London · Medieval buildings · Medieval kings and queens

St Katharine’s by the Tower: London’s Forgotten Medieval Hospital

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that a while ago I said I wanted to write a guided walk around medieval sites in London. I started writing, but it soon became clear that it would be far too long for a single post! So in order to do each place justice I’ve decided to split the walk into a set of blog posts, travelling from east to west across my beloved hamlet. This is the first stop on the tour.

Walking through London

Since graduating from my BA I’ve worked and studied in the heart of London. I used to walk to work before I got a job in Westminster (which was just a tad too far from my house to walk!). I am one of life’s strollers, and as I used to trundle through the hustle and bustle of London’s streets at rush hour I would gaze around me, seeing something new every day. People who rush everywhere must miss so many little things… Like the family of mice carved into one of the buildings on Great Tower Street. Or the mysterious ‘London Stone,’ hidden away opposite Cannon Street station. Or the newspaper carved into the pavement on Fleet Street. Walking through the city, you get a real sense of the nitty-gritty of what the population at large were up to in times past. Place names like Bread Street, Poultry and Cock Lane hint at the human business conducted right on the very streets that I used to tread every day (Cock Lane had nothing to do with chickens by the way, but that’s another blog post!).

Bowles' map of London
Bowles’s Reduced New Pocket Plan Of The Cities Of London And Westminster With The Borough Of Southwark, Exhibiting The New Buildings To The Year 1775.

Walking in and around the City of London is a humbling and sensory experience. Names like Aldgate, Cheapside, St. Pauls and Gracechurch Street ring out from the ages, evoking names like Chaucer, Milton and Austen. Medieval churches stand shoulder to shoulder with über-modern high-rise offices made of glass and shaped like pickled cucumbers. Time is jumbled together; age is heaped upon age. This is a place where all times are one. London has had this duality of past and present for a very long time indeed – Britons and Anglo-Saxons dwelt in the shell of the rubble and ruins of the old Roman city. London offers the swift realisation that you are one tiny moment in the enormous expanse of history, and that you too will soon just be part of the past. There’s something beautiful about treading in the footsteps of your predecessors, even as it reminds you of your own mortality.

The East

But enough of my philosophising! We begin our tour just east of the City, which is where I’m from. I like it there, and I’m very proud to be an east Londoner. If London is a cultural melting pot, then the east is the swirling vortex stirred up by the spoon in the middle. It’s about as diverse as it gets. Huguenot, Jew, Irish, West Indian, Bangladeshi… all have made a home in the east in the past, and right now I’d say it’s definitely the best place in London to get a curry. In 1936, just moments down the road from where I live, the people of east London united in all their glorious diversity against a common enemy in an iconic stand that came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street. They prevented Oswald Mosley and his fascist goons from marching by building a blockade out of furniture and other items, showing their defiance in numbers. I even read somewhere that the women of the street threw slops out of the window onto the heads of the fascists!

Even though it was long before my time that day makes me immensely proud. It shows the east at its very best: we might all be very different, but we’re all different together. Of course, it’s not always like that, but nowhere’s perfect. Mosley should have known better than to try that sh*t here.

Battle of Cable StreetBattle of Cable Street plaque

St Katharine’s by the Tower

Just 10 minutes away from the site of the Battle of Cable Street and across the road from the Tower of London is St. Katharine’s Dock. Now a marina for the rich and fabulous to moor their yachts (oh how I hate them!), this glamorous confabulation of restaurants, bars and apartments is a post-Industrial Age scene. But this area has a medieval past of stark contrasts, of queens and vagabonds, and so forgotten that even I was not aware of until very recently, despite having lived around that area for most of my life.

St Katharine Docks 2004

The establishment of a queenly hospital

In the middle of the twelfth century, Matilda of Boulogne proved that she was a woman to reckon with. The wife of Stephen of Blois, and therefore queen consort during one of the toughest periods of history (they didn’t call it the Anarchy for nothing), Matilda was one tough cookie. When King Henry I died, her husband Stephen – Henry’s nephew – immediately buggered off to London to nab the crown, leaving a heavily pregnant Matilda to have the baby in Boulogne. She crossed the channel soon after to join him and be crowned queen.

