Friaries: Carmelites, Cambridge

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'Friaries: Carmelites, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 282-286. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section


The Carmelite Order, like that of the 'Friars Hermit' of St. Augustine, was at first composed of several related groups of solitaries. About 1238 small colonies left the congregation of hermits which had long been established on Carmel, to seek safety in France, and in 1241, under the patronage of Peter des Roches, others were brought to England by crusaders returning from the expedition of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. (fn. 1) In 1245 they held a General Chapter at Aylesford, where, according to later legend, St. Simeon Stock was elected Prior General and given a commission, confirmed by Innocent IV in 1247, to organize the Order. (fn. 2) Advantage was taken of the licence, given about this time, to settle in inhabited areas when a party of the new friars arrived at Chesterton in 1249. Simeon is said to have been with them, and at Cambridge in 1251, according to later Carmelite tradition, there appeared to him the famous apparition of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. (fn. 3) It is from this year, 1251, that the confraternity of Carmel called the scapular is said to date, and an attempt has been made to connect this confraternity with the gild of St. Mary at Cambridge. (fn. 4) Soon after Michael Malherbe, who died about 1256, gave the new friars a small piece of land in Newnham, (fn. 5) and thither the majority, although perhaps not the whole of the community, (fn. 6) now moved; (fn. 7) after a time a church, cloister, dormitory, and 'other sufficiently good buildings' were erected, (fn. 8) and there the friars lived for about 40 years, occupying some 3 acres of the island of rising ground, surrounded by fen and osier-beds intersected by small streams, on which Newnham hamlet was built. In 1267, when the building of their church was nearing completion, the king gave the Friars of Mount Carmel of Cambridge timber for 12 pairs of rafters for the fabric, (fn. 9) and in the same year their rights to the fishery in the water surrounding a meadow called Twinedholm, adjoining the Great Bank, were acknowledged. (fn. 10)

The death of Simeon Stock in 1265 was followed by a reaction towards the purely contemplative life, but it was short-lived. (fn. 11) In 1274 the Council of Lyons recognized the Carmelites as one of the four approved Mendicant Orders, and the General Chapter held in 1281 at London was chiefly concerned with University affairs. (fn. 12) For so long as the Carmelites retained their contemplative tradition the Newnham site was a suitable dwelling, but with the complete conversion of the Order to 'the dangerous practices of preaching and hearing confessions' (fn. 13) it became impossible, and petition was made to move into the town, on the ground that in winter the friars could not get thither to buy their food because of the floods, nor could scholars have access to them to hear divinity, which was already being read by their own lectors in the cloister. (fn. 14) About 1290 Humphrey de Lecton, the first member of the Order to take a Doctor's degree in Cambridge, had licence at the request of Bishop William de Luda to incept in theology, and subsequently lectured in his own school within his convent. (fn. 15) It was not until the latter part of the 14th century that the scheme of dividing the English Province into four 'Distinctions', on the analogy of the Franciscan Custodies and the Dominican Visitations, was confirmed, (fn. 16) and the Carmelite house at Cambridge was included in the Distinction of which the Norwich Priory, founded in 1256, (fn. 17) was head.

In the contemporary Liber Memorandorum, it is said that 'all the friars of that Order throughout England changed their habit about the year 1290, (fn. 18) receiving white mantles, whereas they were formerly clothed in striped cloaks. This done, they removed themselves two years later into the town of Cambridge, and there began to build. And they constructed a new church, which is in the parish of St. John in Milne Street.' (fn. 19) The Newnham site continued to be known for centuries as the Carmefield, (fn. 20) just as the shorter stay of the friars at the Castle End had already given the name 'le Karme' to their first settlement. A short delay seems to have occurred between the grant of land in 1290 and the actual move into Milne Street, probably due to opposition from Barnwell, the canons and the vicar of St. John Zachary alleging damage to the parish from the permanent settlement of the friars there, and their pulling down houses of parishoners who paid dues from which Carmelites claimed exemption by papal privilege. It was finally agreed that the friars should pay an annual compensation of 14s., of which John Porthors, the Cambridge burgess, undertook to pay 1 mark, (fn. 21) and this arrangement was confirmed by the Bishop of Ely in February 1295. (fn. 22) The new church was dedicated by William de Luda, Bishop of Ely, in 1292. (fn. 23)

