A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
HOUSES OF FRANCISCAN FRIARS
16. THE FRANCISCAN FRIARS OF BRIDGNORTH
Of the two Shropshire houses in the Franciscan custody of Worcester, Bridgnorth was almost certainly the first to be founded. In July 1244 Henry III provided 40s. from the issues of the bishopric of Lichfield for the fabric of their church (fn. 1) and three years later he allowed them to enclose a road to enlarge their site. (fn. 2) Building continued for a number of years: in 1257 the king provided six oaks from Shirlett Forest for the church, (fn. 3) and, at about this date, their building operations led them to encroach on the River Severn. It was alleged in 1272 that they had taken stones and rubbish from the bank of the Severn and had thrown them into the river, 'whereby they have realized to themselves a piece of ground 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, and this they have enclosed'. (fn. 4) The church itself had been consecrated before 1272, when a prisoner took sanctuary there, (fn. 5) and timber granted by the king in 1282 was possibly for the conventual buildings. (fn. 6)
The convent stood outside the town walls on the west bank of the Severn between the river and Friar Street. (fn. 7) There was probably no specific founder; (fn. 8) the king's contribution was modest and the names of other contributors are not known. The first warden was Philip of London, who was the fifth novice to be admitted by Agnellus and a notable preacher. (fn. 9) In 1290 Bishop Swinfield gave the friars 5s. to provide one pittance, which may indicate 15 friars in the house at that date. (fn. 10) It seems to have been a relatively small house and bearers of obituary rolls called there more rarely than at the other Shropshire friaries. (fn. 11) Nevertheless the church was on a sufficient scale to have two bells, the larger of which weighed over 2 cwt., (fn. 12) and some prominent families were associated with it. Nicholas of Pitchford and his wife received the benefit of fraternity in 1337, (fn. 13) the Higford family were important benefactors, (fn. 14) and Robert, Lord Hilton, entered the order there, probably at the end of his life, and was buried before the altar of St. Mary in the south part of the church. (fn. 15)
The house was never wealthy; at the Dissolution the brethren received only a few shillings in alms and depended for their livelihood on a service they held in the chapel of St. Syth on a bridge in the town. (fn. 16) True to their rule they abstained from acquiring property and, apart from their own site with its orchard, valued at 15s. 6d., they received only 3s. in rents from two small crofts, (fn. 17) They surrendered to the king in August 1538. (fn. 18) The Bishop of Dover described the house as the poorest he had seen, not worth 10s. a year and with the houses all falling down. Yet, in spite of the poverty in the houses of grey friars he had visited, he found many of them unwilling to change their habits and added, 'They be so close each to other that no man can come within them to know their hearts.' (fn. 19) The inventory of goods at Bridgnorth bears out the comments in the bishop's letter: though most objects were old and worn all the essentials for the active celebration of divine service were there, including books and a pair of organs; elsewhere in the friary were the barest necessities for cooking and taking meals and no bedding at all remained. (fn. 20) There was poverty but not disorder, even though the buildings were dilapidated and the water conduit had broken down.