Matilda of Boulogne
Matilda of Boulogne

The other Matilda, Empress Matilda (Stephen’s cousin), was named heir by her father Henry I. She was understandably rather unhappy about her cousin stealing her crown. Civil war ensued between her and Stephen. Throughout this tumultuous and unsettled time, when ‘Christ and his saints slept,’ Matilda of Boulogne was a staunch supporter of her husband. She raised armies from her own allies in Boulogne and Flanders, made treaties with the king of Scotland and even joined forces with Stephen’s brother Henry of Blois to save Stephen when he got captured by Empress Matilda’s forces.

Aside from these martial activities, Matilda also undertook other types of queenly initiative. She had a close relationship with the Holy Trinity Priory at Aldgate, and around 1148 she bought some land in the parish of St. Botolph without Aldgate near the Tower of London and established a hospital there for a ‘master, brethren, sisters, and thirteen poor persons.’ She gave the hospital a mill, along with the land that belonged to it and an annual rent of £20. Queen Matilda conferred the ‘perpetual custody’ of the hospital onto the priory, but reserved the choice of the master for herself and all the queens who would follow after her, creating a special bond across time between herself and successive queens of England. St Katharine’s by the Tower (or to give its full title, the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower) was established.

St Katharine’s Church on a map of London
St Katharine’s Church on a map of London (far right), from Historical atlas, Shepherd, p. 75

In 1255 there seems to have been some dissatisfaction about the hospital on the part of Queen Eleanor of Provence. It seems that the brothers of the hospital were a bit laddish, prone to drinking and quarrelling, much to the detriment of their neglected patients. A dispute over the custody of the priory ensued, with Eleanor pitting herself against the court of the Exchequer and the canons of the Holy Trinity, who were inclined to leave the hospital as it was. ‘Whether the queen’s action was determined by her desire to secure a better working of the hospital, or by her resentment at the encroachment on her right of presentation, it is impossible to say’ – Eleanor was possibly peeved that one of her areas of sole authority was being undermined. She got the Bishop of London involved. In 1257 he visited the hospital, removed the master who had been appointed by the canons and ‘ordered the prior and canons to refrain henceforth from all interference with the hospital.’ Furthermore, in 1261 the bishops of London, Carlisle and Salisbury and other members of the king’s council managed to persuade the prior to renounce any right to the hospital. The hospital now belonged entirely to the queen.

In fact, the queenly dominion over the hospital was such an indisputable legal fact that in 1333 Richard de Lusteshall, a disgruntled ex-master who was removed from the post of master by Queen Philippa, brought his case before the king in an attempt to override her queenly authority. At first the king ordered for a trial to proceed, until Philippa showed that by the terms of the foundation charter, the judges had absolutely no jurisdiction. The king quickly saw that he wasn’t going to win this particular battle and left the matter to the queen.

Philippa seems to have taken an interest in the hospital. In 1350 she founded a chantry and provided for an additional chaplain with a gift of lands worth £10 a year. She also drew up some regulations for the hospital employees:

‘…the brothers and sisters were to have no private property except by the consent of the master; they were not to go out without his leave nor to stay out after curfew; the sisters were allowed 20s. a year for their clothing, the brothers 40s.; the costume was to be black with the sign of St. Katharine, and the wearing of green or entirely red clothes was prohibited; the brethren were to have no private conference with the sisters or any other women; negligence or disobedience on the part of the brethren and sisters was punishable by lessening their portion of food and drink but not by stripes; each sister was to receive in her room her daily allowance of a white and a brown loaf, two pieces of different kinds of meat value 1½d. or fish of the same value, and a pittance worth 1d.; the portion of both brothers and sisters was to be doubled on fifteen feast days; the master was to dine in the common hall with the brothers; the almswomen were to wear caps and cloaks of a grey colour; they were not to go out without leave of the master; if their conduct was bad they could be removed by the master with consent of the brethren and sisters.’