The land acquired by the Carmelites in Milne Street was obtained for them in July 1290 by William de Hamilton, Archdeacon of York, the king's clerk, and included 3 messuages of the king's own fee. (fn. 24) It ran from the highway to the river, between Strawylane and the property of John Alured, (fn. 25) and was extended from time to time until it eventually reached from the original court of Queens' College, which was built almost adjoining the convent wall, to the neighbourhood of King's College Chapel. In February 1292 the friars had permission to build two long walls inclosing their property, down to the water's edge, (fn. 26) with the same proviso about a gate in either wall, giving access for the defence of the town, as was laid down for the Austin Friars in the same year, when they extended their site to the town boundary. In January 1315 they had licence to inclose a lane called Francmauntel, 360 ft. long, running east and west along their area, (fn. 27) and other additions were made in December of the same year, (fn. 28) in 1331, (fn. 29) 1347, (fn. 30) and 1350. (fn. 31) The Carmelites' property had been largely built over before they obtained it, and in 1483 they paid hagable at 16d. as against 2d. paid by the Grey Friars and 1d. each by the Dominicans and Austin Friars. (fn. 32) In December 1350 the mayor and commonalty of Cambridge had licence to alienate to the Carmelites a spring called Hokerwell outside the town and a piece of ground 10 ft. square around it, and the friars were given permission to inclose the well and make an underground aqueduct from it to their dwelling. (fn. 33)

The primitive Rule of Carmel had been formulated in Palestine about 1210, (fn. 34) but from about 1256 the General Chapter supplemented this by decrees, and the earliest constitutions known, based upon the decrees, date only from 1324. (fn. 35) The archaic ritual of the Order was revised by Simon de Beka in 1312, and this revision, more or less on Dominican lines, was imposed on the English Carmelites in 1333, the year after his death. (fn. 36) None of the General Chapters (held at Whitsuntide) was held at Cambridge, but certain of the acta deal with conditions there and at Oxford. The Chapter of 1324, which met at Barcelona, made a general decree that each province was to provide for its students by an annual tax of 100 grossi antiqui for masters, 80 for bachelors, 30 for other students, and 50 for bachelors not resident in a University, that is, such as had returned to act as lectors in their own cloisters. (fn. 37) The Chapters of 1336 enacted that no friar of the English Province was to be sent to Oxford or Cambridge unless six brethren, some of them priors, testified to his character. (fn. 38)

About 1350 Bishop William Bateman of Norwich founded a chest for the benefit of students, to the value of £100, to be called the Chest of the Holy Trinity, standing in the Carmelite priory, and put it in charge of the White Friars. (fn. 39)

The rising of 1381 in Cambridge was concentrated against William Wigmore the bedell, the newly founded college of Corpus Christi, the 'treasure' deposited in the chapel behind the north door of Great St. Mary's, and the Carmelites. (fn. 40) The last three had almost certainly some affiliation which remains obscure (fn. 41) and were regarded as repositories of University wealth; the riots were made an excuse for an attack upon this by disgruntled townsfolk. It was as clerks, and not as friars, that the Cambridge rioters attacked the Carmelites. On Sunday, 16 June, the mob, headed by Thomas Furbishour and others, rushed to the Carmelite convent, broke into the church there and seized the Trinity chest, which was filled with pledged books and valuables. A jury subsequently valued the contents of the Carmelite chest tentatively at £20, but unless the estimate for the contents of the Trinity Chest was very far out, Bateman's Charity cannot have been working satisfactorily. The original capital only about 30 years before was £100, and by the charter loans could only be made against deposits of 'obviously greater value' than the sum of money received.

