When seen from a distance, as for example through the window of the Canterbury Heritage museum, which was the way I saw it for the first time two years ago, it doesn´t necessarily look much, the old stone house standing alone in the field.
But it is what remains of the very first Franciscan house in England, founded at a time when Francis of Assisi himself was still alive (although he had only two years left to live).
It was on September 10th, 1224, that nine Franciscan Friars, Grey Friars, landed at Dover and from there made their way to Canterbury where they stayed at the priory of the Holy Trinity for two days before four of them continued on their way to London.
The remaining five stayed at the hospital of Poor Priests in Stour Street, the same street on which one today can see what remains of their time in Canterbury.
It seems they won the favour of the Archbishop Stephen Langton, and with the support of him, and the good will of Alexander, the master of the Hospital of Poor Priests, who gave them a plot of land on which they could build a chapel of which one unfortunately has found no trace during excavations. As it was part of the rules for the order that the Friars could hold no property, the chapel was owned by the citizens of Canterbury, and the Friars used it at the will of those citizens.
Other important benefactors during these early years included Simon Langton, Archdeacon of Canterbury and brother of the Archbishop as well as Loretta de Briouze (sometimes spelt Braose), countess of Leicester and daughter of William de Briouze, at one-time close associate to King John.
Loretta had been exiled in association with the plot to dethrone John in favour of her nephew by marriage, Simon de Montfort, but she returned sometime between 1211 and 1214, and had all previously confiscated lands restored to her.
Even so, she chose later to become a recluse or anchoress at Hackington north of Canterbury, from where she worked in favour of the Friars by using her contacts with influential individuals even though she was a recluse.
They seem to have stayed in the Hospital for Poor Priests and their chapel until 1268 when the alderman, and later bailiff of Canterbury, John Dygg (or Diggs) bought them the small island of Binnewith situated between two branches of river Stour – the location where the lone chapel now stands – as well as “the place of the gate on Stour Street” where one still today enter the compound of Grey friars even if the original gate is since long gone.
About 10 years later they were granted a license to enclose a road that formed the western border of their land, and the friary began to grow.
In 1309, they acquired a road leading from the highway leading to river Stour, and also obtained license to build a bridge across the river from said road leading up to their house “for the benefit of people wanting to attend service in their church, with the bridge built in such a way that boats could pass under it.
In 1325 the new church and cemetery were consecrated by Archbishop Reynolds in 1325, and it seems, from royal grants, that it at the time was 35 friars in the house, a number that in 1336 had risen to 37.
This was only one of the times when members of the house can have been said to have been in trouble, but they also seem to have been popular. When they for unknown reason refused to pay rent to Christchurch and the monks there in turn withdrew an annual grant, the dowager queen Isabella intervened, to no avail though.
They both received bequeaths and buried prominent people of the area and time, and they survived through the centuries.
In 1498 Henry VII included the house among the convents of the Observant Friars, something which was confirmed by Pope Alexander VI a year later. When the king died in 1509, he left the friars 100 marks, and entrusted another £200 with the prior of Christchurch for the use of the Observant Friars of Canterbury.
They also received £13 6s 8d from Henry VIII to pray for the soul of his father.
While the first decades to have run smoothly between the new king and the Observant Friars of Canterbury, this was eventually to change. When Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, appeared in the 1530´s, two of her chief supporters, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby, were friars of this house. They stood by her side at the scaffold at St. Paul´s Cross on November 23rd, 1533, for which they were denounced by Dr Capon for having “suborned and seduced their companions to maintain the false opinion and wicked quarrel of the queen against the king.”.
For this they were taken to Canterbury to do penance, and then to executed at Tyburn together with the Nun of Kent on April 20th 1534. All three were buried at Grey Friars in London.
Around this time, which coincided with the demand for the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy, the Friars of Canterbury seems to have begun to disperse. Some died, others were whisked away to safety and others yet fled to the continent.
But when the time came to take the oath, only two are noted as having refused to do so, Father Mychelsen and Father John Gam.
Henry VIII didn´t chose to have the Grey Friars supressed at this time, but instead he put them in what must have been a house arrest. A John Arthur was appointed as warden, who is said to have treated the Friars with severity, sometimes imprisoning them for “rebelling against the king”. He seems however to have been outsmarted by the Friar Henry Bocher, who managed to accuse John Arthur of speaking against the king, and also making it stick through a sermon held by Arthur helf on Passion Sunday in 1535, where he objected to “new books and new preachers discouraging pilgrimage”, with the result that Bocher went free and John Arthur was imprisoned at the command of Thomas Cromwell. He doesn´t however, have been prepared for the treatment he was willing to subject others to, and fled to France.
The friaries of Canterbury were dissolved in December 1538. At the time this friary consisted of the house and two messuages, two orchards, two gardens, 3 acres of land, 5 acres of meadow, and 4 acres of pasture in the parishes of St. Peter, St. Mildred, and St. Margaret.
‘Friaries: The Franciscan friars of Canterbury’, in A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1926), pp. 190-194. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/kent/vol2/pp190-194
Briouze, Loretta de, Countess of Leicester (d. in or after 1266) – Susan Johns/Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
All photos are taken by me, apart from the map, which belong to East Bridge Hospital, Canterbury.