Austin Friars EC2
Bus: 8 11 21 22 25 43 76
From Bank Station walk along Threadneedle Street and at the Stock Exchange bear left along Old Broad Street. Cross Throgmorton Street then turn immediately left into the narrow lane.
Without enlightenment concerning its roots, the name of Austin Friars opens up all sorts of mind-clamping explorations, but quite simply it is an ages old corruption stemming from the Augustinian Friary founded in 1253 by Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford. Commonly known as the ‘begging friars’ their community rapidly established itself as one of the wealthiest religious houses in the City and the church was adorned with the most splendid array of monuments. Chronicler, John Stow was most impressed with the steeple: ‘a most fine spired steeple, small, high, and straight, I have not seen the like.’ But this was not the original steeple – that, Stow informs us, ‘was overthrown by a tempest of wind in the year 1362, but was raised of new, and now it standeth, to the beautifying of the city.’
At the dissolution of the monasteries the Friary became the property of the Crown and subsequently passed into the hands of the Marquis of Winchester who demolished most of the buildings leaving the little chapel of the Friary standing alone. In 1550 the church was handed over to the Dutch community of London by Edward VI and became known simply as the Dutch Church. A few years later a Venetian glass-blower named Verrelyn, greatly envied by his counterparts for the quality of his craftsmanship, set up his workshop in a vacant chapel in the church. The Dutch church was spared in the fire of 1666 but that which the turmoil of seven centuries had left unscathed, Hitler destroyed in minutes. In 1957 rebuilding of the church was completed and depicted in the west window are Edward VI, and Princess Irene of the Netherlands who laid the foundation stone.
The line of the path which runs along the west side of the church would have been the main access to the friars church, monastic buildings, and burial ground. Adjacent to the path, in Throgmorton Street, Thomas Cromwell would have been able to look from the window of his ‘large and spacious’ house and watch the comings and goings of the Friars as they went about their daily chores.
Cromwell, the man set in charge of closing the monasteries, built his house on the site now occupied by the Drapers’ Hall. Not being content with his already sizeable garden, he sent his henchmen to remove the fencing posts from his neighbours’ gardens and to set them back twenty-two feet towards their houses, ‘a line there to be drawn, a trench to be cast, a foundation laid, and a high brick wall to be built.’ John Stow remembered it well – his father was a victim.
Austin Friars is really in three sections. From its covered entrance in Throgmorton Street it twists round with close buildings on either side. Approaching the church it opens out into a street of particular character. Turning right by the church leads to Austin Friars Square which is most certainly on the site of one of the courts of the old monastery and still retains something of its former character. Alternatively, turning left by the church reveals such a sight as might be conjured up at the thought of its ‘polished’ name. Neat iron gates at both ends enclose this section of the street, which is paved with old stone flags. The buildings are mainly Victorian, some constructed in red brick and terracotta. Down the centre of the paved area are three charming gas style standard lamps – everything is pleasingly in keeping.