Friaries: The Dominicans of Chester

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.

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'Friaries: The Dominicans of Chester', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3, (London, 1980) pp. 174-176. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

In this section


The Black Friars were established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 when the appearance of the Grey Friars alarmed their patron, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. So vehement was his reaction to the prospect of the two orders competing for alms that he has been thought responsible for establishing the Dominicans in Chester, although there is no definite evidence and it is equally possible that they came there under the patronage of Ranulph III, earl of Chester. (fn. 2) Stavensby, however, almost certainly presented them with the books which formed the nucleus of the convent's library. (fn. 3) The friary was established on the south side of Watergate Street and probably the friars at first used the nearby chapel of St. Nicholas; that would explain an early reference to the 'Friars Preachers of St. Nicholas'. (fn. 4) A supply of water for the friary was secured in 1276 when the friars were permitted to pipe water from Boughton through the city wall. (fn. 5) In 1361 they were licensed to acquire a plot of land next to their garden, perhaps an indication of an extension of their buildings at a period when the other two orders were also extending theirs. (fn. 6) Certain 'necessary' buildings were still lacking in 1467 when Cecily Torbock bequeathed £10 towards their cost (fn. 7) and some rebuilding was undertaken in the community's last years: Sir Ralph Egerton bequeathed the Black Friars 20s. in 1526 'towards the building of their fratrye', (fn. 8) and a few years earlier Margaret Hawarden left 6s. 8d. and some pieces of lead for the repair of the church. (fn. 9)

In 1274 Edward I ordered the justice of Chester to continue a payment of 40d. a week to the Friars Preachers of Chester and those 'ancient alms' of £8 13s. 4d. were still being paid in the reign of Henry VII. (fn. 10) The fact that by 1501 it was believed that the alms were first granted to the house by Ranulph III, earl of Chester, suggests that they had been paid from its foundation. (fn. 11) During the Welsh campaign of 1277 Edward I sent £3 13s. to the friars for food and there were further payments during his stay in Chester in 1284. (fn. 12) Besides the continued payment of the 'ancient alms' there were a few further signs of particular royal favour: in 1291 the convent received 100s. from Queen Eleanor's executors and in 1312 when the provincial chapter of the order met at Chester the usual alms were granted with the addition of 100s. for the soul of Piers Gaveston. (fn. 13) No further royal grants in money or kind are recorded apart from grants of alms in 1353 and 1358 from the Black Prince which were made indiscriminately to the three orders of friars in Chester. (fn. 14) When, however, the friars were granted in 1384 the privilege of grinding their corn and malt free of toll at the king's mills for ten years, the friary was said to be a royal foundation and under royal patronage; in 1395 the privilege was extended in perpetuity. (fn. 15)

Some of the early benefactors of the house were more eminent than those of the other friaries, possibly as a result of royal patronage. Fulk de Orreby, a former justice of Chester, gave half a mark for the light before St. Mary's image in St. Nicholas's, the church of the Friars Preachers, c. 1264 and Thomas, earl of Lancaster, gave 20s. sometime after Michaelmas 1305; a bequest was also received from Henry, earl of Lincoln, on his death in 1311. (fn. 16) The Dominicans do not appear, however, to have been as popular as the other two mendicant orders were with the inhabitants of Chester and the surrounding area in the later Middle Ages. They are mentioned in only 25 out of 53 surviving local wills in the period from 1400 to 1540, compared with 30 bequests to the Grey Friars and 35 to the White Friars. (fn. 17) Bequests continued, however, until a few years before the dissolution of the house and ranged from a bushel of barley in 1526 to all the theological books of a priest in 1505. (fn. 18) Although there are few surviving references to burials in the church or precincts of the friary they evidently soon became common enough to cause alarm to the monks of St. Werburgh's and the canons of St. John's. Early in the history of the house the Black Friars agreed not to encourage the citizens of Chester to seek burial with them and to take only a third of the burial dues of those who wished to be buried within the precincts but would customarily have been buried in the graveyards of St. John's or St. Werburgh's; the friars were to keep all legacies and to be entitled to all the oblations of non-citizens and strangers who chose to be buried by them. (fn. 19) When Henry de Bernham was buried there the king replaced, in April 1295, the cloth of gold which the friars had used from their store. (fn. 20)

