Friaries: Friars of the sack, Cambridge

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

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'Friaries: Friars of the sack, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 290-291. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]


The Friars of the Penance of Jesus Christ, or Friars of the Sack as they were popularly known from their costume, were established in 1245, apparently by a former Austin Friar, and came to England in 1257, (fn. 1) and the community at Cambridge was one of the earliest and most successful houses of an unsuccessful movement.

The friars had arrived at Cambridge by 1258: they seem at first to have established themselves in the parish of St. Mary in the Market, and to have built a chapel. (fn. 2) By 1253 John le Rus, Mayor of Cambridge in 1258, being deeply in debt to the Jews, had left his large 'stone house' with its court and chapel, situated about where the FitzWilliam Museum now stands, and was living in a little house close by. Negotiations were entered into by John le Rus for the sale of his property to the Friars of the Sack, but, as it was held of the fee of Barnwell Priory, Prior John at first forbade the sale; le Rus and his brothers, however, prevailed upon him to grant his licence for its alienation in 1258, the vendor undertaking to pay a rent of 28s. 11d. to the priory. (fn. 3) On 25 June 1268 Henry III confirmed the grants by the le Rus family and others (including the Master and Brethren of St. John's Hospital) to the Prior and Brethren of the Penance of Jesus Christ. (fn. 4)

Among the benefactors of the friars, whose grants survive to the number of at least a score in the Peterhouse treasury, (fn. 5) were Stephen Barker, a tenant of the St. Edmund family, and his neighbours Hoel and Thomas de Berton, both burgesses of standing, and their brother Simon, vicar of St. John Zachary, two dwelling-houses, one that of Stephen Barker, being added to the friars' site with the consent of Robert Huntingdon, Master of St. John's Hospital. The original chapel of the le Rus family was dedicated to St. Lucy, and the friars obtained permission to replace this by a church 'in honour of Jesus Christ and His blessed mother', the family stipulating that a pound of wax was to be offered for a light before St. Lucy's altar in the new church at the mass of the saint upon her feast day. Strips of land in the open fields were given or sold to the friars, including some given to St. Edmund's Chapel. Their relations with Barnwell Priory remained cordial, and the Liber Memorandorum records that 'they gathered many and good scholars about them, and increased greatly until the Council of Lyons'. By 1279 they owned a compact holding between Trumpington Road and Coe Fen. In that year the holding of the Friars of the Sack was defined (fn. 6) as arising partly from the gift of Richard of Icklingham(?) (fn. 7) in perpetual alms and partly by purchase and gift of many persons.

By this time, however, the end of the convent was in sight, as under the decree of the Council of Lyons in 1274 the Friars of Penance, with the other small congregations, had been forbidden to receive fresh members, and were thus left to die out, though not suppressed. In March 1277 Edward I, being at Cambridge, distributed alms for 2 days' food to the various houses of friars in the town, including 4s. to the Friars of Penance; (fn. 8) and in October 1289, when at Ditton, he gave a pittance of 20s., for three days, to the Friars of the Sack. (fn. 9) In 1290 Pope Nicholas IV, understanding that the friars were about to abandon their site, gave leave for it to be sold to the Order of Semfringham; (fn. 10) but the rumour was false, and it was not until 1307 that the friars made over their buildings and lands to the neighbouring college of Peterhouse. (fn. 11)

The only prior of this friary whose name is recorded is Roger of York, who occurs in 1272. (fn. 12)

A pointed oval seal used by the prior in 1260 shows the Rood with St. Mary and St. John; in a niche below is a kneeling figure. Legend: . . . . . XCI IN CAN . . . . (fn. 13)

A slightly later seal shows the standing figure of Christ and the kneeling figure of St. Thomas with his hand outstretched; below is a friar in adoration. Legend: s' PRIORIS FRM . . . . xI DE CANTEB'GE. (fn. 14)


  • 1. Engl. Hist. Rev. ix, 121-7; Math. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), v, 621.
  • 2. This they sold to Richard Carloc and he to Master Niel the Physician, whose nephew Roger de Redelingfield, or Thornton, held it in 1279: Hundr. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 381.
  • 3. Lib. Mem. 218.
  • 4. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, p. 236; H. P. Stokes, Outside the Trumpington Gates (C.A.S.), 23.
  • 5. Ibid. 24-7.
  • 6. Ibid. 22; Hundr. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 360.
  • 7. 'Ricardi de Heke Li(n)gham'—perhaps a blunder for Richard de Hockele, some of whose lands in the fields of Cambridge had been bought from the St. Edmunds: ibid. 380.
  • 8. Exch. K.R. Accts. bdle. 350, no. 23.
  • 9. Ibid. bdle. 352, no. 18.
  • 10. Stokes, op. cit. 28.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Ibid. 27; Rye, Cambs. Fines (C.A.S.), 46.
  • 13. Peterhouse deeds, Collegium F. 3.
  • 14. Ibid. Collegii Situs B. 6.