Fleet Street panorama with Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's Cathedral in the background. On the right can be seen Whitefriars Street (on the corner of which — just out of the picture — stands the Ca-ruouc HERALD office whose name along with nearby Carmelite Street still commemorates the Carmelites of long ago.
By Fr. Keith Egan, 0.Carm.
IF one steps out of the offices of the CATHouc HERALD, he stands at the heart of the British newspaper world. Had that step been taken prior to the Reformation, one would have stood facing the friary of the Cartnelites of Fleet Street.
Though this friary has long since disappeared, its ancient presence lives on in such familiar names as Whitefriars Street, Carmelite Street, Carmelite House, etc. Even the pages of the CATHOLIC HERALD bear witness to this memory with the "Whitefriars Chronicle". A plaque along Whitefriars Street invites the public to visit the tiny remains of the old friary preserved beneath a modern newspaper building.
The Carmelite friars came to London in the middle of the 13th Century (1248-53). The founder of this friary in the then suburbs of London was Sir Richard de Grey, the knight who had only a few years previously settled a band of Carmelites on his estate at Aylesford, Kent.
The Londoners could hardly fail to notice the newcomers who went about in their striped habits, worn since their days on Mount Carmel in Palestine. But their later dress was even more distinctive and won for them the name by which they would be popularly known all over Great Britain: the Whitefriars, a name in turn applied to the friary itself at Fleet Street. The friars earned their new name from the white cloaks which they adopted in 1287 as a concession to western taste, outraged by the former gaudy stripes.
Whitefriars of Fleet Street was a large and important friary. It served as a house of studies not only for the Carmelite friars of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland but also for Carmelites from the Continent. Manuscripts from the fine library at Whitefriars can still be admired at the British Museum, in libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and in other present-day collections of manuscripts. A huge, reconstructed Carmelite missal with unique illuminations now at the British Museum seems to have belonged to this London house.
The property in the hands of the London Carmelites would have extended on a modern map from Fleet Street to the Thames and from Whitefriars to the Temple.
An outstanding feature of the friary was the church with its very long nave where Londoners often gathered to hear the preaching of the friars. The spacious and graceful church, built to accommodate large congregations, stood parallel to Fleet Street though about 200 feet down from the famous thoroughfare. This church and also the cemetery of the friars were favourite places of burial for the laity. Sir John Paston of the famous Patton family was buried at Whitefriars, as was the celebrated warrior Sir Robert Knolles, and in accordance with his will the body of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was brought to Whitefriars for services before burial at St. Paul's.
The friars of Fleet Street played a prominent rale in the life of London's mighty and in the life of London's man in the street. Thus Carmelites were confessors to the House of Lancaster while the common folk throughout London came into constant contact with the friars as preachers, teachers, or confessors.
The affection of the people of London for the white-clad friars is apparent from the frequent mention of them in the medieval wills of London. As early as 1286 a Carmelite was teaching at St. Paul's Cathedral school. and for a period in the fourteenth century the King's Chancery frequently operated from the Carmelite friary. Various records tell of the friary being used for both secular and ecclesiastical councils.
Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester testifies to the prominence of London's Whitefriars when he arranges for the body of Henry VI to be taken to the friary (Ric)rard III, Act 1, Scene 2): GroucEsrett: Sirs, take up the corpse. GENTLEMEN : Towards Chertsey, noble Lord?
GLOTJCESTER : No, to Whitefriars; there attend my coming.
Many noted Carmelites were members of Whitefriars of Fleet Street; perhaps the most renowned was friar Thomas Netter of Walden (d. 1430), provincial of his order, confessor to Henry V and Henry VI, diplomat, and theologian. Professor David Knowles writes that Netter " . . was perhaps the most distinguished friar of any order between the age of Ockham and the Dissolution".
Fleet Street saw the last of its friars in 1538 when the prior and friars signed a deed of surrender. The church and the various buildings then passed into the hands of the King who parcelled them out to such as Dr. Butts. the King's physician. Though these buildings have all but disappeared through the years, the Whitefriars site has kept its individuality. Right up into the 18th century, the area retained its privilege of sanctuary. And for the Fleet Street journalists Whitefriars has always remained a personality all its own.
During almost 300 years Whitefriars of Fleet Street was the centre of apostolic activity for the Carmelites of London. Now 400 years afterwards the memory of them still lives on. No medieval Londoner was unaware of their presence; no modem Londoner can deny this memory. Wtatefriars is a name engraved not only on maps and street signs and letterheads but in the living annals of the spiritual heritage of London.