Now that we’re in the middle of ‘Wolf Hall’, the BBC’s dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s superb novels about Thomas Cromwell, it seems a good time to revisit Austin Friars, where Cromwell lived.
Austin Friars is one of several London streets whose names fall into the ‘doubling up’ category. Like streets such as Piccadilly, Strand, Haymarket, Cheapside, and many others, they don’t have street, lane, road, or anything like that in their name. A few other examples are London Wall (not too difficult to figure out), Bevis Marks, Petty France, Shad Thames, and The Baulk.
Austin Friars takes its name from a dissolved Augustinian friary established in the 13th century and dissolved in 1538. In addition to the priory buildings, some of the land belonging to the friars was used for buildings rented out to people such as Cromwell. Cromwell continued to extend his estate by obtaining more of the friary land and building one of the largest private mansions in the city.
It wasn’t just friary land that Cromwell acquired, according to London historian John Stow, whose father had a house in Throgmorton Street. When Cromwell decided to extend his nearby garden, he just moved Stow senior’s house. As Stow junior puts it: “this house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father’s garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof; no warning was given him”.
When Cromwell was executed following his fall from Henry VIII’s favour, his estate was seized and sold off. His execution was a fine example of the punishment not necessarily fitting the crime. The decapitation was seriously botched and, according to a contemporary chronicler, Cromwell “paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office”.
The Drapers Company, which is one of the twelve great livery companies of London, bought his mansion from Henry VIII for the sum of about £1,200. The house then became Draper’s Hall, which is at one end of Throgmorton Avenue – a private road that runs from Throgmorton Street to London Wall. The Hall, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, was rebuilt but was again severely damaged by fire in 1772.