diamond geezer

 Monday, August 29, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet

As you might suspect from its name, Blackfriars was once a monastery. The black-robed Dominican Friars moved in beside the Fleet in 1278, right down near the river's mouth into the Thames where the inlet was still deep, wide and navigable. In 1382 religious reformer John Wycliffe was brought to Blackfriars by the Archbishop of Canterbury to stand trial for his beliefs. Towards the end of the hearing London was struck by a sudden earthquake (honest - even St Paul's was damaged) which Wycliffe took as a sign of God's displeasure, although the Archbishop disagreed and found him guilty anyway. In 1529 a court met at Blackfriars to hear the divorce proceedings of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. The consequences were equally seismic, and England split with the Church of Rome followed four years later.

By 1540 Blackfriars, along with all the other monasteries in England, had been dissolved. Some of the old buildings were converted into a private theatre which in 1608 was acquired by Richard Burbage for the use of his company of actors, the King's Men. Richard and his mate William Shakespeare used this indoor playhouse during the winter months, while continuing to perform Will's latest plays across the Thames at the Globe during the summer. Local residents weren't pleased by the regular disruption that raucous theatre crowds created on their doorstep. However, this didn't stop Shakespeare from buying the old Blackfriars monastery gatehouse in Ireland Yard [photo] as his London residence in 1613. The theatre lingers on only as a streetname (Playhouse Yard), but there's still one tiny segment of the old monastery wall to be seen hidden in a quiet courtyard here amidst the old medieval lanes [pictured].

Blackfriars is now better known as a mainline railway station (for trains to Bedford, Brighton, Sutton and Sevenoaks). It's not impressive and it's not big, but it does have platforms that extend out across the River Thames (and from which the view along the river is pretty outstanding [photo]). Meanwhile the monastery of Blackfriars is still commemorated by the Art Nouveau flat-iron pub over the road [photo]. It's 100 years old this year but was almost pulled down in the 1960s before being saved by a Betjeman-led campaign. Fight your way through the City drinkers spilt out across the pavement outside The Black Friar and look up at the big mosaic above the entrance [pictured]. There you'll see two dark-clad monks (one with giant fish in hand) standing in front of the old turreted friary beside the blue waters of the river Fleet - how it used to be here, many centuries ago.

(I really ought to stop here, because the river Fleet only ever flowed as far as Blackfriars, but nowadays there's still another 20 metres to go...)

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