The friary, which was in the visitation of Oxford, (fn. 21) does not appear to have been a large house. It was certainly the smallest of the three Chester friaries at their dissolution: only five members witnessed the act of surrender. (fn. 22) An estimate that there were 38 friars in the house in the early 14th century would seem to be an exaggeration, (fn. 23) although the numbers of those ordained in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield indicate that the house was probably at its most numerous at about that time: 15 members received orders during the episcopate of Roger Northburgh (1321-58), compared to only four under Robert Stretton (1358-85). (fn. 24) The number of ordinations remained low for the rest of the Middle Ages and the names of those ordained indicate mainly local recruitment. (fn. 25) Two notable Dominican scholars had connexions with the Chester convent in its first half century: William of Macclesfield, who won an international reputation as a defender of the doctrines of St. Thomas Aquinas, is said to have been a member of the Chester convent early in his career and Henry de Esseburn, a noted philosopher and theologian, is said to have spent his leisure when prior of the Chester convent producing scholarly works. (fn. 26) Some vestiges of intellectual activity remained in the 15th century: in 1476 Thomas Robison, who had studied theology at Bologna, was allowed to transfer from Chester to his native Glasgow to teach the liberal arts. (fn. 27) The house was evidently regarded as well-disciplined in 1356 when an unruly friar was transferred there from King's Langley 'to be chastised according to the rule'. (fn. 28) With the citizens of Chester and with their fellow religious, however, the friars' relations were not always happy. In 1384 the prior and convent brought charges against two citizens of Chester before the conservator of the order's privileges in England (fn. 29) and in 1464 a member of the house was accused of killing a baker at the gates of the friary. (fn. 30) In the mid 15th century the Black Friars were involved with the Carmelites in riot and in 1454 the prior and several friars of the Dominican convent were accused of attacking a servant of the abbot of Chester; the feud was still active nearly 10 years later when the prior was bound over to keep the peace towards the abbot. (fn. 31) There was also some rivalry with the Carmelites and at the end of the century one of the Dominicans was charged with stabbing the Carmelites' prior. (fn. 32)

The friary was surrendered to Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover, on 15 August 1538. Ingworth removed a chalice, some sealed leases and other documents, including a bill of debts totalling £15 16s. 4d., before handing the property over to the mayor. As with the other friaries in the city there was very little lead on the site: only half the choir and two 'payns of the cloeyster' were leaded. (fn. 33) Although the vestry contained many copes and vestments, probably accumulated bequests, the house as a whole was impoverished. The inventory drawn up by Ingworth lists contents only for the choir and the vestry, perhaps an indication that the rest of the church was ruinous and disused. (fn. 34) Other buildings mentioned in the inventory and later documents are the old hall, the chapter house, the frater, the dorter, the prior's chamber, the sub-prior's chamber, the chamber over the church door, the new chamber, the kitchen, the buttery, and the old buttery. (fn. 35) The visitor noted that the convent had an annual income from rents of £5 6s. 8d. and in the years before the dissolution the prior had made long leases of the gardens, orchards, and tenements surrounding the house, two of which were made only a few weeks before the surrender of the friary. (fn. 36) In 1537 some ruinous buildings, gardens, and orchards to the north and east of the house and church were leased to Ralph Waryne for 101 years; in 1539 Waryne petitioned for a lease of the convent, which lay at the back of his house. (fn. 37) The conventual buildings were, however, leased to Thomas Smith of Chester in July 1543 for 21 years at an annual rent of 13s. 4d. and the whole property was acquired by John Cokkes of London in February 1544; in 1561 the site came into the possession of the Dutton family. (fn. 38)