A furious contention broke out between the Black and the White Friars, the initiative having apparently been with Dr. Stokes, the Dominican, who about 1374 wrote his Determinationum Volumen against the Carmelites and answered John Horneby, the Carmelite champion, with Ad Rationes Fratris Joannis Hornebii seu Cornuti Carmelitae responsiones. (fn. 42) He made great play with the horns of Mount Carmel and the 'hornet's' attack, but it is noteworthy that of the seven Carmelites admitted by Bishop Arundel to preach and hear confessions in the diocese of Ely in 1375, two, Edward Charles and Thomas de Riborowe, were Doctors, and one, John Pole, a Bachelor of Divinity. On 23 February of this year John Dunwich, Chancellor of the University, issued a decree that many scholars having called in question the title of the Friars of Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel, and riots and disorders having followed, John de Horneby, S.T.P., a regent master, had begged that the matter might be set right. The Chancellor appointed a day and a court of regent and non-regent masters to go into the case, and Horneby, having produced his Rule, certain papal bulls, and other ancient writings, was held to have proved the right of the friars to add 'of the Mother of God' to their title, and to be considered 'imitators and successors' of Elijah and Elisha: (fn. 43) but the chancellor's ruling was by no means the end of the trouble.

The papal order of 1396 that one Carmelite friar was to be chosen from each of the four Distinctions of London, York, Norwich, and Oxford to proceed to the degree of Bachelor or Master in Theology, (fn. 44) was made in confirmation of a statute formally constituting these divisions, but the scheme had probably been working, at least in theory, for some time. At the same time, however, certain English friars complained that Carmelites were wont to get the degree of D.D. too easily, and Cardinal Landulph, protector of the Order, having investigated the complaint, ruled that every candidate must study Arts for seven years and Theology for seven years, must lecture on the Sentences for one year in a University and for two years as lector principalis, that he must lecture for one more year on the Bible, and that he must respond and proceed to the degree of Master in the customary manner. This was confirmed by Boniface IX in the following year. (fn. 45) The course laid down agrees quite closely with that of the two English universities, (fn. 46) and seems sufficiently arduous if fully carried out. Fifty years later the Grace Books show concessions being freely made in favour not only of friars, but of all inceptors in theology, and they lay in the direction of accepting study in the cloister or in another university towards a degree as well as in allowing the omission of scholastic acts. (fn. 47)

Little is known of the Carmelite buildings at Cambridge except what can be gathered from the records of their demolition, (fn. 48) but there are a few notices of the church, to which, in all probability, was attached the cell of the anchoress, Alice Granseter, who was inclosed about 1421. (fn. 49) When John de Waltham was provided to the See of Salisbury in 1388, Parliament being in session at Cambridge, he made his profession of canonical obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury before consecration 'in the chapel next the door near the high altar of the Carmelites' church'. (fn. 50) In 1440 Sir William 'Asenhill', (fn. 51) lord of Guilden Morden, who 'out of his special devotion to the church of the Cambridge house of Carmelites' had founded a chantry there, and endowed a chaplain in perpetuity, chose that church as his burying place, and obtained papal licence for the exhumation of his wife's body in Guilden Morden parish church and her reburial at the Carmelites. (fn. 52) For nearly a hundred years from this date there is little to record beyond the names of such brethren as graduated in the University, and a large number of bequests. These are mostly of small sums, but one of 40s. 'for the repair of their church' made by Hugh Jacob in 1477 (fn. 53) suggests that building operations were then in hand.