On a side note: why did the brothers get double the annual clothing allowance of the sisters?! They probably spent it on beer, whereas no doubt the sisters would have spent it on lovely shoes and wimples…

Over the years the church was rebuilt and received plentiful resources, including a perpetual grant from Edward III in 1376 of £10 a year for a chaplain to celebrate in Philippa’s chantry. In 1378 Robert de Denton intended to found a hospital for the insane in the parish of Allhallows Barking but gave property instead to St. Katharine’s to establish yet another chantry. Chantry-mania took hold, and several nobles followed suit over the following years, and added what seems like an inordinate amount of chantries…

St. Katherine's By the Tower
St Katharine’s – chantries galore!

In 1440 the king’s secretary, Thomas Beckington, was appointed as master of the hospital. The hospital’s star was in the ascendant. A Charter of Privileges granted in 1442 meant that the hospital was outside of the civil jurisdiction of the City and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishops of London. It became a ‘Royal Peculiar’ with its own ecclesiastical court, responsible only to the Master and Lord Chancellor. It was like its own little city, and even had its own prison. That August Henry VI also gave the hospital the manors of Chisenbury and Quarley, plus an annual fair on Tower Hill, PLUS gave it allsorts of freebies and benefits, like letting it off the hook from all payments of subsidies and not letting any royal stewards or marshals stay there without consent of the master. Another new rule was that the master, brothers and sisters were to receive the chattels of felons, fugitives and suicidies… Creepy.

The hospital was chummy with both Henry VII and VIII, and at the funeral of the former the sum of £40 was given to the sisters (finally, they could buy all the shoes they’d been missing out on!). Strangely when Henry VIII was having a merry time ripping the hearts out of other monasteries and hospitals, he spared St Katharine’s. Not only that, but he also remitted the annual tithe. At this stage the hospital had an annual income of around £315 – not bad at all, especially considering they only spent £284 per year. Beer and shoes all round!

Things changed after this. Edward VI suppressed all chantries – and as we know, St Katharine’s had chantries coming out of its ears, so this was not good news. He also appointed a layman as master in 1549, something which continued from then on, and the position was seen as a sort of reward for servants of the crown. One bloke, a certain Dr Thomas Wilson, used the post as an opportunity to pilfer from St Katharine’s, and he plundered it to the rafters.

After this, the hospital seems to trot along again, doing fine, dodging fires and riots. In the early modern period there were around 1,000 houses (including a brewery) in the hospital’s self-governing precinct, ‘inhabited by foreigners, vagabonds and prostitutes, crammed along narrow lanes (with names like Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery and Pillory Lane) and many in poor repair.’ John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London said that there were more people living in the precinct than in some cities in England. Since London’s guilds’ restrictions did not apply there, foreign craftsmen were attracted to St Katherine’s. There was also a school established there in 1705.

Proposed plan of St Katharine's dock
Plan of the proposed St. Katharine’s Docks: c.1825, Charles Hullmandel © PLA collection/Museum of London

After that, it’s all tickety-boo until 1825, when those industrious Victorians eyed up the site as a potential place to build some docks to extend the facilities of the busy Port of London. St Katharine’s, ‘with its 14th & 15th century buildings and some 3,000 inhabitants,’ was demolished. Sir James Broodbank in his History of the Port of London praised the development for demolishing ‘some of the most insanitary and unsalutary dwellings in London.’ The inhabitants were turfed out with no compensation, and probably became the Artful Dodgers of Dickensian London.

Opening of St Katharine Docks, 25 October 1828
Opening of St Katharine Docks, 25 October 1828

The Royal Foundation of St Katharine moved to Regent’s Park, and then in 1948 it returned to East London, further east down the river, to its present location in Limehouse.

…and the rest is history.

It’s so strange that this building and its surrounding precinct, easily seen on old maps or read about in historical records, are no more. They are ghosts. And at St Katharine’s Dock only the name remains to remind us of what once was.


