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London DisastersLondon Disasters: The Fatal Vespers: I
Posted on Jul 22, 2008 - 10:28 AM by Bill McCann

In 1623 ninety-five people perished when the floor of a temporary chapel in the Blackfriars district collapsed. Two of our antiquaries, John Strype and Walter Thornbury, have left us vivid descriptions of the event. These differ in both the detail and, particularly, in the style. One was a Divine, the other a Journalist. For these reasons it is informative to compare them. In our introduction we take the opportunity to paint a broad historical backdrop to the tragedy, and to introduce our two authors.


The name Black Friars refers to the Dominican Order of Preachers, who wore a black habit. They first arrived in London in 1221 and founded a monastery in Chancery Lane. In 1278 they were granted a large parcel of land south of Ludgate Hill and west of Baynard's Castle. This had belonged to the recently persecuted, and dissolved, Order of Templars. The property was bounded on the west by the Fleet river, and on the south by the Thames. Through it ran part of the old Roman City Wall, stretching from Ludgate to the Thames.

On taking possession, the Friars asked for, and received, royal permission to demolish the Roman wall and enclose their entire property with a new wall. This extended west from Ludgate to the Fleet and thence south to the Thames. It therefore enclosed all the land which had been granted to the Friars. The wall was long in building (there were problems with stability of the foundations along the Fleet), and was not finally completed until 1320. Edward II made many murage grants to pay for the work, and himself had a tower for his private use erected at the confluence of Fleet and Thames. Many of the stones used in its construction came from the ruins of the old Roman wall but also from Normandy and Kent.

The Blackfriars was a rich House and became an important venue for State events. A number of parliaments and trials were held here. In 1382, the convocation of Archbishop and Bishops to decide whether the works of Wycliffe were heretical gathered here but their deliberations were interrupted by a massive earthquake. In the end, they could not decide whether God had caused the earthquake to tell them that Wycliffe was indeed a heretic, or whether they would be wrong to judge that his works were heretical. They finally fudged and referred the matter back to the King (Richard II).It was much used by Henry VIII. In 1522 it was used to house the visiting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Henry linked it to his new palace of Bridewell on the west bank of the Fleet by a covered bridge. In 1529 the inquiry by Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio, the Papal Legate, into Henry's appeal for divorce from Katherine of Aragon was also held here in May. The Papal Legate refused to grant the divorce and the following October the trial and condemnation of Wolsey himself took place in the same place.

The failure of the divorce proceedings led not only to the downfall of Wolsey, but also to the dissolution of the monasteries, including Blackfriars, when Henry broke with Rome. Blackfriars was suppressed on November 12th 1538. The King's assessors valued it at £104.15s.5d. (about £42,952.50 in today's money). All the plate and valuables were taken off to the King's Jewel House and the property was granted to Sir Thomas Carwarden, Keeper of the Royal Tents and Master of Revels. Most of the buildings, including the church, were demolished and the materials used to build new townhouses for noblemen and gentlemen. It became a fashionable area.

One of the friary buildings not demolished was the Frater (the dining hall) on the southern edge of the complex. In 1578 the upper floor was turned into the Blackfriars Playhouse, the first indoor theatre in London. The performers here were the choristers of the Chapel Royal, under the direction of Richard Farrant, who lived with his family on the ground floor. Farrant died in 1580 and the theatre outlived him by only four years. In 1596 it was bought and refurbished by James Burbage. It opened in 1597, under his son Richard Burbage, as a full-blown indoor theatre. From then, until it was closed by the Puritans in 1642, it served as a winter alternative to the open-air Globe on the marshy and muddy Bankside. It was demolished in 1655.


One of the most important possessions of all religious houses in mediaeval and early modern Europe was that of Sanctuary. Originally, it meant that anyone accused of a crime by the State could escape summary justice by taking "sanctuary" in a church and claim a fair hearing before the proper authorities. In time, in Britain, it evolved into the idea and actuality of "The Liberties" associated with a religious establishment. These were areas where the secular authorities were forbidden to enter and which, in time, became refuges for the criminal classes. The most notorious in London was "The Sanctuary" on the north side of Westminster Abbey.

Despite the abuses, the religious authorities defended these rights vigorously. One reason was the right of an accused cleric to be tried under Church, rather than Secular, Law. Church law was notably more lenient – it did not include the death penalty, for example, because no man, or mortal power, had the right to take another's life. Even the Spanish Inquisition and the Witchfinders of 17th century England handed condemned heretics over the secular powers for conviction and execution, for they had no power to impose the death penalty themslves.