The property was first leased to Nicholas Holt (fn. 21) and in 1544 was granted to John Beamont. (fn. 22) In the 1720s it still retained 'some plain marks of its ancient magnificence'; some subterranean structures vaulted in stone, referred to at this time, appear to have been part of the domestic buildings. (fn. 23) The refectory, converted into an alehouse, was still standing in 1856, with its oak-panelled ceiling, stone fireplace, and stone pulpit in good preservation, (fn. 24) but within ten years it had been demolished to make way for a carpet factory. A reconstruction made by Clark-Maxwell indicates that the refectory stood to the north of the site and the church and graveyard to the south. (fn. 25)
Philip of London, occurs c. 1244. (fn. 26)
William Lawghton, occurs 1487 × 1525. (fn. 27)
Dukes mentioned an impression of the warden's seal, attached to a deed of 1337. (fn. 28) Legend:
SIGILLUM GARDIANI FRATRUM BRUGIE
17. THE FRANCISCAN FRIARS OF SHREWSBURY
Franciscans are heard of in Shrewsbury in 1245, a year after the beginnings of the community in Bridgnorth. They settled, as many friars did, on the cheaper land just outside the town walls, saving expense by incorporating the existing walls into their precinct boundary; (fn. 29) the site provided for them was on the bank of the Severn west of the English Bridge. In October 1245 Henry III ordered the sheriff and the Shrewsbury bailiffs to assign a place to the friars minor, suitable for building a church and establishing their house. (fn. 30) Early in November he provided 50 loads of lime for their work (fn. 31) and in July 1246 he allowed them to have the town wall by their house heightened and a gate made to give them easy access to the town. (fn. 32) For the next five years royal gifts in materials and money followed for the purchase of their land. (fn. 33) In 1267 they received permission to enlarge their gate in the town wall so that carts could pass through it. (fn. 34)
Eccleston has described the early days of the house. The king gave the site, the burgess Richard Pride built a church, and one Laurence Cox provided other offices. But the gifts were too lavish and the provincial minister, William of Nottingham, 'out of zeal for poverty', ordered the donor to replace the stone walls of the dormitory with mud walls, which he did 'with wonderful devotion and sweetness and very great expense'. (fn. 35) Their first warden, Martin of Barton, who had previously been warden of York, used to relate with glee how they had lived simply, drinking dregs of beer mixed with water. (fn. 36) The order's rejection of property was respected in the earliest grants; the king gave the land for the use of the friars, presumably retaining the ownership himself, (fn. 37) and a grant of £25 to 'acquit' a place for their own use was made through their proctor, the interposita persona allowed by their statutes. (fn. 38) Later some of the stricter statutes were relaxed; larger churches were necessary in northern countries where out-of-doors preaching was frequently impracticable; numbers increased, guests were accommodated, and more ample building in stone was permitted. (fn. 39) The grey friars of Shrewsbury followed the general trend and building was in progress in the late 14th century. Through the good offices of John de Charlton (III), lord of Powys, they obtained the use of a stone quarry near their house in 1371. (fn. 40) There is, however, no positive evidence to support the tradition that the fine Jesse window commemorating John de Charlton (I), now in St. Mary's church, was originally in the grey friars' church. (fn. 41) The fact that John de Charlton (I) and his wife Hawise were buried in their church (fn. 42) proves nothing: if it was as spacious as many Franciscan churches of comparable importance it could have accommodated such a window, but elaborate painted-glass windows were discouraged by the statutes of the order. (fn. 43) Surviving stone and timber-framed buildings show that there was further substantial rebuilding of the principal offices in the early 16th century. (fn. 44)
At the Dissolution the site comprised only three or four acres of arable land, including a walnut orchard, and the friars had no rents. (fn. 45) The land was liable to flooding and during severe floods in August 1420 water rose in the church to a height of eight feet and more. (fn. 46) There is no evidence that the original site was enlarged at any time, except by modest purprestures on both sides of the Severn, the exact nature and purpose of which is not clear. (fn. 47) The friars were charged with obstructing the watercourse at the Wyle in 1382 (fn. 48) and at Coleham c. 1389. (fn. 49) In 1440 there was a more explicit charge that they had made a purpresture in the waters of the river at the Wyle and annexed new land to their site, deflecting the stream so that it damaged the town wall and the bridge. (fn. 50) There years later they were driving stakes into the river on the Coleham side to enlarge their land. (fn. 51) These activities may have been