Further reading

‘Hospitals: St Katharine by the Tower’, A History of the County of London: Volume 1: London within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark (1909), pp. 525-530. URL:

St Katharine by the Tower Church Records, The East of London Family History Society:

Rotha Mary Clay, The Medieval Hospitals of England (1909)

St Katharine’s by the Tower, Wikipedia entry:

31 thoughts on “St Katharine’s by the Tower: London’s Forgotten Medieval Hospital

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this. In the early 1990’s I worked in Fenchurch Street and LR and used to spend my lunch hours exploring the lanes and passageways at that end of the city and Tower Hamlets. As a Reader in the CofE I also had the privilege of preaching at lunchtime services at All Hallows by the Tower, which has a Roman ‘pavement’ in its crypt.

    As you say, the history beneath our feet in the City and environs is fascinating. BTW, I also grew up in East London – but the one about 6,000 miles to the south and on a different river …

    1. Fascinating Bex – I really enjoyed reading this, so much so that I’m behind on my motherly duties 😉 nevermind x
      oh and I’ve been to both East Londons 😉
      Keep up the good work x

    1. Hi! I hope you found the post useful in that case 🙂 You’ll have to let me know if your research leads you to any further discoveries about St Katharine’s!

  2. You need to do a “farewell to London” post, now that you’re off to York for your PhD. Maybe something about medieval travel? 🙂

  3. Many thanks, really glad you enjoyed it! Really trying to get on with my next post, but festive madness seems to be taking over…

    Your blog looks fab – and another history buff Rebecca too! Must be the name 😉

  4. Really interesting – came across your site while looking for details of St Katherine’s by the Tower as my 5 x great grandmother was married there in 27.09.1749. She went by the wonderful name of Letitia Strawberry. She would have been married in the old Church before the alterations of 1825ish

    1. We will commemorate St Katharine again on Tuesday at the quayside next to Starbucks at St Katharine Docks- this will be led by the Chaplain of the Tower Of London, Canon Roger Hall. Please join us and wrap up ‘warm and dry in case of bad weather.

      1. Hello
        I didn’t make the commemoration in 2014 will there be another one this year (2015)
        Been busy this year and managed to sort out a route taking in various birth, deaths and marriage venues – very interesting.
        To sit in St Leonards at Shoreditch where more relatives were married.
        Sadly St Giles without Cripplegate was closed by the time we got there but next time…..

    2. My book, The Story Of St Katharine’s, refers to the work of the ancient Hospital and Church, its closure and destruction in 1825 and refers to a substantial number of the relics now being used in the chapel at RFSK at Butcher’s Row, Limehouse. I would be pleased to send pics if you would like- my email is

  5. In 1748 a gentleman called Thomas Bampfield lived in “Bursheet” in the parish of St. Catherines near the Tower of London. Does anyone know of this place

    1. I have written ‘The Story Of St Katharine’s’ which would give you an insight into the area when it had several thousand people and ancient Hospital and Church, destroyed in 1825 ( before it became St Katharine Docks). People are often in touch with me and I get good feedback to recommending the Bankroft Archive Library- they are very helpful. From an old faded map copy in my possession, I can’t find ‘Bursheet’ or Bur Street. Currently, there is a Burr’s Close- but I was unable to find the reason for the name. Please contact if you want to further communicate.

      1. Dear Christopher
        Many thanks for the info. I will try to fit a visit in when I next get to London.
        I will take a look at your book as well.
        Many thanks

  6. Enjoyed this post and looking forward to visiting St Katherine by the Tower. Would you recommend an order of your posts for a walking tour? I’ve been in London for 4 months and have 2 weeks left, Already I see your posts are bringing up more places I have not seen, I’ve been exploring since the day we arrived and still there is more. 🙂

    1. Sorry to take a while to get to this! Yes, I would do them in the order they were posted onto this blog. Do let me know if you manage to go on a walking tour, and what else you manage to see!

      1. There is a published map and guide on sale at Nauticalia for £2.99- it will guide you around ‘today’s treasures’ quite neatly- (sorry, I wrote it so am biased).

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