Friaries: The Carmelites of Chester

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

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

'Friaries: The Carmelites of Chester', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3, (London, 1980) pp. 176-178. British History Online [accessed 13 April 2024]

In this section


Although the White Friars were established in Chester by 1277 when they were given alms for food by Edward I, it was some years before they acquired a permanent home. (fn. 2) An inquisition was held in April 1290 to discover the losses which would be occasioned by the grant of seven houses by Hugh Payn to the Friars of Mount Carmel; the friars were to live on the site and build themselves a church there. (fn. 3) There seems to have been some opposition to them initially, possibly because of their involvement in litigation, (fn. 4) but any criticism was stilled by a convenient miracle during a procession in the abbey church: an image of the Virgin Mary pointed out the Carmelites as her beloved and forechosen brothers. (fn. 5) The house was firmly established and popular by the mid 14th century when the buildings were extended. In 1350 the friars acquired part of two lanes to the north and west of their priory and in 1354 the Black Prince permitted them to acquire land 200 feet by 160 feet to enlarge their house; he also pardoned them for purchasing land in the city without permission. (fn. 6) His gift of eight oaks in the previous year was probably for the new building; (fn. 7) in addition, the Carmelites, like the other orders of friars, also received gifts of money from him at this period: £6 13s. 4d. in 1353 and 13s. 4d. in 1358. (fn. 8) In 1367 the prior and the whole convent promised a special daily commemoration of Thomas de Stathom and Isabel, his wife, in return for gifts for the maintenance of the friars and the building of their house. In addition, since the house 'had hitherto no founder', Thomas and Isabel and their heirs were to be regarded by the friars as their founders. (fn. 9) In 1495 the steeple of the church was rebuilt and the new, elegant spire became a valued landmark for sailors. (fn. 10)

Thomas of Macclesfield, by will proved in 1303, left 6s. 8d. to the Carmelites but 40s. each to the Franciscans and Dominicans; (fn. 11) that possibly reflects the uncertain start of the White Friars. They grew in popularity, however, from the mid 14th century and are mentioned in 35 out of 53 surviving local wills between 1400 and 1540. In the earlier 16th century they were the most popular of the three mendicant orders in Chester and the value of the bequests made to them almost equalled the combined total of those made to the Franciscans and Dominicans. (fn. 12) Although unlike the Grey and Black Friars they received few marks of special royal favour, in 1400 Henry, prince of Wales, allowed them to grind their corn free at the royal mills of the Dee after they had complained that they had been impoverished by a great murrain and 'a raid committed in the parts round about them'. (fn. 13) In 1348 Sir Gilbert de Haydock established a perpetual chantry in the house at a cost of 40 marks and in the same year John Bars left 1s. each to four named members of the house. (fn. 14) The friars seem to have enjoyed a special relationship with the carpenters of Chester: in 1408 Robert Schot left wax for the carpenters' light in the church and at the dissolution the friars were receiving a rent of 6d. a year for the carpenters' house pro pagentibus suis imponendis. (fn. 15) The priory church became a popular burial place for the richer members of Chester society in the later Middle Ages, and a graveyard is first mentioned in 1317-18. (fn. 16) The first surviving evidence for such a burial is the request of John Bars in 1348. (fn. 17) No generous bequests, however, were received in return for the burial by the Carmelites of the mutilated body of Sir Peter Legh of Lyme, a supporter of Richard II, who was executed by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. (fn. 18) In 1439 John Hope requested burial in front of the altar of Our Lady near the graves of his father, mother, and brothers. (fn. 19) In 1508 Roger Smith of Chester asked to be buried in the chapel next to the door to the vestry and left £6 13s. 4d. to be spent on the church or the convent buildings; (fn. 20) nineteen years later Dr. Thomas Sparke requested burial next to his cousin, Roger Smith, and left the residue of his estate to support a priest to celebrate at the high altar. (fn. 21) In 1496 John Hawarden of Chester directed that his body should be buried in the church of the White Friars and left £10 for the tomb and a rent of 6s. 8d. from property in Bridge Street to support an obit. (fn. 22) His widow, Margaret, asked in 1520 to be buried in the tomb which was on the north side of the church and left £3 6s. 8d. and a lead furnace for work on the tomb and repairs to the church. (fn. 23) In 1525 Richard Fletcher, baker, asked to be buried before the image of Our Lady. (fn. 24)

