There’s a large section of medieval wall from the City of London’s first monastery that can be found inside a modern office, and it’s open for the public to pop in and have a look.
This is one of the few surviving sections of Holy Trinity Aldgate, the City of London’s first monastery, founded around 1108, later to be the richest monastery in London, and thanks to those riches, the first to be shut down by King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Today, much of the ruins of the monastery lie under the buildings and streets around Aldgate in the east of the City of London, but one particularly large section can be seen inside an office after it was restored when Swiss Re commissioned the office in the mid-1980s. Swiss Re moved out in 2004 after their Gherkin skyscraper was built, and today the building is part of the WeWork family of offices, and the ancient wall makes for a dramatic backdrop for the office reception where their members arrive to use the office spaces.
In addition, there’s even more of the wall visible to the members on the other side of the entrance.
To understand what it’s doing here though, we need to leap back over 900 years to when this part of London just inside the old Roman wall was still mainly fields. In 1107-08, a priory was founded here by Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I, and it later expanded and erected a high wall around the site to enclose the site.
Supported by Thomas Becket, the priory grew richer and gained royal connections, with two of King Stephen’s children buried here, as well as London’s first mayor, Henry fitz Ailwin de Londonstane. Later members of the royal family were baptised here. The priory survived until February 1532, when it became the first in England to be seized by King Henry VIII, who then sold off the buildings and land associated with the priory to prominent courtiers and City merchants, with most of it going to Sir Thomas Audley, who cleared some of the land as it sat next to his mansion.
It passed through marriage to Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk who was executed in 1572 for plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth I.
The Duke’s beheading allowed the City of London to buy up the site for itself, and what was still looking like a walled monastery, was completely redeveloped to remove all trace above ground of what had been there. By the 1670s, the entire site was built up housing and warehouses. It remained much the same until Mitre Street was cut through the area in the early 1800s, and that gave the area its current layout.
Although known about from the late 19th-century, the arch was lost and rediscovered again in 1967, but was at the time just known as a bit of old wall. It was in 1984, when the site was being redeveloped for Swiss Re as their new offices that it was decided to make a feature of the medieval wall, and carry out research into its origins.
It was known at the time that the wall and arch formed the entrance to a chapel just to the south of the presbytery, or chancel which is where the clergy worshipped in the monastery’s church. Made up of a mix of stones from later repairs and changes, the dominant faced stone is limestone from north-western France near the city of Caen, a reminder that this was a fairly wealthy monastery at the time of its founding so could afford to import the good stuff.
The development by Speyhawk (architects GMW Partnership) was designed around the remaining arch and wall to make a feature of it inside the building.
To do that they had to pick away a layer of Victorian and 20th-century brickwork that encased it to reveal the medieval core. Unfortunately, this process revealed that the medieval wall survived mainly as rubble infill without its stone facing, which had long since been removed. While that made conservation difficult, it offered opportunities to study the wall in more detail, especially the sections which had until then only been suspected of being 12th-century.
During the construction of the surrounding building, they had to clad the wall in a steel cage that clamped polystyrene foam around the wall to protect it from vibrations. To preserve the wall and make it visible to people, it was decided to apply modern stone to the wall where necessary to help support the medieval infill, but to leave as much as possible exposed to be seen. The conservation work on the wall was carried out by London Stone, supervised by Museum of London Archaeology.
Sitting in the double-height basement, a spiral staircase next to it isn’t just something they put there because someone chose that design — it’s there because there’s a hint of a lost spiral staircase within the wall infill. So, when the interior of the basement was being fitted out, they chose to add a spiral staircase as an echo of the stairs that may have been built into the medieval wall.
What they’ve done is as intended – create a feature of the medieval wall which fills two floors of the building from the double-height basement space upwards, with the upper section visible from the reception area. WeWork members who have access to the cafe space around the other side get to enjoy the full view of the medieval wall while sipping their coffees, which is a pretty good way to have a break.
It’s a remarkable survivor from the very beginnings of monastic life in England. and any of the WeWork members who use the building will see this reminder of past monastic life as they arrive each day.
And so can you in fact.
Curious sorts who walk past may have noticed that there’s a stone wall inside the building, as it’s just about visible through the smoked glass from the street, but not many people know you can just pop in for a look.
The staff in the reception area are quite happy for visitors to pop in and have a look at the wall, and there are a few small boards dotted around pointing out which bits are from the 12th, 15th or later centuries. You can’t go around to the other side as that needs a visitor pass (or you can see it online here), but as a chance to see a medieval wall up close, it’s hard to beat this one.
What a delight it is that the developers in the 1980s agreed to conserve the wall and make it a feature of the reception and that the public are free to pop in and have a look at what they saved.
The building is at 77 Leadenhall Street and is open during normal WeWork office hours.
Much of the background to the history of the wall in this article came from the MoLAS Monograph, Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate, City of London by John Schofield and Richard Lea, which pulls together the many excavations over the decades in the area to provide a rich history of the monastery.