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The Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s is one of the oldest charities in England. It is, therefore, very exciting to be commencing the fourth phase of its history. We began with Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, creating her hospital next to the Tower of London, in 1147. It may have been at that time, or possible a bit later, that it acquired the dedication to St Katharine. Certainly, at that time, there was much interest in St Katharine of Alexandria who was supposed to have been a high-born, highly educated lady, deeply committed to the Christian faith, who refused a proposal of marriage from the Emperor and hence was tortured by being tied to a spiked wheel and then martyred.
In the Saxon period there were many religious houses set up hospices to provide food and shelter for wayfarers, especially those making pilgrimages. In Medieval times there were over 750 such hospitals with a variety of aims, some survived such as St Bartholomew’s in Smithfield, St Thomas’ in Southwark. I particularly like St Mary of Bethlehem in BishopGate which catered for Distracted People-what a lovely term-I wonder who would now be put in a hospital for the distracted.
St Katharine’s originally began with thirteen poor persons, a Master, 3 brethren who were priests, three sisters who were nuns and six poor people looked after probably in the nave of the Church and a grant of £20 per annum. I find it amazing that from that beginning, and through so many tumultuous moments of history, St Katharine’s has survived.
Being next to the Tower of London on land that others often wanted to use was complex in those early days, as we know it still can be today! As Tower Life expanded and especially its fortifications, St Katharine’s lands were encroached upon, there were often tensions with the Priory of the Holy Trinity. In 1257 an accusation of lax discipline amongst the inhabitants of St Katharine’s was made by the Priory-apparently the residents were too frequently inebriated! The Bishop of London and the Pope became involved but Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry 111, came to the rescue. A new charter was granted in 1273 requiring increased prayer and the creation of a school for poor scholars and she declared that. Queen Eleanor declared that the oversight of St Katharine’s would be in her hands and those of every succeeding queen. We have enjoyed female royal patronage ever since.
Queen Philippa, wife of Edward 111 who guard the entrance to our Chapel took great interest in the place and around 1350, working alongside the wonderfully named Master, Paul de Monte Florum introduced a much stricter, more monastic lifestyle.
In 1442 Henry VI gave St Katharine’s increased powers and it really became a city within a city. It survived the War of the Roses, had a fairly complex time during the reign of Henry 8 but all the time it was growing in influence and its Precinct had become a most significant part of London.
However, Phase One of our history comes to an end with the great pressure to build new, bigger docks on the site of St Katharine’s precinct. The last Service was held on Sunday 30th October 1825. Next day the destruction began of “Old Kate” and the precinct soon disappeared with much sadness and heartache for its 3,000 residents who lost their homes and were paid no compensation.
The Dock Company paid for St Katharine’s to be transferred to Regent’s Park beginning Phase Two. It became a “grace and favour” residence for retired clergy and widows of clergy.
1948 saw St Katharine’s return to the East End under the inspitarton of Queen Mary and a charismatic priest Fr St John Groser. Hence beginning Phase Three of our life being based in Limehouse and seeking to make a difference in an area which had seen such damage during the war. Here we have remained following our commitment to prayer, hospitality and service.
Today St Katharine’s is about to begin expanding its current operation, starting this September through St. Katharine’s Precinct Project.
We believe this is the start of Phase Four in our exciting history and you’ll be able to keep up to date with developments by following this blog and our twitter @RFSKLondon.