The friary occupied c. 5½ a. bounded by Watergate Street to the north, Nicholas Street to the east, Walls' Lane (or Black Friars) to the south, and the city wall to the west. (fn. 39) The precinct was bisected by an alley (known as Grey Friars in 1978) leading from the east gate to the west gate. (fn. 40) The discovery of human remains indicates that the graveyard, and possibly the church, lay in the south-west section of the site but no traces of the buildings remain. (fn. 41) Part of the site, however, was excavated between 1976 and 1978. (fn. 42)


Henry of Spalding, occurs 1238, 1241. (fn. 43)

John, occurs 1262. (fn. 44)

Henry de Esseburn, died c. 1280. (fn. 45)

John Arneway, occurs 1292-3. (fn. 46)

William of Melbourne, occurs 1344. (fn. 47)

William of Bury, occurs 1352. (fn. 48)

Thomas Belot, occurs 1380-1. (fn. 49)

Richard Runcorn, occurs 1395, 1408-10. (fn. 50)

Richard Torbock, occurs 1415-16. (fn. 51)

Robert Lancelyn, occurs 1435. (fn. 52)

Thomas Wooton, occurs 1443-4. (fn. 53)

John Brown, occurs 1452-5. (fn. 54)

Robert Holt, occurs 1457-8, 1459. (fn. 55)

John Browne, occurs 1463-4. (fn. 56)

John Holland, occurs 1468-70. (fn. 57)

Matthew Eves, occurs 1473. (fn. 58)

Thomas Waterton, occurs 1480-1, 1496. (fn. 59)

Matthew Eves, occurs 1506. (fn. 60)

Hugh Brecknock, occurs 1537, surrendered the friary in 1538. (fn. 61)

A defaced impression of the priory seal on a document dated 1506 (fn. 62) is described as vesica-shaped 'bearing two priestly figures'. The legend, also defaced, is said to read: SIGILLUM PRIORIS PREDICATORUM.


