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Whitefriars in London

L.W. Cowie visits Whitefriars where, between the Temple and the River Fleet, stood the Carmelite Priory, and later the site of the slums of Alsatia.

The historical origins of the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, commonly known as the Carmelites or (from their white mantle) the Whitefriars, are uncertain. They were founded in Palestine about the year 1154 by St Berthold, but they claimed continuity with the earlier hermits who settled on Mount Carmel and even to be the direct spiritual descendants of Elijah and the ‘sons of the prophets’ of the Old Testament.

After the failure of the Crusades, they were driven out of Palestine by the Saracens in the late 1230s, and many of them came to Europe where, under the generalship of St Simon Stock, the order was reorganized on the lines of those of the medieval mendicant friars.

According to the Stowe Manuscript, the Carmelites first came to England on Christmas Day 1240. John de Vessey brought some to Hulne, near Alnwick in Northumberland, and Baron de Grey gave another party his mansion at Aylesford in Kent; and in 1241 Sir Richard Grey of Codnor founded their Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in London.

It was situated on land between Fleet Street and the River Thames, given to them by Henry III and later enlarged by Richard II and Henry IV, until it eventually formed a precinct bounded on the west by the Inner Temple (the present houses of King’s Bench Walk) and on the east roughly by the present Whitefriars Street, which may be the lane granted to them in 1350 by John Lufken, Mayor of London, to help them complete their Church.

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