History of Greyfriars: History of the Convent

The Grey Friars of London. Originally published by Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, 1915.

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C L Kingsford, 'History of Greyfriars: History of the Convent', in The Grey Friars of London, (Aberdeen, 1915) pp. 15-27. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/brit-franciscan-soc/vol6/pp15-27 [accessed 24 May 2024].

C L Kingsford. "History of Greyfriars: History of the Convent", in The Grey Friars of London, (Aberdeen, 1915) 15-27. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/brit-franciscan-soc/vol6/pp15-27.

Kingsford, C L . "History of Greyfriars: History of the Convent", The Grey Friars of London, (Aberdeen, 1915). 15-27. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/brit-franciscan-soc/vol6/pp15-27.

2. History Of The Convent.

In the year of our Lord 1224, on the Tuesday after The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (which in that year was on a Sunday), the Friars Minor first landed in England at Dover. There were four clerks and five lay-brothers. The clerks were brother Agnellus of Pisa, a deacon of about thirty years of age; brother Richard of Ingworth, an Englishman, a priest, and somewhat older; brother Richard of Devon, also an Englishman, a young acolyte; and brother William of Esseby, another young Englishman. The lay-brothers were: brother Henry de Treviso, a Lombard, who was afterwards Guardian of London; brother Laurence de Beauvais; brother William of Florence; brother Melioratus; and brother James. After staying two days at Canterbury, four of them, to wit brother Richard of Ingworth, brother Richard of Devon, brother Henry and brother Melioratus, went on to London. There they were kindly received by the Friars Preachers, who entertained them during fifteen days. Then they hired a house for themselves in Cornhill, where they dwelt in all simplicity till the next summer. But before the feast of All Saints brother Richard of Ingworth, and brother Richard of Devon, departed to Oxford.

It would not be possible to tell the tale of the first coming of the Franciscan friars to London better than in the simple record thus given by Thomas of Eccleston. (fn. 1) In the summer of 1225, John Iwyn, a wealthy mercer of London, bought for their use a plot of land in Stinking Lane, near Newgate, and established them in the north-west corner of the city, which was for three centuries to be the home of the Grey Friars. It was no pleasant spot for a dwelling-place, being in the parish of St. Nicholas in the Shambles, or the butchers' quarter, and the unsavoury character of the neighbourhood was a cause of constant complaint in the Middle Ages. However, the Friars' new home lay where their work was needed, whilst the open country was close at hand, just outside the walls. Their piety and devotion had from the first won the affection of the citizens, and their numbers quickly began to increase. The first novice admitted to the order in England was brother Solomon, who was to be the second Guardian of the London house. Brother Gilbert de Wyke had also joined them whilst they were still in Cornhill, and other early converts were Philip of London, and Joce of Cornhill, a youth of excellent disposition, who belonged to a renowned mercantile family. By 1243 the numbers had so grown that there were eighty friars in residence. John Iwyn's gift had probably not comprised more than one or two houses. Fifteen years later the site had been considerably extended, chiefly it would seem on the north, and towards the west. Permanent and suitable buildings were also in course of erection; in 1229 the King had given the Minorite Friars of London an oak for the building of their house; (fn. 2) whilst the original church was built at the cost of William Joyner, who was mayor of London in 1239. But of the history of the Convent we know little. The early Guardians include some men of repute. Henry de Treviso was vicar for Agnellus, the English Provincial, in 1231. Brother Solomon was a favourite confessor of courtiers and citizens. John de Kethene was successively Provincial of Scotland and Ireland during nearly twenty years. Peter of Tewkesbury was afterwards Provincial of England. These four held office between them for no more than a dozen years. Brother Hugh, the next Guardian, was a Cambridge scholar, and a preacher of some distinction. Of his successor we know no more than that he was a friend of Adam Marsh, and that his name began with A. After this, for nearly sixty years, we have nothing but the names of a few of the Guardians.