connected with the drainage of their site or with their fisheries. Even though they supplemented the produce of their garden and orchard with fish caught in the river, as repeated prosecutions for erecting fish-weirs show, (fn. 52) they must have lived chiefly on alms and gifts of the faithful, (fn. 53) which included bequests to support masses for the dead and for funeral expenses. Thus the London grocer Robert Gryme (d. 1476), directing that he should be buried beside his father in the church of the friars minor, provided £2 for his burial, 20d. to every priest, and 12d. to every novice. (fn. 54) Their services as preachers and confessors might be unpaid, but they attracted gifts, like the gallon of wine given to Dr. Smith in 1520 after he had preached in St. Chad's. (fn. 55) Their work as confessors also brought them into contact with the highest in the land, though not always to their profit. When Queen Joan, widow of Henry IV, was arrested in 1419 on charges of witchcraft and sorcery, her confessor, John Randolph of the friars minor of Shrewsbury, who had some of her valuables in safe keeping, (fn. 56) was implicated with her and sent to the Tower. (fn. 57) Normally they were on good terms with the townspeople and, apart from bequests from individuals, the burgesses at times contributed collectively to the needs of the house. In 1520 the corporation granted 10 marks towards the repair of the granary. (fn. 58) William Duffield, warden at about this time, who had found the house in a dilaidated condition and was responsible for much of the rebuilding, petitioned again in 1529 for the allocation of some of the burgess fees towards necessary repairs; the corporation granted 40s. and the commonalty 33s. 4d. (fn. 59)
Numbers in most Franciscan houses fluctuated from year to year because of the mobility of the friars within their province and there is no evidence for the size of the Shrewsbury convent. Names in ordination lists show that some friars were recruited locally, (fn. 60) and some remained for long periods in the same house. In 1463 the general of the order granted to Richard FitzJohn, a friar who had lived laudably and piously for many years in the convent of Shrewsbury and was broken with age and very weak in sight, the right to occupy for life a chamber with a cell, fireplace, and garden in the convent. (fn. 61) Although in principle wardens were appointed annually, reelection for several consecutive years was possible. Some were men of learning and repute. William Duffield was licensed to preach in the diocese of Hereford in 1525 and an indulgence of 40 days was granted to all who came to hear him. (fn. 62) In 1533 he was appointed suffragan to the Bishop of St. Asaph. (fn. 63)
The last phase of the house shows it in good order. When the Bishop of Dover came to Shrewsbury in August 1538, he found the friars with few chattels, no rents, and no jewels but a cross of white plate and a little chalice; nevertheless they had 'a proper house' and there was a table of alabaster on the high altar and a fair old lectern of timber. (fn. 64) In his report he noted that the friars had many favourers in the neighbourhood. (fn. 65) The grey friars, nevertheless, surrendered by common consent and their house was put into the hands of the borough bailiffs. (fn. 66) After being leased to William Penson in 1541 (fn. 67) it was granted in 1544 to Richard Andrews, (fn. 68) who sold it almost immediately to the Shrewsbury draper Roger Pope. (fn. 69)
Some remains of an early-16th-century building, which may have been the frater on the south side of the cloister, (fn. 70) survive on the river bank near Greyfriars Bridge. The building has long been divided into tenements and was apparently re-roofed to provide attic bedrooms. It was originally singlestoried on the north side but to the south, where the ground falls away to the river, it stands on a basement. Substantial parts of both north and south walls, constructed of local red sandstone, remain. Medieval features include a buttress, a doorway, and several window openings; the most complete window has a depressed arch and is of three lights with cusped interlacing tracery. A carved beam, said to survive above the ground floor of one of the cottages, (fn. 71) had been covered up by 1969. A timberframed building of the early 16th century, which formed a western continuation of the stone range, was demolished in 1967-9. It incorporated a long, unheated, first-floor room which may have been a dormitory. (fn. 72) The rooms mentioned in the 1538 inventory were upper and lower vestry, kitchen, hall, chamber (probably either the warden's chamber or the dormitory), and frater; (fn. 73) but these inventories rarely enumerate all rooms. Part of the precinct walls could still be traced in the adjoining meadow in 1825. (fn. 74)
Martin of Barton, occurs c. 1245. (fn. 75)
Thomas Godbert, occurs 1342. (fn. 76)
Thomas Francis, occurs 1516. (fn. 77)
John Harris, occurs 1519. (fn. 78)
William Duffield, occurs between 1525 and 1529. (fn. 79)
No seal known.