A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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11. THE GREY FRIARS OF READING
The Franciscans or Grey Friars were first established at Reading in the year 1233. By a deed dated 14 July, Abbot Adam de Lathbury and the convent granted to these friars a piece of waste ground by the king's highway leading to Caversham Bridge, 33 perches in length and 23 in breadth, with permission to build and dwell there so long as they should be content to be truly mendicant and hold no property of their own, and abstained from interfering with the rights of the abbey. The friars also bound themselves never to seek any other land or extension of site at the hands of the abbey. (fn. 1)
In 1282 Archbishop Peckham, himself a Franciscan friar, addressed a letter to the abbot and convent of Reading, on behalf of the friars of that town, asking that they might be permitted to enlarge the site of their house, although they had unadvisedly covenanted never to make such a request, as their buildings were so often inundated with flood water in the winter season. (fn. 2)
It was a long time before the prayer of the archbishop was granted; but in 1285 he wrote to Brother Allot, the minister general of the Friars Minor, asking him to confirm the change of site of the dwelling of that order at Reading. He therein told the head of the order that the simplicity of the friars in the province of England had caused them to show more ignorance than prudence in the choice of situation, and in the erection of buildings, to the inconvenience of posterity. That at Reading, compelled by the monks who owned the town, they had accepted a marshy site so subject to floods that at times of inundation they had to leave or be subject to much danger; also that their distance outside the town made it inconvenient to procure necessaries. Being solicited by many persons of consequence, the monks had at last given permission to the friars to place their buildings on higher ground within the town, but that their consent had been surrounded with many restrictions. The archbishop had consented thereto in the hopes they might be remedied in process of time by royal benevolence, or possibly by the authority of his own office, the protection of which the Benedictines of Reading were sometimes under the necessity of imploring. The archbishop therefore hoped that the superior of the order would confirm the agreement thus made, and now forwarded to him with the seal of his office. (fn. 3)
The new covenant whereby the somewhat niggardly monks granted the friars a new though smaller site was fortified by even stronger safeguards than those of the grant of 1233. In this deed the abbot and convent of Reading stated that they had unanimously received as guests the Franciscan friars in the town of Reading, upon a piece of ground between the house of the rector of Sulham on the east and the sandy ditch on the west, and extending from the common way called New Street, the use whereof the friars should continue to have, of the grace of the abbey and convent, saving the following conditions: It should be lawful for the friars to build and dwell upon this additional plot of land (16½ perches by 16 perches) so long as they remained without property and, in accordance with their profession, observers of the deepest poverty. The friars promised, for themselves and their successors, that they would never seek any other dwelling on the land of the abbey, or extend their boundaries, and that they would never ask alms from the abbey as a due, but only out of mercy and by special grace. Further the friars promised that, whatever liberty of sepulture they enjoyed or hereafter should enjoy, they would never receive for burial the bodies of deceased parishioners of the monastery or of the churches appropriated to the abbey in Reading, or outside, without the special licence of the abbot and convent; and that they would never receive tithes or offerings or legacies due of certain knowledge or by custom to the abbey. The friars granted that if they failed in any of these particulars the abbot was to have power to expel them of his own authority, all appeal or obstacle being waived. In case the abbot and convent desired to expel the friars from their dwelling on this land for any other causes, the king and his heirs had free power to house them there, all appeal being waived, so that they should have of royal grace what they had previously had of the convent's grace. To this deed the seals of the abbey on the one part, and of the minister general and provincial on the other, were appended, together for corroboration with the seal of the king and of the archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 4)
The only property these mendicant friars were allowed to hold was the site of their friary and its extensions, and in 1288 Robert Fulco bequeathed to them certain other void plots of ground in New Street, adjoining the land granted to the abbey. (fn. 5)
Edward I, when the Franciscans were on their old flooded site, had granted them from the forest of Pamber, in 1280, three oak trunks for fuel (fn. 6); and he now came to their help, just at the end of his reign, with the handsome donation of fifty-six oaks out of the forest of Windsor for their new buildings then in progress. (fn. 7)
Certain works were still in progress in 1311, for in that year Alan de Banbury bequeathed 5s. operi fratrum minorum in this town. (fn. 8)
In 1320 Bishop Mortival licensed Warner, warden of the Franciscans of Reading, to hear confessions in the diocese. (fn. 9)
Margaret Twynho, a Reading widow, by will proved in 1501 left her body to be buried in the chapel of St. Francis in the Grey Friars of Reading, near the tomb of her father and mother. (fn. 10)
Dr. London, writing to Cromwell from Oxford on 31 August, 1538, as to 'capacities' or licences to give up their vows for the friars, says:—
A friend of mine, the warden of the Grey Friars in Reading, also wishes license for them to change their garments; most of them are very old men. (fn. 11)
The surrender of the house was made on 13 September, 1538. There is a comparatively modern copy of this surrender at Lambeth. It is signed 'Per me Petrum Schefford guardianum, ac S.T.B.; per me Egidium Coventre, S.T.B.,' and by ten others. (fn. 12)
On the following day London wrote to
Cromwell telling him of the surrender, and that
that day they should change their coats; he
adds, 'of friars they be noted here honest men.'