Of the direct history of the Convent we can say little more. A few grants of firewood, (fn. 3) and clothing, (fn. 4) are evidence perhaps of poverty and royal favour. We are told that the friars had won the regard of the citizens of London, and that they lost it by intervening in 1256 on behalf of the Jews who were condemned for the murder of Hugh of Lincoln, for which cause the alms of the Londoners were much diminished. (fn. 5) Such un popularity was probably as short as it was undeserved. The fact that the Friars counted amongst their principal benefactors in the thirteenth century three such notable citizens as Henry Frowyk, Gregory Rokesley, and Henry le Waleys, is proof sufficient of the esteem in which they were held. Neither did the support given by the Minorites to Simon de Montfort during the Barons War cause them any permanent loss of royal favour. The old Greyfriars Church in London was one of the places where service was held for Eleanor of Castile on 15 December, 1290. (fn. 6) In the following year the heart of Eleanor of Provence was brought there for burial. These heart burials seem to have been particularly common in Franciscan churches. On this occasion the St. Albans chronicler (fn. 7) gibes at the Friars, who are wont to claim something for themselves from the bodies of the mighty dead, like dogs who wait greedily to receive each his own particular morsel of the carcase. Monkish jealousy must have been still more moved, when the next English Queen, Margaret of France, made the Greyfriars Church of London her special charge. But of the work of Margaret, and her successor, Isabel, there will be more to be said in a later place. (fn. 8)

The fourteenth century was the most memorable and perhaps the most prosperous time in the history of the Grey Friars of London. It witnessed the building of the great church, which the patronage of two queens made a favoured place for the burial of people of rank and position. When Roger Conway in 1355 obtained papal licence to live there, the reason alleged was that it would be for the spiritual recreation of the nobles of England, who were said to flock in great numbers to this friary. (fn. 9) For the popularity of the Grey Friars with the London citizens evidence may be found in the bequests for masses and pittances, which are most numerous during the latter half of the fourteenth century. Out of thirty-nine specific instances of bequests to the Grey Friars recorded in the Calendar of Wills in the Court of Husting all but ten fall in the period from 1349 to 1397; four belong to the earlier part of the same century, and two each to the thirteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Too much weight must not be attached to these numbers, since the proportion of wills enrolled in the Hustings Court was much greater during the fourteenth century than at any other time. Still we are justified in believing that the good repute of the Friars had up to this time little diminished, even though there had been some falling off from the zeal and strict observance of earlier times. About 1330 William de Querle, the Guardian of the London Convent, when returning from the court of Rome, was robbed on the sea by Flemings of books, money, and other things worth 70l. (fn. 10) Again in 1355 Friar Richard de Studham robbed the Friars Minors of London of gold, silver, and jewels to the value of 200l. (fn. 11) In the last case the property stolen was admittedly the treasure of the house, and the goods stolen from Guardian Querle may not have been his personal property. In a third instance it was certainly an individual friar who was robbed; in 1378 Friar John Welle had abstracted from his dwelling in London by his servant Thomas Bell, horses, cups, books, money, vessels and other goods. (fn. 12) It is clear that the rule of poverty was no longer kept in its primitive simplicity. In 1343 Friar Robert Lamborn had licence from the Pope (fn. 13) whilst residing in the London Convent to have a decent chamber, one friar as socius, one clerk, and two servants, and to dispose of his books and other property. In 1381 the Guardian had permission from the king to dispose of the goods of Friar William Appleton, deceased; (fn. 14) but Appleton had been a knight, and was a physician, and probably entered the Order late in life. Other evidence of decay is possibly to be found in the repeated instances of vagabond and apostate friars which occur; in February, 1386, William Howys, in October, 1391, John Dunnyng, and in July, 1398, Walter Tolny, Thomas Knyght, John Camel, and John Mynterne were ordered to be delivered to the Guardian of London. (fn. 15) If it is dangerous to build theories on a few instances, it is certain that the contrast between the profession of absolute poverty and the possession of actual wealth gave a weapon to the enemies of the Mendicant orders. Even a few vagabond and apostate friars may have caused more scandal than was deserved. Other friars who followed the Rule in righteousness left of necessity no trace; but if we must take their good works for granted, we are not in so doing guilty of an unfounded presumption.