Thomas Gilbard, or Gilbert, who took his degree of D.D. in 1464 (fn. 54) and continued to teach theology at Cambridge during the next ten years, was licensed in 1473 to hold a benefice with cure of souls, such as a parish church. (fn. 55) Prior John Barrett, who should have determined in 1534, was excused 'because of arduous and urgent business'; (fn. 56) and Andrew Barsham, who was prior in 1535, did not proceed beyond B.D., (fn. 57) and it seems that the house was already breaking up. On 11 February 1537, dinner was provided at Queens' for the prior and two friars arranging for the sale to the college of the stone wall running from Milne Street to the river, which had been a subject of dispute. (fn. 58) The agreement was signed by George Legate as prior, and six others, of whom Clement Thorpe alone signs 'frater', although all seem to have been attached to the community and three signed the surrender. The college gave 23s. 4d. for the wall, and 3 days later began structural operations which gave them windows looking directly into the friars' close. (fn. 59) On 8 August 1538, Dr. Mey and the fellows of Queens' wrote to Cromwell asking that the Carmelite monastery 'not merely neighbouring, but adhering' to their college might be dissolved and given to them: and the community was described as reduced to the prior and one other, calling himself the Convent, who would gladly leave. (fn. 60) On the same day George Legate and three others, Clement Thorpe, William Smith, and William Wilson, executed a deed (sealed with the prior's seal only) surrendering the 'house and ground called the Whitefriars in Cambridge' to the President and fellows of Queens' and testifying their readiness to depart when called upon, subject to the king's consent, 'in whose Grace's power and pleasure, being the supreme head of this Catholic Church of England we . . . acknowledge that it is to allow or disallow this our deed'. (fn. 61) On 7 August, the day preceding both letter and deed, the bursar paid £5 to two fellows, to go to London on the business, and to them, with the President and Dr. Day, Provost of King's, Cromwell issued a commission on 17 August to take the priory into the king's hand. (fn. 62) Two copies of the stereotyped form used for taking the surrender of friaries were sent to Cambridge for signature; they were dated 28 August and signed in the margin, but not sealed. The preamble of one describes Clement Thorpe, alias Hubberd, as 'prior', in the other he is more correctly described as 'president', (fn. 63) implying a vacancy: George Legate had perhaps fled or been removed after his unsuccessful effort to make his own terms with Dr. Mey. With Hubberd, Peter Alan, William Smith, William Wilson, Edward Elisley, and Thomas Mayre made the surrender. (fn. 64) The inventory was taken by Dr. Mey and his two fellows on 6 September. (fn. 65) There were 5 complete vestments with tunicle and dalmatic, 6 sets of priests' vestments, 18 copes of various colours, altar frontals and a burse with corporals, but the only altar vessel was 'one chalyse of tynne', and there was no other plate, nor any metal object of value except 'a grett payer of latyn candelstyckes before the altor', a bell and sacring-bell, and a pax and holy-water stock of latten. Service books were reduced to one printed missal, a large portifor, and two antiphonaries. That only two friars were actually living in the priory is borne out by the inventory of the 'ostre', which contained only worn furnishings for two beds, two 'shyppe chestys', two candlesticks, a latten basin and ewer, pieces of wall-hanging; 4 platters and 6 pewter porringers, a few kitchen utensils, and some pieces of furniture too bulky or broken to have been removed complete the list. On 28 November 1541 the Court of Augmentations sold all the building material to Dr. Mey (fn. 66) and on 1 April 1542 the king gave him a lease of the site for 21 years, except the part already granted to King's, (fn. 67) but in November 1544 the site was granted to John Eyre, from whom Mey bought it with college money, to secure the property for his society. (fn. 68) He was deprived under Queen Mary, but restored in 1559, and dying President about 15 months later left all his interest in the site of the Whitefriars to the college. (fn. 69)

Between September 1538 and the end of 1539 the priory was entirely dismantled, and the walls were finally demolished in 1548-9, the tower of the church being thrown down in January and the bases of the pillars dug up in March. Meeres was employed about selling the material, and in 1541 paid 30s. for glass and ironwork from the great east window. Other purchasers bought the material of a chapel by the bell-tower, that of the nave for £12, the domestic buildings, the eastern, and then the northern, range of the cloisters piecemeal, and separate loads of stone. Some glass had been taken into the college treasury and of this a little probably survives in five windows of the library filled with coloured fragments with some broken inscriptions among them and in each light the head of a Carmelite friar. The whole sales brought over £60, a considerable profit on the £20 paid to the king. (fn. 70)

Priors of the Carmelites (fn. 71)

William de Lincolne, occurs 8 Dec. 1349 (fn. 72)

William Eton, 1362

John Reppys, 1367

Thomas Maldone, 1369

John Sandwyche, M.A. (fn. 73)

