A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.
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13. THE WHITE FRIARS
The house of the Carmelites or White Friars (fn. 1) in Fleet Street was founded by Sir Richard Gray, knt., in 1241, (fn. 2) and thirteen years afterwards was of such importance that a general chapter of the order was held there. (fn. 3) The site was good owing to its proximity to the City and to the river, the main road between London and Westminster. Like all urban or suburban situations in mediaeval times, however, it must have left much to be desired as regards healthiness, considering that in 1290 many of the friars died owing to their unsanitary surroundings. (fn. 4) The neighbourhood, perhaps because of its being outside the City gates, soon had other drawbacks, and in 1345 the friars complained that they were impeded in the celebration of divine worship by the brawls of people of bad character in the adjoining lane. (fn. 5)
The temptations and risks to which religious houses were exposed from the deposit of treasure there are illustrated by the robbery at the White Friars in 1305. (fn. 6) The robbers came after the hoard of a certain knight, and were helped by one of the friars. The prior and brethren were bound, and the sum of £400 was carried off by the robbers and their accomplice, who was afterwards caught and hanged.
This incident argues that the house was already of some standing, but its importance increased greatly after the fall of the Templars, when, with the neighbouring priory of the Black Friars, it succeeded to the position hitherto held by the Temple as a centre for the transaction of affairs of state. The Chancery was established there for a time, (fn. 7) and, during the reigns of Edward II and Edward III especially, councils, both royal (fn. 8) and ecclesiastical, (fn. 9) were held at the White Friars.
That the house owed its position not merely to a convenient situation is shown by the employment of its members in political and diplomatic business. The convent seems to have gained its freedom from livery of the king's stewards and marshals through Friar Adam Brown who was a clerk of Edward II. (fn. 10) John de Reppes, prior in 1343, was engaged in important negotiations for both the king and the pope between 1344 and 1348. (fn. 11) He received in return many privileges from the pope, among them leave to retain his chamber in the London house for life, (fn. 12) and faculties similar to those of bishops to meet the requirements of the many noble personages who came to confess to him. (fn. 13) This seems to indicate that, like the Franciscans and Dominicans in the fourteenth century, the White Friars were popular with the English nobility. (fn. 14) Their patrons, however, were not all of the one class. Thus, while the priory was rebuilt in 1350 by Hugh Courtenay, earl of Devon, (fn. 15) it was to the mayor and commonalty of the City that they owed the grant of Crockers Lane for the west end of their church; (fn. 16) and the frequent mention of the friars in the wills of London citizens (fn. 17) attests the general favour in which they were held. Moreover, the fraternity of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, established in the conventual church about 1364, was said to owe its foundation to certain 'poor men' of the City and suburb. (fn. 18) It may also be noticed, as bearing on this point, that when the rebels of 1381 were carrying on their work of destruction at the Temple and the Savoy they appear to have left the White Friars in peace, and although one Carmelite, Richard Lavingham, fell a victim to them, it was as a friend of Archbishop Sudbury that he suffered. (fn. 19)
Judging from the class of house in the close, the priory must have occupied a large area in 1385; (fn. 20) but in 1396 some ground along the river was acquired (fn. 21) for the extension of the friary, probably for the rebuilding of the church, (fn. 22) of which Sir Robert Knolles (fn. 23) bore the main expense. The choir, steeple, and other parts were added somewhat later by Robert Marshall, the Carmelite bishop of Hereford. (fn. 24)
Of the Carmelites summoned by the archbishop to the Council of 1382, one, at any rate, John Lovey or Loney, (fn. 25) was connected with the London house, (fn. 26) which had a not unworthy record in respect of learning. The increase in the library of the Carmelites, which dates from about this period, and was probably one of the fruits of the Wycliffite controversy, affords an example of this point in the persons of the two chief contributors, both at one time members of the White Friars, London: Robert Yvory, (fn. 27) provincial from 1379 to 1392; and Thomas Walden, confessor and privy counsellor of Henry V and English provincial. (fn. 28) But if the new ideas resulted in a multiplication of books to produce the learning to combat them, they also tended to affect the minds of the religious themselves in favour of change, (fn. 29) naturally enough if the tale told in 1391 by John Lethinard, an apostate Carmelite of London, (fn. 30) be true. There was something wrong when a child of twelve years of age could be persuaded to enter a convent, and when older forced to become professed by intimidation. The story is not improbable, for minors did enter the Mendicant orders, (fn. 31) and a Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1414 to forbid it.
In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV commissioned John, abbot of St. Benet of Holme, to try a similar case, that of John Hawteyn, alias Scharyngton, who had applied to Rome to be absolved from his vows on the ground that he had been forced against his will to enter the order of Carmelites in London (fn. 32) before he had completed his fourteenth year. A witness in his favour stated that Hawteyn at the age of eight had been placed in the London house by his parents, by whom he had afterwards been forced to make profession there, and the latter part of his testimony seems to receive support from the statement made by one of the friars that when Hawteyn ran away he was brought back by his mother. He was imprisoned at the White Friars by order of Thomas Walden, to whom his profession had been made, (fn. 33) and was afterwards kept under ward for a time at Oxford. Then, some years later, he tried again to leave the order. The Carmelites, in spite of their declaration that from fear of the statute they never received anyone under the age of fourteen, seem not to have felt very sure of their ground, since it was owing to them that the king stopped the proceedings, and when the royal prohibition was removed and the case resumed in 1446, they did not appear to plead, and the sentence, given March, 1447, was against them, declaring Hawteyn not bound to the observance of the rule.