From the mid 14th century there appear to have been more Carmelites than Franciscans or Dominicans in Chester. In 1367 the convent numbered fourteen, including a prior, a sub-prior, and a reader. (fn. 25) Nine Chester Carmelites received orders in Coventry and Lichfield diocese during the episcopate of Robert Stretton (1360-85) and 10 during that of Richard le Scrope (1386-98); the latter figure was more than the combined total of Franciscans and Dominicans. (fn. 26) There were, however, no ordinations of Chester Carmelites in the diocese between 1397 and 1465, although members of the house were licensed as confessors in 1407 and 1413. (fn. 27) The indication of spiritual decline is confirmed by evidence of the involvement of Carmelites in disorder in Chester in the 15th and early 16th centuries. (fn. 28) Nevertheless, the house apparently revived in the early 16th century and it was the only Chester friary to put forward candidates for ordination during the episcopate of Geoffrey Blythe (1503-31). (fn. 29) In 1538 it was the largest friary in the city: ten members witnessed the act of surrender and several bore the names of prominent local families. Thirteen members were dispensed from their orders in September. (fn. 30) The last prior, John Hurleston, had studied theology at Oxford and Cologne and was described as 'a very discreet man' when he offered to act as confessor to Piers Feldy at his execution in 1537. (fn. 31)

The house was surrendered to Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover, on 15 August 1538 'without any counsel or constraining but very poverty'. An inventory was made and the visitor removed a small chalice before handing the property over to the mayor. (fn. 32) The inventory shows that the house was not as povertystricken as that of the Grey Friars and the church was well-equipped with service books, vestments, and altar cloths; there were five altars in the chancel, including Our Lady's altar, two pairs of organs in the choir, three bells in the steeple, and the contents of the vestry included a purse of relics. (fn. 33) The buildings yielded little lead, apart from some guttering. Debts amounted to only £8 9s., less than those of the two other friaries. (fn. 34) The house owned property outside the precinct which was let out on long leases. It included seven tenements and gardens, an orchard and a barn in St. Martin's parish, and also the carpenters' house which may have been within the precincts. In 1539 rents of the conventual buildings and property amounted to £2 7s. 10d. a year and two former friars were listed among the tenants when the property was sold in 1544 to John Cokkes of London. (fn. 35) The site was immediately resold to Fulk Dutton and the buildings were occupied as a dwelling house during the second half of the 16th century; in 1592-3 the site was acquired by Thomas Egerton, the attorney-general, who demolished the church and built a new house. (fn. 36)

The priory occupied a site between Commonhall Street, Weaver Street, Whitefriars and Bridge Street; Hollar's map of Chester shows that the church stood directly on Whitefriars. (fn. 37) Apart from the church, buildings mentioned in the 1538 inventory and later documents include the cloister, the convent hall, the dorter, the prior's chamber and the kitchen, bulting house, salt house, and store house, but there is no evidence as to the position of these buildings and no clearly identified remains of the friary have survived. (fn. 38)


William de Hogetote, occurs 1309, 1310. (fn. 39)

William de Luda, occurs 1328. (fn. 40)

Richard Pigas, occurs 1348. (fn. 41)

Richard Downes, occurs 1367, 1386. (fn. 42)

James Hyrleton, occurs 1398. (fn. 43)

Richard, occurs 1463. (fn. 44)

John Reyde, occurs 1470-1, 1494-5. (fn. 45)

George Palmer, occurs between 1498-9 and 1528. (fn. 46)

John Hurleston, occurs 1537, surrendered the friary in 1538. (fn. 47)

The seal of the friary, (fn. 48) 13th century in date, is a pointed oval 15/8 by 11/8 in. It shows the Virgin, standing on a carved corbel, the Child on her left arm; on each side is a candle in a candlestick. The legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM PRIORIS CESTRIE FRATRUM DE CARMELO.


