18.09.21, Holder, The Friaries of Medieval London from Foundation to Dissolution

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Joel T. Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 18.09.21

Holder, Nick. The Friaries of Medieval London: From Foundation to Dissolution. Studies in the History of Medieval Religions. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 363. ISBN: 978-1-78327-224-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
Stony Brook University

This comprehensive study of the seven friaries of medieval London is divided into two parts. The first part covers each friary and Holder's main focus is mostly on what we can think of as the physical history of each establishment, the "urban landscape." He explores such topics as the friary's size and growth, the extent of its grounds, the number of friars, its endowments and bequests, its major patrons, its move into the role of rental-landlord, and the like. The second part is a generic assessment of the friaries as a special group of compounds and ecclesiastical establishments: their water supply, the use of burial sites in the church and its grounds, relations with Londoners, the style of architecture in building and re-building, and the like. The basic similarities between the orders in their London houses is a striking aspect of their collective history, and this is supported both by the house-by-house, order-by-order survey (with some obvious qualifications) and by the topical approach of the later chapters.

In terms of spiritual delivery and physical presence and growth, Holder offers a three-stage template, applicable to the five major orders (the Sack Friars and the Pied Friars both wound down after the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 ordered the shutdown of the fringe orders). In an exposition greatly clarified by the presence of tables and charts we can follow this three-phase tale of development and growth, one that applied pretty well to all the friaries. The first phase, as a blanket exposition, covered the years from the arrival of the Dominicans in the 1220s through the 1270s, by which time all the orders were on the ground. In these years each mendicant order found a site and built its church to facilitate its commitment to preaching--with an accommodation for the friars and a cemetery making up the basic establishment. Phase two of the friaries' collective or common history stretched from the late thirteenth century to the second half of the fourteenth and in those years we see the development of what Holder calls "the urban monastery:" more building (often of a cloister or even two), the acquisition of the tenements to fill out the enclosure, and the establishment of relations with patrons. In the third phase, running from the late fourteenth century to the Dissolution in the 1530s, there was more growth when resources and space permitted, the growing use of the church for the tombs and altars, and the creation of a base of rented tenements as a regular (and sometimes very lucrative) source of income. Even friars had to eat and stained glass windows did not come cheaply.

All the friaries pushed to enlarge their original space--both the church itself and the adjoining grounds. They added a cloister (or two, for the Franciscans), they built walls and gates around their space, and they added the range of out-buildings we associate with Benedictine monasticism. When the Dominicans moved from their original site in Holborn to what is still "Blackfriars" they had influential friends to support their desire to move the city walls, while the Carmelites were allowed to expand their space by filling in over 100 feet of the north shore of the Thames. In sum, Holder estimates that if we combine the precincts of the friaries, we are talking about 5% of the space of the medieval city, devoted to accommodating the spiritual needs and duties of about 160 men. An eight acre plot in the midst of medieval London must have been a powerful reminder of the prestige and valued role of these orders. Holder's maps locate each friary as they were stretched across the urban landscape, from the Franciscans in the west to Crutched Friars in the east, just about across the street from the Tower. And if over the years the friars strayed from the apostolic poverty of Dominic and Francis, they certainly made themselves part of the daily life of the city; preachers who enjoyed popularity, friaries that drew bequests until the very end. The attempt to revive mendicant life under Mary Tudor gets no more than the perfunctory mention it probably merits.

What I term the "generic" chapters of the book draw together some of the elements of what is virtually a common story. Here Holder and his colleagues utilize a mixed body of sources to reconstruct the physical presence and the cultural and spiritual role of the friaries. We have documents from, by, and about the orders, maps and pictures and deeds from Tudor times onwards, Stow's invaluable information about lost buildings, modern ground plans and photographs, and a moderate albeit uneven amount of archaeological information. There are even a few remnants of the buildings to be seen today, and there are enough floor tiles and architectural fragments to inform us about building styles, the sources of stone and clay, the patterns of decoration, the role of windows and cellars, and the gardens that flourished amidst the crowded spaces of the City. In their specialized chapters we have Holder's colleagues: Mark Samuel takes us through the architecture, Ian Betts tells of floor tiles and building materials, Jens Röhrkasten looks at the spiritual life and education offered within and by the friaries, and Christin Steer covers burial, commemoration, and monuments. These chapters complement Holder's own chapters on relations with Londoners, the use of space, and some related topics.

This readable study is made extremely "user friendly" by the inclusion of 90 figures and 20 tables. All sorts of details are offered, giving glimpses of mendicant life where there are extant materials and also giving an idea of the labor of the many who, even before the Dissolution, have worked to preserve both the records and the physical remain of a vital part of medieval urban and religious life. A special thanks for the tabular presentation of such information as lists of donors and the quantity and nature of our extant sources. The many ground plans, showing both the internal arrangements and their siting in the City, can be thought of as a reminder of how cooperation and competition--between the orders, between mendicants and regulars, between parish churches and friaries--were physical and spiritual aspects of medieval life. There is an immense amount of information in this attractive and readable monograph. It should stand as the "go to" study for many years.

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