The Priory of Saint Leonard in its time was known as being situated at Stratford-atte-Bow, but since the Reformation the site has been included in the parish of Bromley. The property was contained within an area of about sixteen acres lying between the river Lee and Four Mills Street, now renamed St. Leonard's Street, extending almost from Bow Bridge to Three Mills Lane.
This ancient foundation, the actual date of which can not be given with certitude, was undoubtedly in existence in the days of William the Conqueror, and conjecture, not without some slight evidence to favour it, carries its establishment further back by a century. The institution here of a little religious community consisting of a Prioress and nine nuns of the Benedictine order has been attributed to the influence, if not to the direct act, of Dunstan (about 925-988) when he was Bishop of London, of whom it may be said in passing that he was not only a great ecclesiastic, but a great Englishman; a statesman who served full well his own people and brought peace betwixt them and the Danes. In those remote times the country suffered by the ravages of marauding roving bands of Danes, and the River Lee as a way inland invited their attack and had to be defended from the incursions of these northern folk. The earliest inhabitants of Bromley were engaged in this work, and their spiritual welfare may have been cared for by this foundation.
The general expectation that the end of the world would occur at the close of the tenth century not being realised, caused churchmen soon afterwards to erect more endurable buildings to replace those that had been thought good enough to serve a temporary purpose. The name of William, Bishop of London, is linked with many churches that then arose in his diocese, and also with this Priory of which, it has been said, he was the founder. The probability is, however, that in his time it was merely rebuilt. There is another record, too, which states that it was founded by Henry II in the year 1177, but this again must refer to the erection of a new edifice as there is extant a charter granted by King Stephen (1135-1154) to the nuns of Stratford-atte-Bow. Whenever it was, this particular site may be thought to have been selected because of its pleasant and convenient surroundings, the flow of the river, and the additional advantage of the provision of fish. The nunnery, which, at least during the Middle Ages, sheltered women of gentle birth and education, should not be thought of as having been magnificent or in any way imposing, but as a place of quiet retreat and pleasant seclusion which appealed in mediaeval times to the mind of not a few as a haven of rest when life was done. Some of those who were buried here were of noble family, among them being John de Bohun, fifth Earl of Hereford, fourth Earl of Essex of that surname, Constable of England, who died 20 January 1336 and who was entombed within the chapel ; and Elizabeth, sister of Queen Philippa, one of the daughters of William, Earl of Henault, who died about 1373 and was interred within the cloisters. There were others, citizens of London, who, being by sentimental association attached to the peaceful place, gave testamentary directions in order that their wishes in the matter should be carried out. In this manner from time to time the nunnery received gifts and benefactions for charitable uses and the upkeep of the house, which was not otherwise endowed with riches.
To this place Geoffrey Chaucer [about 1340-1400], when he was living in Aldgate, likely enough would come and receive the smiles of hospitality. He refers to it in The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales when describing one of the pilgrims, Madame Eglantine, a Prioress, of whom he said:-
'French she spake full fair and fetisley [exquisitely]
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bow
For French of Paris was to her unknown.'
This allusion should not be regarded as satirical, for it is not meant to imply that the speech of Paris was then superior in accent or more choice in words than that which was listened to as the words fell from the lips of the ladies here.
When the Priory was suppressed in 1541 it was valued according to one account at £108 1s. l1d. (and to another at £121 16s.), which is not a large sum, even after reckoning the greater value of money in Tudor than in present times. Eight years before the taking place of the closing scene of its history, the nuns went through trying experiences, and it would seem that a Prioress not to their liking had been forced upon them by Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII. In the following letter addressed to Cromwell in 1533 by Lady Sterkey, one of the nuns, their plight is shown
'I beg your goodness to us and our house at St. Leonards, Stratford, and that we may be your beadwomen for removing our supposed Prioress, according to the advice of Mr. Noress. Since our petition to the King we have been worse intreated than ever, for meat and drink and threatening words; and when we ask to have anything remedied, she bids us 'go to Cromwell and let him help us.' The old lady who is the rightful Prioress is like to die for want of sustenance. She can get neither meat nor drink, nor money to help her.'
