A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.
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THE FRANCISCAN FRIARS OF CHESTER (fn. 1)
The Grey Friars were settled in Chester by Albert of Pisa, the minister of the English province, in 1237 or 1238. According to Thomas of Eccleston their settlement met with considerable opposition and it seems that Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (1224-38), feared that there would be insufficient alms forthcoming from the citizens of Chester to support both the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who were already settled there. (fn. 2) Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, the leading ecclesiastical patron of the English Franciscans, rebuked Stavensby for his insulting behaviour towards the friars in front of the people of Chester and pointed out the beneficial effects of the Franciscans' presence; experience had shown that the presence of both orders in the same city tended to stimulate the flow of alms. (fn. 3) Early in 1240 Henry III gave his approval for the construction of a house for the Grey Friars in Chester; the site was to the north of Watergate Street, opposite the Dominican convent and conveniently placed for the collection of alms from travellers entering Chester through the Watergate. (fn. 4) The custodes of the county of Chester were ordered to help with the building and in the following years the king made several contributions towards the cost of constructing the church and other buildings: £10 in 1241, £5 in 1245, and 10 marks in 1247. (fn. 5) In addition, in 1245 the friars were permitted to take as much stone as they required from the castle fosse and in the following year they were allowed to breach the city wall in order to bring in stone and timber for their building operations. (fn. 6) The approval of the citizens of Chester was necessary for the latter favour and also for the removal, in 1245, of a lane which the friars claimed harmed them and their buildings. (fn. 7) Just over a century later the friars acquired a plot of land 103 feet by 32 feet from the prioress and nuns of St. Mary's for the enlargement of their house and there was a further extension of the buildings in 1360. (fn. 8)
Royal generosity and support in the early days of the establishment of the house were sufficiently remarkable for the friars to address the king as their founder in a petition of 1331. (fn. 9) As a result of the petition the members of the house were taken into the king's protection and were granted a licence to construct two hand-mills in their house and freely to grind corn and malt there and at other mills in the city. (fn. 10) There is little other evidence of royal support during the 14th century, although the Black Prince made grants of money to the Grey Friars and to the other houses of friars in Chester in 1353 and 1358 and also bought back for the Grey Friars a Bible which had been stolen from them. (fn. 11) The Franciscans, however, seem to have remained popular with the citizens of Chester and the surrounding areas during the later Middle Ages, although the size of bequests tended to diminish. (fn. 12) An examination of 53 surviving local wills for the period from 1400 to 1540 has shown that the Grey Friars were mentioned as beneficiaries in 30 and in three or four they received larger legacies than the other mendicant orders. (fn. 13) It seems that at the end of the 13th century the house was being used as a safe-deposit; when John of Barrow, chaplain, lay dying in 1293 he gave £33 10s. which he had on deposit there to the friars to employ a chaplain to pray for his soul and to pay their debts and supply their needs. The friars had some difficulty recovering the money, when it was seized with other sums of money deposited in Chester and sent to the Exchequer. (fn. 14) It is possible that two friars minor of Chester who were imprisoned and then pardoned in 1392 for seizing and concealing £100 worth of the goods and chattels of Thomas Moston, approver of the royal mills of the Dee, were attempting to secure a generous legacy from a benefactor who had died heavily in debt to the king. (fn. 15) Among the larger bequests was the gift of an annual rent of 10s. from three houses in Chester for the celebration of two obits for John Chamberlain and his family; in 1403 the warden, William Seggesley, petitioned the prince of Wales that the rent should be held in trust for the convent by the mayor of Chester. (fn. 16) Only one burial in the church is recorded, that of Robert Grosvenor of Hulme c. 1286. (fn. 17) In the earlier 16th century the Grey Friars attracted fewer gifts and legacies than the Carmelites and the occasional legacy for repairs to the church and convent, such as 6s. 8d. from Margaret Hawarden in 1521 and 3s. 4d. from Dr. Thomas Sparkes in 1527, proved insufficient to maintain the buildings. (fn. 18) In 1528 the warden and convent confirmed an arrangement by which the merchants and sailors of Chester had been given unrestricted use of the nave of the church, 'which they have built', and of the three aisles for the storage of their sails and tools in return for repairing the church. (fn. 19)