Of the London Guardians in the fourteenth century none were of special eminence. Henry Sutton deserves mention for his share in the building of the church. John Mablethorpe carried on an old tradition as confessor to Queen Philippa. John Bruyll at the close was bishop-elect of Annadowne. The rest are mere names.

The reign of Henry IV. was not a happy time for the Franciscans. But we do not find the name of any friar of the London house amongst those who suffered for their support of Richard II. A notable inmate at this time was Friar Thomas Wynchelsey. It was apparently through Wynchelsey's influence that the Grey Friars were benefited under the will of Richard Whittington. Wynchelsey himself and the then guardian, William Russell, were benefactors of their house. (fn. 16) They seem to have been close friends and when, in 1425, Russell was accused of heretical preaching, (fn. 17) Winchelsey had also to appear before Convocation. On this occasion Wynchelsey cleared himself of the charge; but in the following year he was less fortunate, and was compelled, on behalf of himself, the London Convent, and the whole order, publicly to repudiate Russell's opinions at Paul's Cross. (fn. 18) This incident would imply that the London friars had as a body fallen under some suspicion. But in the next generation they were prominent, probably under the influence of William Goddard the elder, as champions of orthodoxy. Goddard himself took a foremost part in the trial of Bishop Pecock in 1457. (fn. 19) Still eight years later, in 1465, the opposition of the friars to the parochial clergy, which had been part of the obnoxious teaching of Russell, involved them in a fresh dispute. A Carmelite friar, Henry Parker, supported by his Provincial, John Milverton, preached against the riches of the secular clergy. When a sharp controversy ensued the Grey Friars took up the case, and their representative had a principal share in the discussion. The Grey Friar was cited before the Archbishop at Lambeth, but pleaded that his order was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction; though his contention was rejected, he seems to have escaped condemnation. In this he was more fortunate than Milverton, who was cited to Rome, and long imprisoned there. This is said to have been due to the great part which the King took in the matter. (fn. 20) The better fortune of the Grey Friar was possibly due to royal favour. John Kyrye and Goddard, who were the most important members of the London house at the time, were both supporters of the House of York. Kyrye was actually the king's confessor, and Goddard was a doctor of repute, and of great influence in high quarters.

Whatever falling off from early ideals there may have been during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the London house would seem to have retained, if it had not increased, its old distinction as one of the chief conventual schools of the English province. About 1236 Albert of Pisa appointed Vincent of Coventry to be lector at London. (fn. 21) Some years later Adam Marsh associates London with Oxford and Cambridge as a theological school, and at his suggestion Adam of Hereford was sent to pursue his studies there. (fn. 22) Clearly the London school had already a good reputation. Robert de Turnham, who taught theology here before 1270, was a famous preacher; (fn. 23) but otherwise there is no great Franciscan whose name can be associated with it during the thirteenth century. But the "Studies," which Bonde, king of heralds, provided, were probably built during the reign of Edward I., if not earlier.