  • 1. There is a lengthy account of the priory by J. H. E. Bennett in J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 5–48.
  • 2. P.R.O., E 101/350/23, m. 2. They were also given alms in 1284: Tribute to an Antiquary, 110–11. They received 17s. 4d. for 3 days' food compared to the Franciscans (£1 6s. 8d.), the Dominicans (£2 5s. 7d.), and the Friars of the Sack (8s.).
  • 3. P.R.O., C 143/13, no. 7. A charter of that period mentions a lane running from Bridge St. versus Fratres Carmelinos: Cart. Chester Abbey, ii, p. 469.
  • 4. Cal. Chester Co. Ct. R. 177 (accusation about stolen book, 1291); B.L. Harl. MS. 2020, f. 143 (detention of dower, 1310); B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 12v. (claim to a legacy, 1328).
  • 5. 3 Sheaf, ix, p. 47. The account (B.L. Harl. MS. 3838, ff. 25v.–26) is in the handwriting of John Bale; the Abbot Thomas mentioned was probably Thomas Birchills (1291–1323).
  • 6. P.R.O., CHES 3/2, no. 4; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 177–8.
  • 7. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 122.
  • 8. Ibid. 115, 308.
  • 9. 3 Sheaf, vi, p. 67. In the 16th cent. the house was said to have been founded by Thomas Stadham in 1279: B.L. Harl. MS. 539, f. 143v.
  • 10. B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, ff. 31v., 45.
  • 11. Lancs and Ches. Wills, 1.
  • 12. Ch. in Chester, 96–7.
  • 13. 36 D.K.R. 101.
  • 14. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 11; B.L. Harl. MS. 2063, f. 62v.; W. Beamont, Hist. House of Lyme, 26.
  • 15. 3 Sheaf, xxxv, p. 54; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 28.
  • 16. Morris, Chester in Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, 147.
  • 17. 3 Sheaf, xxi, p. 52.
  • 18. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 16.
  • 19. 3 Sheaf, xvii, p. 105.
  • 20. J. H. E. Bennett, 'The Hospital and Chantry of St. Ursula the Virgin of Chester', J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxii (2), 100.
  • 21. Lancs. and Ches. Wills and Inventories, i (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] xxxiii), 16, 18.
  • 22. 4 Sheaf, xxiii, pp. 2–3.
  • 23. Lancs. and Ches. Wills and Inventories, ii (Chetham Soc. [1st ser.] li), 7. The justice's tomb mentioned in the inventory of the choir at the dissolution was possibly that of John Hawarden: L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 477; J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 54.
  • 24. B.L. Harl. MS. 2099, f. 85.
  • 25. 3 Sheaf, vi, p. 67.
  • 26. 2nd Reg. Stretton, 159–396; Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/6, ff. 146–157v.
  • 27. Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/7, ff. 196, 203v.
  • 28. Chester City R.O., MB/2, ff. 2, 43; MB/5, f. 74; MB/7, f. 171v.; MB/8, f. 40v.; J.C.A.S. xxxi (1), 17–19; Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/14 i, f. 89v.
  • 29. B/A/1/14 ii (unfoliated ordination reg., see under 1528, 1529, 1530, 1531).
  • 30. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 25–6; Faculty Off. Regs., ed. D. S. Chambers, 164.
  • 31. Emden, Biog. Reg. Oxford, 1501 to 1540, 306; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xii (2), p. 221.
  • 32. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(1), p. 477; (2), p. 35.
  • 33. Ibid. xiii (1), p. 477. There is a full transcript of the inventory in J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 44–6.
  • 34. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 26.
  • 35. Ibid. 27–8; above.
  • 36. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 29, 34–5, 39. For a full history of the site see ibid. 27–40.
  • 37. Ibid. 41–4.
  • 38. Ibid. 41–2, 46–8.
  • 39. Ibid. 10, 41; B.L. Harl. MS. 2020, f. 143; P.R.O., CHES 29/22, rott. 17, 40.
  • 40. B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 12v.
  • 41. Beamont, Hist. House of Lyme, 26.
  • 42. 3 Sheaf, vi, pp. 67–8; B.L. Harl. MS. 2077, f. 36v.
  • 43. Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/7, f. 126.
  • 44. B.L. Harl. MS. 2099, f. 94v.
  • 45. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 19, 41; B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 184v.
  • 46. J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 20; Lich. Jt. R.O., B/A/1/14 i, f. 89v.; Lancs. and Ches. Wills and Inventories, i. 38; ii. 7. In 1531 Palmer was leased a house outside the precinct but he witnessed the deed of surrender: J.C.A.S. N.S. xxxi (1), 25, 27; P.R.O., SC 8/Hen. VIII/7384, m. 82.
  • 47. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xii (2), p. 221; xiii (2), p. 35. He was still in Oxford in 1534: Emden, Biog. Reg. Oxford, 1501 to 1540, 306.
  • 48. Birch, Cat. of Seals in B.M. i, p. 506.