Thomas Cromwell’s Austin Friars

by Beth von Staats

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Austin Friars today, Austin Friars (Photo by Eric in the Londonist Flickr pool.)
Austin Friars today, Broad St., London 
(Photo by Eric in the Londonist Flickr pool.)

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Through the brilliant fiction of twice Man Booker Prize honored Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, not only has Thomas Cromwell made a stunning resurgence in both respect and popularity, but so have the locales that he frequented, most notably his home alongside the Augustinian Friary, London. Located against the gates of the Priory at Austin Friars of Broad St., in 1522, Thomas Cromwell and his young family moved into two Throgmortan St. tenements leased from his pious Roman Catholic neighbors. Over the ensuing 10 years, Thomas Cromwell demolished the two tenements and built a “very large and spacious” home in their place, signing the then typical “99 year lease” with the Augustinians.

Although Thomas Cromwell’s London home and ultimate mansion is now located at the current site of the hall of the Drapers’ Company on Throgmortan St., back in the 1530’s, an affluent neighborhood surrounded him, with other leased tenements home to wealthy Italian merchants, Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, and even Desiderius Erasmus, who eventually moved out without paying his rent. One can easily assume that when the Augustinian Friars originally signed on the “dotted line” with the young and ambitious cloth merchant, banker and lawyer they met in the early 1520’s, they had no idea how he would later impact their lives and those of his neighbors.

Austin Friars Church, later becoming the The oldest Dutch foundation in the world, was tragically destroyed on 15–16 October 1940 during the London Blitz of World War II.
Austin Friars Church, later becoming the oldest Dutch foundation in the world, was tragically destroyed on 15–16 October 1940 during the London Blitz of World War II.

Austin Friars was founded long before the turbulent reign of King Henry VIII, most likely established by the Augustinians in 1260. Originally Austin Friars was constructed upon land once home to St. Olave’s Parish, with a second church, St. Peter the Poor being incorporated into the friary grounds. Home to sixty friars, the Augustinian Friary of London was sited on over 5 ½ acres of land. With a church built in the middle of the property, several buildings were located behind to accommodate the friars and visiting religious scholars. The friars farmed an extensive gardening area, cultivating vegetables, fruit and medicinal herbs. In essence, Austin Friars was its own independent religious community surrounded by the city of London.

Over the course of the next 300 years, the Augustinian Friary of London incrementally developed into one of the city’s most highly regarded religious orders by the wealthy and powerful both as place of worship and burial site. Known for the Augustinians’ outstanding educational endeavors, Austin Friars became highly regarded for religious education, preparing many boys of London’s elite classes for advanced theology educations at Oxford, and later also Cambridge. Buried on the grounds of Austin Friars include several high ranking members of the aristocracy, including men such as Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel and Surrey; John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford; Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and many of the highest ranking knights killed at the Battle of Barnet, April 1471.

Once Thomas Cromwell was well established as an agent and privy counselor to King Henry VIII, he actively induced and subsequently suborned the Prior of Austin Friars, Father George Brown. From that point further, things began to take a tragic turn for the Augustinians. An agent of Cromwell, Prior Brown’s Easter sermon at Austin Friars urged the congregation to pray for Queen Anne Boleyn, leading all listening to quietly leave in civil disobedience. Undaunted, Father Brown continued his work on behalf of Cromwell’s evangelical agenda. He was eventually rewarded by being chosen as one of the commissioners appointed to inspect the friaries, monasteries and priories of England and Wales in the surge of “visitations” that quickly graduated to the dissolution of all religious houses throughout the realm.

Thomas Cromwell (Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger)
Thomas Cromwell
(Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger)

As Thomas Cromwell continued to rise in favor of King Henry VIII, becoming Chief Secretary, Vice-gerent, Lord Privy Seal, Knight of the Garter, Lord Chamberlain and ultimately 1st Earl of Essex, he desired a London mansion conveniently located near Greenwich Palace, Westminster and the Tower of London. Thus, his home at Austin Friars grew far beyond the original building constructed in order to meet his changing needs and status. Cromwell’s mansion was in a constant state of expansion and improvement, providing him with not only a family home and elaborate locale for lavish entertaining of his powerful friends, lords and ladies of King Henry VIII’s Court and presumably the king himself, but also a base for his business operations in accomplishing the king’s bidding. His properties, expansive and elaborate in detail, were surrounded by lush gardens, fruit trees and walling to afford privacy.