  • 1. There is an account of the friary by J. H. E. Bennett in J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 29–58 which is based to a large extent on C. F. R. Palmer, 'The Friars Preachers of Chester', The Reliquary, xxiii. 97–103.
  • 2. Bennett, J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 31; W. A. Hinnebusch, The Early Eng. Friars Preachers, 105; above, Franciscans. For the connexion with Ranulph III, see below.
  • 3. N. R. Kerr, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1964 edn.), 50, 247. The 'Mag. Alexander' and 'Mag. Alexander de Staneby' who donated two 13th-cent. MSS. was probably Stavensby.
  • 4. Cart. Chester Abbey, ii. 301; B. L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 123.
  • 5. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, 165; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 45.
  • 6. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 421, 423.
  • 7. Reliquary, xxiii. 100–1. Elaborate services of commemoration for Cecily Torbock were confirmed by the provincial chapter in 1471: B.L. Harl. MS. 2176, f. 27.
  • 8. T.H.S.L.C. lxix. 110.
  • 9. Lancs. and Ches. Wills and Inventories, ii (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] li), 7; below.
  • 10. Cal. Close, 1272–9, 142; 26 D.K.R. 20. For a list of payments see J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 43–4.
  • 11. 26 D.K.R. 20; Reliquary, xxiii. 97.
  • 12. P.R.O., E 101/350/23, mm. 2, 3; A. Taylor, 'Royal Alms & Oblations in the later 13th cent.', Tribute to an Antiquary, ed. F. Emmison and R. Stephens, 110–11.
  • 13. Reliquary, xxiii. 99.
  • 14. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 115, 308.
  • 15. Reliquary, xxiii. 99–100; Cal. Pat. 1381–5, 379; 1392–6, 601.
  • 16. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 46; Deeds and Papers of Moore Fam. (R.S.L.C. lxvii), p. 146; 1 Sheaf, iii, p. 264.
  • 17. Ch. in Chester, 96. For a list of bequests see J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 45–50.
  • 18. 3 Sheaf, xviii, p. 93; xx, p. 71.
  • 19. Cart. Chester Abbey, ii (Chetham Soc. N.S. lxxxii), p. 301.
  • 20. Reliquary, xxiii. 99.
  • 21. Hinnebusch, Early Eng. Friars Preachers, 213.
  • 22. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), p. 35.
  • 23. Hinnebusch, Early Eng. Friars Preachers, 273ff. The surviving evidence of grants of alms renders the figure doubtful; if the grant made by Edw. I on 21 Aug. 1277 of 25s. 8d. for 4 days was for food at 4d. per head per day, it would indicate 19 members: Reliquary, xxiii. 98. The alms given in 1284 do not seem to have been made at a per-capita rate but do indicate that the Dominicans were the most numerous: Taylor, 'Royal Alms & Oblations', 110–11.
  • 24. A. B. Emden, Survey of Dominicans in Eng. 33. Those figures may be too low as friars from the Chester convent may have been ordained in the diocese of St. Asaph.
  • 25. Ibid. 33, 68–85.
  • 26. Reliquary, xxiii. 98; Emden, Biog. Reg. Oxford, i. 647; ii. 1200; Hinnebusch, Early Eng. Friars Preachers, 339, 410–12.
  • 27. J. Durkan and J. Kirk, The University of Glasgow, 1451–1577, 171; B.L. Add. MS. 32446, f. 10.
  • 28. Cal. Pat. 1354–8, 444.
  • 29. Reg. Gilbert (Cant. & York. Soc.), 46.
  • 30. P.R.O., CHES 29/169, rot. 25.
  • 31. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 48.
  • 32. Ibid. 49.
  • 33. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 477; xiii (2), p. 35.
  • 34. Ibid. xiii (1), p. 477.
  • 35. Ibid.; Reliquary, xxiii. 102–3. The list suggests that some of the domestic buildings had been recently replaced: above.
  • 36. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 477; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 50–1. After the dissolution, however, the whole site yielded only £4 12s. a year: Reliquary, xxiii. 102.
  • 37. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 51; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 62.
  • 38. Reliquary, xxiii. 103.
  • 39. For a full discussion of its position see J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 32–6.
  • 40. Reliquary, xxiii. 103; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 39.
  • 41. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxix. 37–9.
  • 42. S. Ward, 'Grey Friars Court Excavations 1976–8: Summary Report' (Grosvenor Museum, 1979).
  • 43. Mag. Reg. Alb. 252, 258–9; Cart. Chester Abbey, i. 199.
  • 44. B. L. Harl. MS. 2072, f. 43.
  • 45. Reliquary, xxiii. 98.
  • 46. B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 185v.
  • 47. P.R.O., CHES 29/56, rot. 6v.
  • 48. Ibid., CHES 29/63, rot. 13.
  • 49. B.L. Harl. MS. 2025, f. 28.
  • 50. 36 D.K.R. 181, 414; B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 185v.
  • 51. B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 185v. Possibly a relative of Cecily Torbock: above.
  • 52. Chester City R.O., CR 65/2/32.
  • 53. B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 185v.
  • 54. Ibid. Morris, Chester in Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, 146.
  • 55. B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 185v.; Chester City R.O., MB/5, f. 48.
  • 56. B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, f. 105v.; P.R.O., CHES 29/169, rot. 25.
  • 57. 37 D.K.R. 412, 475.
  • 58. Ibid. 693.
  • 59. B.L. Harl. MS. 2057, f. 105v.; Chester City R.O., MB/8, f. 64.
  • 60. Hist. of Birch Chapel (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] xlvii), 218.
  • 61. Reliquary, xxiii. 101; Faculty Off. Regs. ed. D. S. Chambers, 164.
  • 62. Hist. of Birch Chapel 218.