He further reported that
in the house there were three pretty lodgings, one kept by the warden, another by Mr. Ogle the King's servant, and the third by an old lady called my Lady Saynt Jane. There is a goodly walk in their back side, with trees, pond, and an orchard, in all 20 acres. Household stuff coarse; what little plate and jewels there is I will send up this week. There is a great trough of lead at their well, and another in their kitchen, and the bell turret is covered with lead. Church ornaments slender. The inside of the church and windows decked with grey friars I have defaced, and yet made some money out of these things. On Monday I will pay their debts to victuallers and rid the house of them all. (fn. 13)
A few days later London wrote to Cromwell:—
'As soon as I hadde taken the Fryers surrender the multytude of the Poverty of the town resorted thedyr and all thing that myght be hadde they stole away, insomuyche that they had conveyed the very clapers of the bellys. And saving that Mr. Fachell (Vachell) wich made me great chere at hys house and the Mayor dydde assist me, they wold havd made no litell spoyl. In thys I have done as moche as I cowde to save everything to the King's Graces use, as shall appear to your Lordeschippe at the begynnyng of the terme, Godde willing, who wt increse of moche honor long preserve yor gudde Lordeschippe.
At Redinge, xvii Septembris.
'I besyt your gudde Lordeschippe to admytt me a pour sutar for theis honest men of Redinge. They have a fayre town and many gudde occupiers in ytt; but they lacke that house necessary of the wiche for the mynystration of Justice they have the most nede of. Ther Town Hall ys a very small Hous and stondith upon the ryver, wher ys the commyn wassching place of the most part of the Town, and in the cession days and other court dayes ther ys such betyng with batildores as noe man can nott here another, nor the guest here the chardg givyng. The body of the Church of the Grey Fryers wiche is selyd with laths and lyme wold be very commodoise rowme for them. And now I have rydde all the fasschen of that Churche in pardons, ymages and awtters it wolde make a gudly Town Hall. The Mayor of that Town, Mr. Richard Turner a very honest gentill person with many other honest men hath expressyd unto me ther gref in thys behalf and have desyred me to be an humble sutar unto your Lordeschippe for the same if it shoulde be solde. The wallys, besyd the coyne stonys, be but chalk and flynt and the coveryng butt tile. And if it please the King's grace to bestow that house upon any of hys servants, he may spare the body of the churche, wich standith next the strete very well; and yet have roume sufficient for a great man.
Your most bounden orator and servant,
John London. (fn. 14)
Being friars, the inmates were of course ejected after their surrender without a farthing of pension; but in the troubles of the next year the king found accommodation for two of their number. In a list of prisoners in the Tower on 20 November, 1539, appear the names of Peter Lawrence (alias Schefford), late warden of the Reading Friars, and Gyles Coventry, a friar of the same house. (fn. 15)
The house and site were granted to a groom of the king's chamber; but the body and side aisles of the church (fn. 16) were granted by Henry VIII, at last mindful of London's entreaty, in April, 1544, to the mayor and burgesses of Reading, to serve as a new gild hall, the town paying for the same a yearly rent of one halfpenny.