Robert Yvory, 1372

William Eton, 1375

John Eleysle, 1376

Thomas Kyborowe, M.A. (fn. 74)

John Chevele, 1380

John Pile, M.A., 1381

John Brehull, M.A. (fn. 74)

John Campton, 1390

John Savage, 1392

John Preston, 1393

William Wytchyrche, 1396

John Heydon, M.A., 1397

William Harsyk, 1400

John Eye, 1401

Richard Longe, (fn. 75) 1404

Thomas Ayshwell, 1407

John Thorpe, 1410

William Beckle, 1411

Nicholas Swafham, B.D., 1414

Richard Ely, M.A., 1446

John Hethyngham, B.D., 1450

Thomas Holbroke, 1456

John Hyston, 1459

Thomas Gylbard, B.D., 1460

William Byntre, 1465

William Howard, B.D., 1468

Henry Lynstede, B.D., 1476

Geoffrey Norwich, M.A., 1481

Simon Sperham, 1484

William Blakeney, 1500

John Whytyng, 1503

Robert Lesbury, 1504

Peter Nicolai, 1506

Richard Cape, 1508

Simon Pykryng, 1509

John Shyrtry (?), 1510

John Barrett, B.D., 1532-3 (fn. 76)

Andrew Barsham, B.D., 1534-5 (fn. 77)

William Watson, 1536 (fn. 78)

George Legate, 1537, 8 Aug. 1538 (fn. 79)

Clement Hubbard, alias Thorpe, appointed Aug. 1538; surrendered.

A round 15th-century seal shows Christ on the cross between the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John with a kneeling friar on each side. Legend:... CARMELIT ....

Another round seal, of c. 1500, very crudely executed, bears an altar in front of a triple-arched reredos, with a chalice upon it, over which is the hand of God. Legend: S' COITATIS DE CARMELO CANTEBRIG. (fn. 80)


