Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell, and a botched execution

Drapers plaque websiteNow 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 2 cropAustin 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.

Throgmorton pillarIt 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”.

Drapers Hall Plaque copy
Coat of arms of the Drapers Company

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.

Doubling up on London street names

London WallHere’s another fun type of London street names: ones that aren’t the singleton, but are not an alley, road, yard, or any other street-sounding name. For instance, Austin Friars, Bevis Marks, Crutched Friars, London Wall, Perkins Rent, Petty France, and Shad Thames, to name but a few.

Let’s start with Bevis Marks, which leads into Camomile Street in the City of London: the ‘marks’ of the name was just that – a boundary, or something that marked the edge of a property. In this case it was the 12th century mansion and gardens owned by the Abbots of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The modern name is a corruption of Bury’s Marks. The abbey is yet another on the long list of those dissolved by Henry VIII.

Bevis MarksIn keeping with the theme of religion, the nearby Bevis Marks synagogue is the oldest in the UK, though its actual address is Heneage Lane because, according to the synagogue’s official website, “The site of the synagogue was tucked away in a back alley because Jews were not allowed to build on the public thoroughfare. A contract was signed with a builder in 1699 and the synagogue, which has been designated a monument of national importance, was built in 1701.”

There was a synagogue in Creechurch Lane, just off Bevis Marks, at least as early as 1663, when Pepys recorded a visit there.

Petty France cropPetty France takes its name from petit – little – France, because of French settlers there as early as the 15th century. The street, which once housed the Passport Office, is associated with a book of “pernicious tendency”. Other streets were called what they were because, well, that’s what they were, such as Docwras Buildings, from houses built by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. In time others became known as Rents from the people who collected the rents on the buildings, such as Perkins Rents in Victoria, from an unknown Perkins.

Shad ThamesChurches were responsible for many other non-street names, including Shad Thames, which is probably a contraction of St John at Thames; the Priory of St John at Jerusalem owned about 25 acres of land here from the 13th century until the Dissolution. In Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes lived and died on Jacob’s Island, east of Shad Thames.

Similarly, Austin Friars takes its name from a dissolved friary of Augustian monks; the friary covered the area between London Wall and Throgmorton Street.

Drapers plaqueReaders of the excellent Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel will know it as the home of Thomas Cromwell; it is where, when Thomas Cromwell wished to extend his nearby garden, he dug up the house belonging to John Stow’s father, put it on rollers and moved it out of the way without any warning to Stow senior. After Cromwell’s death the Drapers’ Company – the third of the livery companies – took over Cromwell’s house along with the nefariously extended garden.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars, known as Hart Street prior to the 18th century, also takes its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order that began in Bologna in 1169 and was established in London by Ralph Hosiar and William Sabernes in 1298. The name derived from the friars’ habits, which were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

The monastery fell, as did so many others in the reign of Henry VIII (the order was then suppressed by the Pope in 1656). Henry granted the land to Sir Thomas Wyatt who built a mansion on the site. Later it was used as a carpenter’s yard, a tennis court, and the Navy Office where Pepys worked.