To the great frustration of the secular powers, this leniency gave rise to the plea of "Right of Clergy." In the mediaeval and early modern periods, the only poeople capable of writing, of writing even their own names, were clerics. Therefore, if a person could write his name, the presumption must be that he was a cleric, and subject to ecclestiastical, instead of secular law. This was an abuse much used. But it was defended vigourously and enforced with the threat of eternal damnation. To forcibly remove anyone from "Sanctuary" was a sacrilege, and the perpretator was damned to everlasting torment in Hell. Everyone, from the Monarch down to the lowliest thief, believed in the reality of this damnation.

In the case of Blackfriars, the privileges enjoyed by the occupants of the Blackfriars Liberties included a freedom from Watch and Ward and all duties and taxes imposed by the City of London in the form of the Mayor and Court of Aldermen. For this reason, it became a favourite haunt of itinerant artisans (masons, carpenters, feather-workers, actors, artists etc.) who were not allowed to dwell within the city limits.

On the Dissolution of Monasteries the Mayor and Aldermen sought to abolish the Liberties of Blackfriars and include the precinct within the jurisdiction of the City. Henry VIII peremptorily refused as did the Council of Edward VI. The issue came to a head in the reign of Elizabeth with a full-blown clash between the City and the Crown. The case was argued before the Chief Justices with evidence of rights and precedence being presented on both sides. The argument was clearly won by the Queen's Counsel, and the Liberties remained in "the Queen's Verge." The Liberties remained free from the City jurisdiction until 1750.

In the two accounts of the 1623 disaster there are passing references to the "stealth" and "secrecy" of the Catholic Vespers. There were in force, in the England of the time, stringent anti-Catholic laws, and, of all the Catholic religious orders, the Jesuits were the most virulently hated by the puritan/protestant majority.

There is still, in Britain today, a vestige of this anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit prejudice, which became part of the National Psyche with the "Glorious Revolution" at the end of the 17th century. At the state level, no Catholic can become monarch or the monarch's spouse, nor can a Catholic become Prime Minister, which is why Tony Blair had to wait until after his retirement to formally join the Church of his wife and children. At the level of the 'Man-in-the-street' it can be heard in daily conversation, or read in the editorials or on-line comment pages of national newspapers, such as the Times, Telegraph and Guardian. Even the plain goodness of the man, his pivotal role, along with Thatcher and Reagan, in bringing about the fall of Communism, and his stoical and public bearing of a long and painful death did not spare the late Pope, John Paul II, from snide snipings across the entire spectrum of the British Press. He was "The Pope," and that was enough for coluumns of hate. Plus ça Change in Britain).

The Accession of James I in 1603 had been a grave disappointment to Catholics. They had hoped for a restoration of their religious freedoms and civil rights, but these never materialised. The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 had been an expression of this frustration and disappointment. That poor, failed, amateur plot served only to entrench anti-Catholic feeling in the Protestant and, growing, Puritan factions.

It is against this background of persecution that both the location and number of worshippers at the religious ceremony is to be understood. It was held in the Liberties of Blackfriars because it was safe. There was no freedom to preach Catholicism outside, and it was certainly not safe for a Jesuit priest to go abroad on the streets of London. There was toleration, of sorts, of the celebration of Mass, but Jesuitical preaching was a dangerous proceeding. Hence also, the large number of people who attended the ceremony. It was, perhaps, their only chance to hear a gifted and, as many, not only Catholics, thought, Holy, preacher.

Our Authors

John Strype (1643- 1737) was an English historian and biographer.His father, also John, was a member of a Huguenot family who, in order to escape religious persecution within Brabant, had settled in East London. He was a merchant and silk throwster. The younger John was educated at St Paul's School, and Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1674 he was licensed by the Bishop of London to preach and expound the word of God, and to perform the office of priest and curate of Leyton while it was vacant, and until his death he received the profits of it. He produced "An Accurate Edition of Stow's Survey of London" in 1720, and which he updated, but in it he also took some unjustifed and substantial liberties with the original text.

Walter Thornbury (1828- 1876) was the son of a London solicitor and a journalist by profession. he was a prolific writer of verse, novels, art criticism and popular historical and topographical sketches. He began his career in 1845 with contributions to Bristol Journal, but wrote later mainly for the Athenaeum. He contributed the first two volumes (1873-74) to the impressive and hugely popular six-volume historical guide "Old and New London" He is said to have died in the lunatic asylum, Bethlehem Royal Hospital, (the original of the word 'Bedlam') and now the Imperial War Museum.


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