The obnoxious Prioress seems to have been Sibilla Kirke who, at the dissolution of the house, was given fifteen pounds per annum as compensation for loss of office, and the favour of permission to reside at the priory house. This she enjoyed for at least fifteen years, but the nuns went and they received twenty shillings apiece so that it might not be said that they were sent empty away.
Before the end of the sixteenth century the nunnery buildings, with the exception of the chapel and Priory House, were pulled down and some of the old materials were used in the making of new houses in the parish.
The property that had belonged to the Priory, together with some parcels of land tacked on to it, subsequently became styled The Upper Manor of Bromley. After having been granted on lease by the Crown and passing through several hands, the priory portion was sold in 1634 to Sir John Jacob, a rich citizen, who, after being created a baronet in 1665, died in the following year and was buried in the old parish church of St. Mary. A monument of the Jacob family is to be seen in the present church to which it was removed. Sir John determined upon the erection of a Manor House, and accordingly razed the old Priory House to make room for a large brick edifice that has been described as one of 'imposing elevation, the number of its lofty and spacious apartments, the grandeur of its spiral staircase, and its almost unlimited and unobstructed prospect over the Counties of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey, with the majestic Thames . . . rendered it a mansion that might vie with many of our most ancient country Halls.'
To this house, which stood on the spot now occupied by the school in Priory Street, were attached spacious gardens extending on the east to the River Lee, whose banks at that time were private property without a public thoroughfare, and, in addition to serving the purpose of an agreeable promenade, provided an unmolested enjoyment of fishing. On the north the grounds were bounded by the churchyard, and there was a wilderness called the Rabbit Warren. On the south towards Three Mills Lane there was a park which consisted of about eight acres of land with ornamental lakes, used for the keeping and breeding of wildfowl and other aquatic birds; and fish-ponds that received fresh supplies of water at every tide by means of a sluice from the River Lee. The whole of the grounds were surrounded by lofty massive walls of red brick and were entered by four gateways, one at each side. After about one hundred and fifty years of existence the house was pulled down, but the gardens remained intact for long afterwards and were used in the late eighteenth century for the cultivation of exotic plants. It is to be concluded that these gardens, rabbit warren, and fish-ponds were all laid out, planted, and walled around by the nuns of the Priory of Saint Leonard, and the charm of it all induced Sir John Jacob to rear his home in its midst. The once haunt of ancient peace is now covered by factories and rows of small houses.
On the eastern side of the Manor House grounds facing Four Mills Street (St. Leonard's Street), on that part of the Upper Manor which had reverted to the Crown, a noble house containing twenty-four rooms was built in 1606, for which some of the old materials of the demolished nunnery appear to have been used. According to tradition, this house was connected with the name of James I. He is supposed to have encouraged a number of persons of Scottish nationality to settle in Bromley, and at the same time to have built this house as a hunting-lodge for himself, but there is no evidence that it was ever in royal occupation. It would appear that it was recognised as the Manor house for the first thirty years of its existence, from 1606 until 1636, when Sir John Jacob completed the new manor house in the priory grounds. After passing through many vicissitudes, being divided up and used as residences, a boarding-school was conducted there, and on the supposition that it was once a royal abiding place, the appellation of the 'Palace House School' was assumed, and this led to it being afterwards referred to as the 'Old Palace.'
In 1874 one part of the house was used as a colour works and another as a club, and then as a lodging-house. In 1893 the London School Board, who were not aware of its interesting associations, bought the premises for the purpose of pulling them down and erecting a school on the site. The existing buildings thereupon were sold to a firm of housebreakers for £250. Under the pressure of public protests, the Board in its awkward position decided to buy back again the fireplace that had adorned the state room for £150, and to insert it in one of the rooms of the new school. Meanwhile the authorities of South Kensington Museum [now the Victoria and Albert Museum] had purchased the panelling and ceiling of the room, and subsequently acquired the fireplace from the School Board. The whole room has been set up in the Museum, the picture of which [above] displays its beauty of design, and the craftsmanship of a bygone day.
by Sydney Maddocks