  • 1. B. M. Zimmerman, art. 'Carmelite' in Catholic Encyclopedia, iii, 355.
  • 2. Dict. Nat. Biog. lii, 255; Boll. Vit. Sanct. May iii, 653-4. The earliest known biographical note of Simeon Stock dates from 1430: he is said to have lived in the 'stock' of a hollow tree at Aylesford for about 20 years from the age of 12, to have been a hermit in Palestine, and to have studied theology at Oxford some time between 1201 and 1215.
  • 3. Cath. Encycl. xiii, 511.
  • 4. On this whole question see J. P. Rushe, 'Origin of St. Mary's Gild', Camb. Antiq. Soc. xvi, 20-52.
  • 5. Hundr. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 360.
  • 6. See below, Friars of St. Mary, p. 286.
  • 7. Lib. Mem. de Bernewelle (ed. J. W. Clark).
  • 8. Ibid. 211.
  • 9. Cal. Close, 1264-8, pp. 302, 309.
  • 10. Cal. Inq. Misc. i, 324.
  • 11. Zimmerman, op. cit. Cf. Camb. Med. Hist. xi, 758. The reaction was led by Nicholas Gallicus, an extreme follower of the mystical tradition of the Palestinian brethren, who succeeded Simeon Stock as Prior General, but the tendency of the Order, especially at Cambridge, was against him.
  • 12. Harl. MS. 1819, fol. 59, from notes of the General Chapters 1259-1361 compiled by Master John Trissa, Carmelite, who died 1363.
  • 13. Quoted in Cath. Encycl. iii, 356, from the unprinted Ignea Sagitta of Nicholas Gallicus.
  • 14. Rot. Parl. i, 51.
  • 15. Lib. Mem. 212.
  • 16. V.C.H. Oxford, ii, 140.
  • 17. V.C.H. Norf. ii, 431.
  • 18. The order for the change was actually made in 1287: Camb. Med. Hist. vi, 758; Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iv, 312; Bale, Script. Brit. 330, 334.
  • 19. Lib. Mem. 212.
  • 20. The land which the friars had held in Newnham was apparently disposed of to the town: a block of 20 selions known as Carme Dole in the 14th century eventually gave its name to the whole open field in which it lay (J. M. Gray, School of Pythagoras, 20). In 1611 this was still called the Carmefield: Willis and Clark, Architectural Hist. ii, 238.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 489. Cf. Lib. Mem. 210.
  • 22. Lib. Mem. 211.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 376.
  • 25. Lib. Mem. 210.
  • 26. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 474.
  • 27. Ibid. 1313-17, p. 207.
  • 28. Ibid. p. 378.
  • 29. Ibid. 1330-4, p. 191.
  • 30. Ibid. 1345-8, p. 434.
  • 31. Ibid. 1348-50, p. 479.
  • 32. C. H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, i, 227.
  • 33. Cal. Pat. 1350-4, p. 18.
  • 34. Cath. Encycl. iii, 355.
  • 35. Camb. Med. Hist. vi, 758. The constitutions of 1324 show Dominican influence.
  • 36. Cabrol, Dict.... de Liturgie, ii (2), col. 2168.
  • 37. V.C.H. Oxford, ii. 140.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. J. W. Clark, 'University Chests', C.A.S. xi, 79. The original deed is lost, but there are copies in Senior Proctors' Book (fol. 64-6) and Junior Proctors' Book (fol. 58-60).
  • 40. E. Powell, Rising in East Anglia, 51, 52.
  • 41. Cf. J.P. Rushe, 'The Origin of St. Mary's Gild', in C.A.S. xvi, 20-52.
  • 42. C. F. R. Palmer, 'Black Friars of Cambridge', in Reliquary, xxiv, 84.
  • 43. Thomas Bradley, 'Libellus de Institutione Fratrum Carmelitarum', Camb. Univ. Lib. MS. Ff. 6, 11, fol. 24 v.
  • 44. Cal. Papal Letters, v, 1.
  • 45. Ibid. 19-20.
  • 46. See V.C.H. Oxford, ii. 140.
  • 47. e.g. Grace Book A, 97.
  • 48. See below, p. 286.
  • 49. Bale, Script. Brit. 565. A movement to associate anchoresses with Carmelite convents had been initiated by Friar Thomas Netter: ibid.; Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 50. The Archbishop, the Duke of York, and the Earl of Cambridge were all lodging in the friary at the time: Cooper, Annals, i, 135.
  • 51. Or Avenell: cf. Feud. Aids, i, 190.
  • 52. Cal. Papal Letters, ix, 119.
  • 53. Cole MS. xxii.
  • 54. Grace Book A, 45.
  • 55. Cal. Papal Letters, xiii, 217.
  • 56. Grace Book I, 274.
  • 57. Ibid. 295.
  • 58. Searle, Hist. of Queens' College (C.A.S.), 194-6. On 22 Feb. 1537 the college carted 12 cartloads of rubble and 1,000 tiles which they had bought from the Carmelites; ibid. 220.
  • 59. Ibid. 196.
  • 60. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, 246. The letter is here assigned to 1536, but seems clearly to belong to 1538: cf. Searle, op. cit. 228.
  • 61. Searle, op. cit. 222-3.
  • 62. Ibid. 223-4.
  • 63. In June 1538 Queens' had bought '30 old planks of rotten wood' from the prefectus of the Carmelites: ibid. 220.
  • 64. Ibid. 224.
  • 65. Ibid. 226-8.
  • 66. Searle, op. cit. 230.
  • 67. Ibid. 231.
  • 68. Ibid. 232.
  • 69. Ibid. 293.
  • 70. Ibid. 230-3.
  • 71. From Bale's list in MS. Bodl. 73, if other references are not given.
  • 72. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 30 v.; E.D.R. (1893), 107.
  • 73. Date given as 1362—probably in error.
  • 74. No date given.
  • 75. William Longe, prior of the Carmelites, occurs in 1406: Epis. Reg. Fordham; E.D.R.
  • 76. Cooper, Athenae Cant. 224.
  • 77. Ibid. 57.
  • 78. Ibid. 162.
  • 79. Ibid. 68; Cole MS. xlviii, fol. 239, 249.
  • 80. Casts in Fitz William Museum.