left the exemption from City jurisdiction that had been granted to the monks, the ‘sanctuary’, in place, which, compounded by a measure of self-government granted by James I to the inhabitants, the ‘liberty’, made the area a safe haven for those fleeing from the long arm of the law until the matter was regularised in 1697 by The Escape from Prison Act. Thomas Shadwell set one of his comedies in the area, The Squire of Alsatia (1688), in which one of the sons of country gentleman Belfond misbehaves with unfortunate friends in Alsatia. When father gets to London to put matters right heavy-handedly, he is taken prisoner by the locals and has to be rescued by his other son. Sir Walter Scott situates one of his Waverley Novels, The Fortunes of Nigel, in the lawless enclave. In fact, Scott acknowledges his debt to Shadwell’s work in his introduction as the source of his knowledge of “the footing on which the bullies and thieves of the Sanctuary stood with their neighbours”.
But to come back to the crypt. After the initial rediscovery in 1895, nothing much was done until the 1920s when the area was used by the News of World. Sidney Toy, in his The Crypt at Whitefriars(2) relates that during the 1927 excavations some tile-paving from the east cloister was found in situ and, in a plan of the monastery site, he shows exactly where the crypt was located, just north of the prior’s lodgings. “The walling and the panels of the vaulting are of chalk, the dressing of the doorway of Kentish rag and the vaulting ribs of clunch”.(3) The missing quarters were rebuilt using lime stone from Monks Parks quarries, near Bath. During the restoration, a second door was found, which turned out to be the connecting door to the prior’s lodging. After the newspapers left the area in the 1980s, another bout of redevelopment took place and the crypt was moved on a concrete slab to its present location.
For directions on how to get to the crypt, see the post on Magpie Alley.
(1) Sir William Belfond to his brother Sir Edward Belfond on a companion of his son in Thomas Shadwell, The Squire of Alsatia (1688), p. 10.
(2) S. Toy, The Crypt at Whitefriars, 1932. Copy in Guildhall Library (PAM 17555). See also A.W. Clapham, “The topography of the Carmelite Priory of London” in Journal British Archaeological Association, N.S. xvi (March 1910), pp. 15-32.
(3) Clunch is traditional building material used mainly in eastern England and Normandy. It encompasses a wide variety of materials such as irregular lumps of rock either picked up from the fields, or quarried and hewn from the ground in more regular-shaped building blocks. It is predominantly chalk/clay based and is bedded in mortar to form walls (Source: Wikipedia).