In accomplishing his goal of building a luxurious city mansion, Thomas Cromwell became quite problematic, not only to his abutting Augustinian Friars, but to his neighbors, as well. The son of one of his neighbors, John Stowe frustratingly shared the following:

“My father had a garden there and a (rented) house standing close to his south pale. This house they loosed from the ground and bore upon rollers into my father’s garden, twenty two feet.
      Ere my father heard thereof, no warning was given him, nor other answer, when he spoke to the surveyors of that work, but that their master, Sir Thomas, commanded them to do so.”

Alas, the “every man hero” of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Thomas Cromwell, second in power at his apex only to King Henry VIII himself, became the “neighbor from hell”, grabbing land from all his neighbors and focusing his attention and eventual wrath towards the Augustinians of Austin Friars.

In 1534, an “anonymous informant”, likely a bribed friar, “spilled the beans”. There was trouble afoot at the Augustinian Friary of London. According to a poorly articulated correspondence, it was alleged that masses were being rushed and neglected while the friars were drinking in the beer house in “bad company”. As the story was told, Cromwell’s neighboring Roman Catholic friars, like “visitors” alleged of many throughout the realm, were violating all monastic rules, there being more sin “than hell among devils”. To make matters all the worse, the “informant” professed the cloister and doors were unguarded, leaving “the Lombards dwelling with the gate to take their pleasure in conveying off the harlots.” Oh my!

Rebuilt after World War II, here is the chapel of Dutch Church, Austin Friars today.
Rebuilt after World War II, here is the chapel of Dutch Church, Austin Friars today.

The egregious allegations were ultimately judged to be “founded”. Consequently, the Augustinian Friary of London’s reputation was ruined, leading to the ultimate and inevitable surrender of Austin Friars. In 1538, heavily in debt, the once magnificent London center of worship and religious education was turned over to the crown by Prior Thomas Hamond and his 12 remaining brothers.

Two years later, Thomas Cromwell also fell, executed after falsely condemned via an act of attainder for sacramental heresy. His elaborate mansion, once far more modest tenements rented to provide a loving home his wife Elizabeth, son Gregory and daughters Anne and Grace, along with their extended family, also reverted to the royal household. Three years later, Cromwell’s grand city mansion was sold to and ultimately torn down by the Drapers’ Company, who over 400 years later, still owns the property where it once stood as testament to the ultimate success of arguably England’s most accomplished and powerful commoner.

RESOURCES:

Author Unidentified, Friaries: 27: The House of Austin Friars, British History Online.

Author Unidentified, Friaries: 14: The Austin Friars, British History Online.

Hutchinson, Robert, Thomas Cromwell, The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

Wikipedia, Austin Friars, London

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WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiers on BBC2 beginning January 22, 2015 in the United Kingdom and on PBS on April 5, 2015 in the United States.
WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiered on PBS April 5, 2015 in the United States.

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WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles will premiers on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.
WOLF HALL, PLAYS 1 & 2 featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles premiered on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.

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AUTHOR HIGHLIGHT

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed, award winning English historical fiction writer of novels and short stories. A two time Man Booker Prize Award honored author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both novels featuring Thomas Cromwell as main character, Hilary Mantel is currently composing the final novel of her Tudor Era trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. 

Considered by many to be the world’s finest historical fiction author writing in the English language, Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985. Since then, Mantel’s exhaustive body of work includes a variety of stellar novels and short story compilations. Her commitment to and interest in composing compelling short stories greatly enhanced the genre’s popularity with readers and continued publishing viability.

Awards and prizes bestowed upon Hilary Mantel for extraordinary accomplishment in literature include the following: Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize 1987, Southern Arts Literature Prize 1990, The Cheltenham Prize 1990, Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize 1990, Sunday Express Book of the Year 1992, Hawthornden Prize 1996, CBE 2006, Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) 2006, Costa Novel Award 2009, Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009, National Book Critics’ Circle Award (US) 2009, James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) 2010, Walter Scott Prize 2010, and Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2012.

A portrait of Hilary Mantel, the creativity of Nick Lord, is on display at the British Library. She is the only living author to be bestowed such honor.

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Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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