The Chester house was one of the nine friaries forming the custody of Worcester. (fn. 20) Very little is known about its size and personnel. In the 1280s it was smaller than the Dominican convent and it appears never to have been large. (fn. 21) Names appearing in ordination lists in one diocese are not a reliable guide to the size of houses but during the episcopate of Robert Stretton (1360-85) only ten candidates in Lichfield diocese were identified as from the Chester friary, compared with over 60 from Lichfield; (fn. 22) the numbers taking orders from the house seem to have decreased further in the 15th century. (fn. 23) The names of those receiving orders indicate that many members of the convent come from the Chester region but Harmon de Colonia and Gerald de Frisia may have come from further afield. (fn. 24) During the 15th century three or four members of the house were licensed to hear confessions. (fn. 25) In one of the poems attributed to Iolo Goch, the friend of Owen Glendower, there is some abuse of the Grey Friars of Chester, their poor clothing, bare feet and denunciations of immorality, which redounds to the credit of the house. (fn. 26) The Grey Friars seem to have been less involved in local disorder in the 15th century than the other mendicant houses in the city, although the warden was beaten up in 1427, perhaps during a private quarrel. (fn. 27) The last warden, Dr. William Wall, a local man, improved the water supply of Chester by beginning to build the conduit at Boughton. (fn. 28)
It was William Wall who surrendered the house to Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover on 15 August 1538. (fn. 29) There were then seven friars living in the convent, (fn. 30) and it was the poorest of the three Chester friaries. The furnishings of the church, vestry, kitchen, brewhouse, and bulting house were sold for £3 4s. 8d. and two alabaster tables, service books, glass, iron, and a 'poor' pair of organs in the church were sold for a further £2 10s. The total of £6 3s. 8d. raised by the sale did not meet the debts of £12 8s. 11d. (fn. 31) Ingworth removed a chalice, a mazer, and six spoons before handing the property over to the mayor and he noted 'no lead nor rents but their gardens'. (fn. 32) The warden had anticipated the dissolution by making long leases of parts of the precinct to citizens of Chester; property leased included a house 'called the ostrye', a chamber 'called the bysshopp chamber', the convent garden, an orchard to the east of the chancel and a walled pasture used by the friars 'for the maintenance of their hospitality'. Richard Ingworth suspected that there was 'craft' in some of the leases and it was later claimed that one indenture dated 6 April 1538 was in fact sealed three days before the surrender. (fn. 33) The buildings and gardens were initially leased for 21 years at a rent of 45s. 8d. to Richard Hough, a Cheshire man related by marriage to Thomas Cromwell, and it appears that Hough was sold the site for £12 in 1540. In 1544, however, it was sold once more, together with the sites of the other two friaries and other property, to John Cokkes, a London salter, for a total of £358 6s. 10d. (fn. 34) By the early 17th century the church had been converted into a house and in 1778 a new linen hall was built on part of the site. (fn. 35)
The friary occupied a walled, rectangular site of approximately seven acres to the north of Watergate Street; it was bounded on the west by the city wall and on the east by Linenhall Street. (fn. 36) The precinct was entered by a gate-house at the southern end of Linenhall Street. Building operations in 1920 uncovered several sections of wall and indicated that the friary may have been built on Roman foundations. (fn. 37) The church seems to have been about 200 feet long with a wide, aisled nave. It had a steeple with 'a sharpe spyar' and two bells and also a 'crosse yle' on the south, probably a large transeptal chapel projecting from the nave and similar to chapels found in some surviving Irish friaries. (fn. 38) The inventory drawn up in 1538 indicates that the cloister adjoined the north aisle of the nave, yet a mid-17th century plan of the precinct shows a cloister to the north-west of the church and separated from it by a range of buildings. (fn. 39)
William Seggesley, occurs 1403. (fn. 40)
David Bromfield, occurs 1434. (fn. 41)
— Lewis, occurs 1479. (fn. 42)
William Wall, D. Theol., occurs 1537, surrendered the friary in 1538. (fn. 43)
The seal of the friary, (fn. 44) a pointed oval about 1½ by 1 in., depicts Our Lord crowned and wearing a long robe, reigning from the Cross. The legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM FRATRUM MINORUM CESTRIE.