We continue our medieval tour of London by turning our feet south and heading back towards the river (and the Tower) using the street that today is called the Minories.
The Minories is a strange street name. As a child I assumed that it was something to do with Royal Mint Street which is very close by. But as it turns out, the two things are unrelated except for their shared location. If you walk down the Minories today from Aldgate, you’ll discover that it’s a fairly soulless concrete conglomeration of offices, bars and lunchtime eateries for the 9-5 workers, and that very little of medieval London remains to be seen apart from the rough positioning of the road along the old city wall.
Owing to its position on the edge of the financial district the Minories is mostly deserted at weekends, and is altogether a fairly unremarkable street. But keep walking south, following the road as it curves left and then right, passing beneath railway arches and Royal Mint Street on your left, and you’ll see not only the Tower of London ahead, but also a huge walled compound on your left that seems highly incongruous with the sights of the street you’ve just travelled along.
New Royal Mint
Follow this long yellow brick wall (in true Wizard of Oz fashion!) and you arrive at a rather grand and stately building. This is (or was) the New Royal Mint. In the early nineteenth century the decision was made to remove the mint from the Tower of London following the outbreak of war with France and the resulting demands on the Tower’s space. Building work began on Little Tower Hill in 1805, and was completed in 1809. The buildings housed the new steam-powered minting machinery and residences for officers and staff, and were surrounded by a boundary (the yellow brick wall) shadowed by a narrow alleyway that officers could patrol. The mint outgrew these buildings and was moved to Wales following decimalisation, and this structure is now used as commercial offices by Barclays.
The Abbey of the Minoresses of the Order of St Clare
You may be wondering what this has to do with the Minories. Well, the new (or should that now be old?) royal mint buildings stand on roughly the former site of the house of the Grace of the Blessed Mary, founded in 1293 by Edmund earl of Lancaster for the nuns of the order of St Clare. It was also known as the Abbey of the Minoresses, from which the word Minories has evolved. The earl’s wife Blanche, queen of Navarre, brought the establishment’s first inhabitants over from France, and the house enjoyed several royal privileges courtesy of the earl’s brother, Edward I, including ‘exemption from summonses before the justices in eyre for common pleas and pleas of the forest.’ Even pope Boniface VIII ordered that any sentences of excommunication imposed by bishops or rectors against the house would be meaningless, and declared the nuns ‘free from all jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London.’ Records also indicate that Queen Isabella was a generous benefactor to the house, and Henry IV granted it several privileges. If we recall the nearby St Katherine’s by the Tower hospital and the special attention paid to it by successive queens, a picture begins to emerge of an area surrounding the Tower of London in which royal patrons took a particular interest.
But patronage of this religious house was not limited to royalty: Elizabeth de Burgh Lady Clare bequeathed £20, ornaments and furniture to the house in 1355, as well as separate pots of money to the abbess and each of the sisters, and was buried there after her death. Another affluent London widow, Lucia Visconti was also buried there. Margaret countess of Norfolk granted a gift of rent to the house in 1382. Even John of Gaunt bequeathed £100 to the sisters in 1397. Despite this attention, successive pleas were made by the religious house for financial exemptions on account of its poverty between 1316 -1353.
The house also enjoyed some well-known guests and inhabitants. After the death of her husband, the earl of Warwick, Margaret Beauchamp was granted leave by the pope in 1398 to reside in the house for as long as she wished. Eleanor Lady Scrope, daughter of Ralph de Neville, took the veil there after her husband died. Henry earl of Lancaster visited in 1349. Thomas de Woodstock, duke of Gloucester obtained various advowsons for the house, and even had his own residence right next to the convent’s church with a door made between the two buildings so he could come and go as he pleased. Interestingly the nuns did not afford the next resident of that house the same privilege after the duke’s death.
In 1515 the house was struck down with an infectious illness which was the end of twenty-seven of the sisters, and shortly after this the building burned down. Various benefactors donated enough to rebuild the house, including funds given at the instruction of Cardinal Wolsey, but it was all for nought, because in 1539 Henry VIII nabbed the abbey.
The Minories after the Middle Ages
In the sixth year of his reign Edward VI granted to Henry Grey the duke of Suffolk a place ‘formerly called “le myneryes” in the parish of St Botolph without Algate London.’ The duke seems to have shared ownership with his younger brothers, some of whom forfeited their shares in the estate after being implicated in the Wyatt rebellion. On 22nd September 1563 the Minories were eventually bought by Elizabeth I. Sometime in the sixteenth century the abbey seems to have been demolished and a number of buildings, along with a small church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, were erected on its site. The church was also known as Holy Trinity Minories (see the engraving at the top of this post) and St Clare without Aldgate. The other buildings were used as storehouses (particularly for munitions), workhouses and official residences, as well as apartments for other private residents. One account suggests that it was also ‘rather a favourite place of abode for some of the royal musicians’ and another cites the church as a well-known location for clandestine marriages in early modern London!
In the late seventeenth-century space was starting to become an issue, with the East India Company encroaching upon the church’s land with their warehouses. This had the rather gruesome result of affecting the grave sites, and there are records of a ‘wholesale removal of the dead’ from the burial plots in the church grounds to make room for fresh burials, and also a newly-adopted policy of burying the dead first at a depth of six feet before moving on to the next layer to bury them at a slightly lesser depth, and so on, until finally the churchyard was so full the ‘the parishioners were sorely puzzled as to what expedient could next be tried for providing additional space for burial.’
The church was rebuilt in 1706, but gradually the inhabited houses in the precinct were replaced by warehouses and railways as the Victorian age took hold. The Minories railway station was built in 1840 as a part of the London and Blackwall Railway – a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) cable railway. The site is now a Docklands Light Railway station called Tower Gateway, which opened in 1989. In 1899 the parishes of St Botolph Without Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories were united.
The rest is history! A holy house, munitions storage, houses favoured by musicians, a church used for clandestine weddings, a royal mint, a train station and finally some offices. The Minories have seen it all. Sadly in 1940 the Holy Trinity Minories church was bombed and destroyed, leaving behind no architectural evidence that the Minories ever existed – just a street name that confused a young Medieval Bex.
So far we’ve been hovering along the boundaries of the medieval City of London, but join me on our next stop when we enter the City proper by crossing into that fortress and unmistakable symbol of royal power – the Tower of London. If walls could speak…
Barron, Caroline M. and Anne F. Sutton. Medieval London widows, 1300-1500. London; Rio Grande, Ohio, U.S.A.: Hambledon Press, 1994.
British History Online. ‘The Minoresses Without Aldgate’: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=35371
St Botolph Without Aldgate with Holy Trinity Minories: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/St_Botolph_Without_Aldgate_with_Holy_Trinity_Minories,_Middlesex#Holy_Trinity_Minories_Parish
The Royal Mint Museum: http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/the-royal-mint-story/tower-hill/index.html
Tomlinson, Edward Murray. A History of the Minories. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1907. Online version: http://archive.org/details/historyofminorie00tomluoft