In 1292 a decree of the General Chapter at Paris mentions the school at London in association with those at Oxford and Cambridge. (fn. 24) Though Oxford was then clearly pre-eminent, London seems to have ranked with Cambridge, and certainly above any other school of the province. It is possible that it was already recognised as the studium particulare of its Custody; but the first certain evidence for this comes in 1337, when by a General Constitution every student friar was required to have resided two or three years at a studium particulare before he could be sent to a studium generale or University. (fn. 25) There seems to have been one of these subordinate schools in each Custody. The students were under the instruction of the Regent and Cursor. We have the names of two London Regents, viz., William Toly, 1500, and Robert Burton, 1522; and of five London Cursors, viz., William Thorpe, 1468, John Furnes, 1483, Henry Sedbar, 1489, Ambrose Kell, 1514, and John Person, 1526. No conclusion can be drawn from the late dates of these names, since, with the exception of Kell, they are only those of friars whose tombs chanced to be still preserved in the sixteenth century. Probably the palmiest days of the London school were during the fourteenth century, when the number of students was so great that the original "Studies" were found to be too small, and were replaced about 1370. (fn. 26) Thomas Rundel, Peter Sutton, and Thomas of St. Dunstan, who had been lectors at Oxford, may have taught at London early in the fourteenth century. (fn. 27) About its middle Adam Wodham or Godham, one of the most famous of the later Franciscan schoolmen, and Roger Conway, the foremost opponent of Richard Fitzralph, resided, and probably taught there. About 1368 John Welle is specifically said to have taught theology at London. (fn. 28) Just about the same time we hear of an Italian friar, Ubertino de Piagerio di Corleone, who had studied at London. (fn. 29) William Woodford, who was a determined opponent of Wiclif, resided chiefly at London, and perhaps delivered his lectures De Sacramento Altaris there. (fn. 30) Amongst the fourteenth-century Guardians, Sutton, Mablethorp, and Chamberlain all seem to have been men of some learning. More notorious in the next century was William Russell, whose friend and contemporary, Thomas Wynchelsey, was the virtual founder of the Library. Later in the fifteenth century William Goddard the elder was connected with the London Convent during nearly forty years; he was the most prominent English Franciscan of his time, and since he is described as "doctor disertissimus," it may be conjectured that he was a teacher of repute. At the end of the century Andrew Bavard maintained the use of the Convent as a place of learning; though the notice of his exertion to improve the service books may suggest that the Library also had begun to decay. Later still Standish must have imparted some vigour to the house in which he so long resided, even though under his guidance it was probably a stronghold of scholasticism against the new learning. At all events, if old methods had outlived their usefulness, the last years of the Franciscans in London were not a time of ignoble sloth.

We know more of the inner history of the London Grey Friars during the thirty years before the dissolution than at any other period. It was perhaps as a step in the direction of stricter poverty that in 1502 they changed their habit from brown russet at four, six, or eight shillings a yard to kennet russet at two shillings. (fn. 31) Bavard, who was Guardian at this time, had, as we have seen, given practical proof of his zeal for good order. Henry Standish, who perhaps succeeded Bavard as Guardian in 1507 and was certainly resident in the London house during the early part of the reign of Henry VIII., enjoyed great repute as a court preacher; he was a man of learning, albeit as a champion of scholasticism in controversy with Erasmus. Under his rule the friars still profited by royal favour. Nor had they yet lost their credit amongst the citizens. In 1508 a custom was established under which the Mayor and Aldermen, as patrons and founders, paid a yearly visit to the Greyfriars Convent and Church on the 4th of October, being the Feast of St. Francis. Fourteen years later the procession was followed for the first time by a dinner at which the friars entertained the rulers of the City. (fn. 32) Further evidence of the repute in which the friars were held by the people is afforded by the story of how Standish was asked to intervene with a sermon on the side of the citizens at the time of the riots against foreign traders in 1517, an invitation which he was too prudent a courtier to accept. (fn. 33) Standish was promoted to be bishop of St. Asaph next year, but retained his interest in his old convent to his death. His immediate successors probably followed in his footsteps; the third, Thomas Cudnor, was certainly his intimate friend.