The religious houses of London seem to be so completely disconnected with the history of the country in the fifteenth century that it is of some interest to find that a council between the two factions was held March, 1458, in the morning at the Black Friars, and in the afternoon at the Carmelites, (fn. 34) though it must be added that the two places were evidently chosen merely for their convenient situation.
The friars and the secular clergy had united for a short time in face of a common danger, but their interests were too much opposed to allow of a lasting peace between them. The Mendicants, who had been the party attacked in the fourteenth century, (fn. 35) in 1465 took the offensive. The incident seems to indicate that the popularity of the White Friars had somewhat waned, since Harry Parker, the Carmelite friar who preached the sermon at St. Paul's Cross (fn. 36) comparing the beneficed clergy to their disparagement with the friars as followers of Christ, owned afterwards that his sole object had been to draw attention to his convent for its pecuniary advantage. Attention was certainly attracted, but hardly with the result expected. William Ive, master of Whittington College, took up the gauntlet on behalf of the beneficed clergy, and disproved Parker's arguments, particularly the statement that Christ Himself was a beggar, the following Sunday. In the disputations that followed at the White Friars, the prior and provincial of the order, Dr. John Milverton, and Dr. Haldon, also a Carmelite of London, laid themselves open to a charge of heresy, and were cited to appear before the bishop of London. They pleaded privilege, but this did not avail in case of heresy, and on their failing to appear they were excommunicated, Ive pronouncing the sentence at St. Paul's Cross. Parker, the cause of all the commotion, was imprisoned by the bishop and abjured. Milverton, the provincial, had meanwhile gone to Rome to lay the matter before the pope, but he had no better fortune, being kept in the Castle of St. Angelo until he submitted. The king is said indeed to have asked the pope to punish the friars for creating the disturbance.
After this episode the White Friars seem to have been contented with obscurity. John Souley, one of the friars, formed a link between the traditions of his house and the new age as a man of learning and eloquence and a friend of Dean Colet. (fn. 37) Such notices of the house as occur indicate that it was still regarded with favour by the upper classes of the community: Lord Vescey was buried there according to his will of May 1466; (fn. 38) Sir John Paston in the Lady Chapel of the church in 1479; (fn. 39) and the Marquis of Berkeley by his will of 5 February, 1491, arranged for the establishment of a perpetual chantry of two friars at the altar of St. Gascon; (fn. 40) moreover, when in 1527 the prior found himself unable to proceed with the rebuilding of a house in the precinct for lack of money, Margaret countess of Kent came to their aid with a loan of £60 that they might remember in their prayers her late husband who was buried in their church, and herself when she was dead. (fn. 41) Nor were signs of the king's goodwill altogether lacking. (fn. 42)
How far the prior, George Burnham, in acknowledging the king as supreme head of the church 17 April 1534, (fn. 43) represented the opinions of the friars it is impossible to tell. (fn. 44) Information was laid against one of them, Robert Austyn by name, for a sermon preached in St. Bride's June 1537 which showed that he preferred if possible to avoid the subject. (fn. 45) But actual opposition to the new doctrines was doubtless felt to be worse than useless when the provincial, a supporter of the royal policy, (fn. 46) had his head quarters there. (fn. 47) The priory was surrendered 10 November, 1538, the deed being signed by the prior John Gybbes and twelve friars. (fn. 48) Gybbes was in receipt of a pension of £10 until March 1544. (fn. 49) The possessions of the house, estimated as worth £26 7s. 3d. per annum by Stow (fn. 50) and £63 11s. 4d. by Dugdale, (fn. 51) included tenements in the parishes of St. Dunstan in the West (fn. 52) and St. Olave near the Tower, (fn. 53) but the most valuable part of the property must have been the convent buildings and precinct which consisted of the church, chapter house, dormitory, fratry, kitchen, library, the cloister with its green, and several gardens, and which stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames and from Water Lane on the east to Serjeants' Inn and the Temple on the west. (fn. 54) The amount of plate belonging to the church, 114 oz. in gilt plate, 100 oz. parcel gilt, 244 oz. of white plate, (fn. 55) does not argue great riches or extravagant display.
Priors of the White Friars
Osbert Pickingham, died 1330 (fn. 56)
John Elin or Helin, died 1339 (fn. 57)
John de Reppes, occurs 1343 (fn. 58)
Thomas Brome, provincial 1362 (fn. 59)
John, occurs 1393 (fn. 60)
Thomas Asshewell, S.T.P., occurs 1443 (fn. 61)
John Milverton, D.D., occurs 1465 (fn. 62)
William Bachelor, died at Rome 1515 (fn. 63)
Thomas Gaskyn, occurs 1527 (fn. 64)
John Kele, occurs 1533 (fn. 65)
George Burnham, occurs 1534 (fn. 66)
John Gybbes, occurs 1538 (fn. 67)
The convent seal of the thirteenth century (fn. 68) shows two canopied niches: in the one to the left, a saint holding in the right hand a sword, in the left hand a church; in the one on the right, the Virgin crowned, with the Child on her right arm. Legend:
There is also a prior's seal of the fourteenth century. (fn. 69) This is a pointed oval, and represents a saint, seated in a canopied niche, holding a sword in the right hand. Overhead in a smaller niche sits the Virgin crowned, with the child on her left knee. Legend :—