Cudnor possibly became Guardian in 1521, and certainly before 1526. Under his rule the shadow of the approaching end began to fall. In January, 1525, Standish held a visitation of the Observants at Greenwich, many of whom were then sent to other less strict houses; one of them, a lay-brother called William Renscroft, came to the Greyfriars at London as the first of a series of unwilling visitors; he was there long but at last submitted and was assoiled. (fn. 34) In November of the same year Dr. Allen held a visitation at the Greyfriars; but the Chronicle does not record what came of it. (fn. 35) In the earlier years of the Reformation movement we hear of no trouble which directly concerned the London Franciscans. There was a riotous assembly of clergy at the Greyfriars Church on 30th August, 1531, but the occasion was a proposal for the reassessment of their benefices. (fn. 36) When the breach with Rome came Cudnor joined with the Priors of the other Orders of Friars in London in acknowledging the king's Supremacy on 17th April, 1534. (fn. 37) The Observants, and in particular those of Greenwich, were less subservient; all their houses were cleared, and the inmates sent to convents of the less strict parent order, where they were kept locked in chains and worse treated than they would have been in ordinary prisons. (fn. 38) To Greyfriars there came the celebrated Friar Forest with at least five companions. In the following October Brother Francis Lyhert, who was imprisoned at Stamford, wrote to a friend for "tidings of our fathers in London and at Greenwich, what they have done and what they intend to do. We hear that they are all sworn, and have somewhat changed their government, at which we marvel." (fn. 39) The Grey Friars, whatever some of them may have felt, were at all events submissive in outward form to the new order. In November, 1535, they joined in the great religious procession held in London by the King's order; this was perhaps the last solemn function in which they took part. (fn. 40) That there was division of opinion amongst the friars is shown by an incident which occurred some two years after. In March, 1538, Friar John Sharpe brought an accusation of treason against Friar Geoffrey Turner. Turner denied on oath that he ever spake such words as were pretended against him. He said that on Sunday sennight in the evening he was in the buttery (he was butler), when three laymen, John Sponger, William Pikering, the brewer of the house, and one William a tailor, were drinking there. They had a fair half-penny loaf before them, and William the tailor asked whether they bought it. Turner answered: "Nay! they begged it". William said: "There was once a King of England would have made such a loaf worth sixpence". "It was King John," said Turner. "And therefore," said the tailor, "a monk did poison him with a cup of wine." And this examinate said: "Therefore (and with this word came in Bachelor Beaste and Bachelor Gawen and lastly Friar Sharpe) he was the more to be blamed to strike afore God struck". (fn. 41)

Cudnor was probably dead before this, and in his room had been elected as Guardian Thomas Chapman, who seems to have been a creature of Cromwell's. At all events he proved a willing instrument in helping the dissolution of the house of which he was head. Sometime in the early part of 1538 we find Chapman writing to Cromwell concerning Friar Forest, who was still a prisoner at Greyfriars, and declaring that he could depose for the inmates of his house. Chapman assured Cromwell of their submission to the King, and of their readiness to change their coat when he willed. (fn. 42) Somewhat later he wrote to Newell, who was in Cromwell's service, that there was not one in his house but would gladly change his coat, and offered to show Cromwell some things that would be a way to a better order. (fn. 43) To Cromwell himself he wrote of his own obedience, and the longing ot all his brethren to change their papistical slanderous apparel. (fn. 44) The blow fell on 12th November, when the whole house signed the Deed of Surrender, declaring in a letter of the same date that Christian living did not consist in wearing grey coats, disguising themselves after strange fashions, duckings and noddings, girdling themselves with a girdle full of knots, and other like Papistical ceremonies. (fn. 45) If this letter was not of Chapman's own composition, it certainly expressed his sentiments. Twenty-five friars joined with Chapman in signing the Deed. Though this number is a great falling off from the hundred or more which the writer of the Register boasts was the common number two centuries before, it compares favourably with the numbers returned for the other houses of friars in London. At the time of the Surrender the Dominicans had seventeen members, the Carmelites and Austin friars thirteen each, and the Crutched friars only six. (fn. 46)

Chapman obtained a pension of 13l. 6s. 8d., of which he was still in receipt as late as 1547. (fn. 47) It does not appear what allowance, if any, was made to his brethren. Though Chapman had answered for the obedience of them all, and though they had all joined in signing the Surrender, it is probable that some, at all events, did so unwillingly. When in the reign of Queen Mary the Franciscans made great friends and great means to be restored to their house, because it stood whole, and was not spoiled as other houses were, there were still five or six poor friars who had been friars in the house before. William Peto, the Queen's confessor, who had been provincial of the Observants twenty years previously, was foremost in promoting the scheme to put out the children from Christ's Hospital, which had been established at Greyfriars in 1552. According to John Howes, Peto might have succeeded, but for Friar John, a Spaniard, who was brought to have his opinion, and "being there at dinner-time and seeing the poor children set at the tables in the Hall, was so wrapped in admiration that suddenly he burst out into tears, and said that he had rather be a scullion in their kitchen than Steward to the King". Friar Alfonso, King Philip's confessor, had also very good liking for the training up of the children, and used very good words in their favour. No doubt, as Howes states, the Governors had somewhat to do to defend and continue the Hospital. They showed worldly prudence, and purchased influential friends by granting leases of dwellings within the precinct to Dr. John Story, who was Bonner's chancellor, and to John Christopherson, who was one of the queen's chaplains, and afterwards Bishop of Chichester; "so these two had no mind for the friars to be restored, since then their houses would be called in question". Howes however, gives the chief credit to Friar John, whose open opinion "did so appall Friar Peto that he never durst open his mouth against that house". (fn. 48)


  • 1. De Adventu, p. 7, whence it is borrowed by the compiler of the Register on pp. 145, 146 below.
  • 2. Cal. Close Rolls, 1227–1231, p. 169.
  • 3. Cal. Close Rolls, 1231–1234, pp. 214, 241; 1234–1237, p. 97.
  • 4. Liberate Rolls, 17 to 44 Henry III.
  • 5. M. Paris, v., 546.
  • 6. Chron. Edw. I. and Edw. II., i., 99.
  • 7. Rishanger, Chronicon, 129.
  • 8. See pp. 35, 36 below.
  • 9. Little, Greyfriars, 239.
  • 10. Cal. Close Rolls, Edward III., ii., 132.
  • 11. Cal. Pat. Rolls, Edward III., x., 179.
  • 12. Little, Greyfriars, 78, 311.
  • 13. Cal. Papal Registers, iii., 88.
  • 14. Cal. Pat. Rolls, Richard II., ii., 16.
  • 15. id., iii., 169; iv., 522; vi., 433; they need not have been London Friars, Dunnyng was eventually to be handed over to the Guardian of Boston, whence no doubt he came. See p. 63 below.
  • 16. See further on p. 171.
  • 17. See p. 57 below.
  • 18. Wilkins' Concilia, iii., 433, 438–439.
  • 19. See p. 195 below.
  • 20. Gregory's Chronicle, pp. 228–232.
  • 21. De Adventu, 62.
  • 22. Monumenta Franciscana, i., 315, 317.
  • 23. See p. 67 below.
  • 24. Little, Greyfriars, 309.
  • 25. Transactions Royal Hist. Soc., 2nd ser., viii., 68; where Mr. Little discusses the educational organisation of the friars.
  • 26. See p. 161 below.
  • 27. See p. 68 below.
  • 28. Little, Greyfriars, 311.
  • 29. Bullarium Franciscanum, vi., 409.
  • 30. Little, Greyfriars, 246.
  • 31. Chronicles of London, p. 256.
  • 32. Monumenta Franciscana (Greyfriars Chronicle), ii., 186, 189; Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, i., 403.
  • 33. See p. 60 below.
  • 34. Monumenta Franciscana, ii., 190.
  • 35. id., ii., 191.
  • 36. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII., v., 387.
  • 37. id., vii., 665.
  • 38. id., vii., 1607; see p. 63 below.
  • 39. id., vii., 1307. He inquires for Brother Amne; presumably John Amne (see p. 64 below), who may therefore have been an Observant.
  • 40. London Chronicle ap. Camden Miscellany, xii., p. 11.
  • 41. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII., xiii. (i.), 658.
  • 42. See pp. 213–214 below.
  • 43. See pp. 214–215 below.
  • 44. See pp. 216–217 below.
  • 45. See pp. 217–218 below.
  • 46. 8th Report, Deputy Keeper, App. II., p. 28.
  • 47. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII., XIV., i., 602.
  • 48. John Howes' MS., pp. 66–70.