A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1926.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
In this section
31. THE OBSERVANT FRIARS OF GREENWICH (fn. 1)
The Observant Friars or reformed branch of the Franciscan Order obtained formal recognition and a more or less independent organization in 1415, but though Edward IV interposed to protect their threatened independence in 1471, (fn. 2) they seem to have had no separate house in England till ten years later. In 1480 Edward IV negotiated with William Bertholdi, vicargeneral cismontane of the order for the establishment of a house in England, and 4 January, 1480-1, obtained the approval of Pope Sixtus IV for the foundation of a friary at Greenwich. The land assigned for the purpose adjoined the royal palace, measured 12 'virgates' by 63 ' virgates,' and comprised a level piece of ground surrounded by walls, 'where the game of ball used to be played,' together with some old buildings which the king bought. On 2 July, 1482, the bishop of Norwich in the king's name formally handed over the site in honour of God, the Blessed Virgin and St. Francis, to Friars Bernard de L . . ., Vincent of Ostend, and others who had been sent over from the Continent by John Philippi, now vicar-general. On the same day the bishop laid the first stone with due solemnity, whereupon the friars as a sign of true and genuine possession chanted the Te Deum and the mass. (fn. 3) They now began to build at their own cost and labour, with the assistance of some of the faithful, several poor little houses in honour of the Virgin Mary, St. Francis, and All Saints. (fn. 4) In the meantime they appear to have used a chantry chapel of the Holy Cross which they obtained by the means of Sir William Corbridge, and which was still to be seen in Lambarde's time. (fn. 5) Henry VII, 14 December, 1485, confirmed this grant and founded a convent of Observant Friars to consist of the warden and twelve brethren at least. (fn. 6) The elaborate instructions for a stained glass window in the friars' church were probably drawn up under Henry's supervision and before the death of his queen in February, 1502-3. (fn. 7) In his will he left them £200 to inclose their garden (fn. 8) and orchard with a brick-wall, and bequeathed £200 to the prior of the Charterhouse in trust for the use of the friars at Greenwich, as he ' knew they had been many times in peril of ruin for lack of food.' (fn. 9) He also left 100 marks to each of the five houses of Observant Friars. (fn. 10)
In. 1502 the Grey Friars of England changed their habits from London russet into white grey 'as the sheep doth dye it.' The change was largely due to the Greenwich friars, who insisted on the cheaper material being used. (fn. 11)
Henry VIII, in 1513, wrote from his palace of Greenwich to Leo X that he could not sufficiently commend the Observant Friars' strict adherence to poverty, their sincerity, charity and devotion. No Order battled more assiduously against vice, and none were more active in keeping Christ's fold. (fn. 12)
He made, moreover, frequent grants of money to the Greenwich house. He gave them £8 6s. 8d. for 500 masses in April, 1510, and £13 6s. 8d. for two masses daily for a year for his father's soul; in 1511, 58s.; in 1512, 48s. for 100 lb. of wax which he had given them; in 1514, 20s. for the repair of their wharf, and in 1519 he paid again for the repair of their wharf. (fn. 13) In October, 1516, a grant of £40 was made 'to a friar that gave the king an instrument.' (fn. 14) The Observant Friars seem to have carried out the mandates of the rule with regard to manual labour, and some of them were skilled workmen. (fn. 15)
The friars' church was used for royal baptisms and marriages. Henry VIII was christened probably in this church (1491), and certainly his brother Edmund (1498). The marriage of Henry and Catherine took place at Greenwich, probably in the friars' church (1509). The Princess Mary was christened here 20 February, 1515-16, and the Princess Elizabeth 8 September, 1533. (fn. 16) Muriel, daughter of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, relict of John Grey, Viscount Lisle, was buried here in 1512; (fn. 17) John Hent, esq., in 1521.; (fn. 18) Edith, wife of Thomas, Lord Darcy, in 1529. (fn. 19) Lord Darcy, who was a benefactor of the friars, (fn. 20) desired before his execution, 30 June, 1537, to be buried near his wife, but this request was refused. (fn. 21)
Bequests to the friars are numerous. The earliest recorded one seems to be that of Richard Tilley, who left them 100s. for building in 1485. (fn. 22) Thomas Ustwayte of East Greenwich, esquire, in 1496 left 6s. 8d. to ' the blessed house of St. Francis' and 3s. 4d. for repairs of All Hallows chapel in the same church (fn. 23); Michael Walis of Woolwich left money for the repair of the friars', church about 1500. (fn. 24) Thomazine Sheby left- the friars in 1506, 'a diaper cloth 12 yards long' for the frontal of masses. (fn. 25) Richard Carpenter, yeoman of the pantry (1515), John Stile, armourer to the king (1524), William Derlington, vicar of Greenwich (1525), several London merchants, and a large proportion of women, left them legacies. (fn. 26)
The brilliant William Roy was a friar of this house for a short time about 1520, when he seems to have written the Montfort Codex of the Greek text of the New Testament, probably at the instigation of Friar Henry Standish, bishop of St. Asaph, and to help him in his controversy with Erasmus. (fn. 27)
In January, 1524-5, Wolsey attempted to carry out a visitation of the convent of Greenwich by his legatine authority; the friars resisted, many of them leaving the house: ' Friar John Forest was commanded to preach at Paul's Cross the Sunday after and there pronounced all accurst that went out of the place.' They at length submitted to the legate, some being imprisoned for their contumacy. (fn. 28)
Catherine of Aragon is said to have belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis; she used to rise at midnight to the Divine office and be present in the Franciscan church at Greenwich during the time that the friars were reading or singing their Matins and Lauds. (fn. 29)
John Forest was her confessor. (fn. 30)
The question of the nullity of the marriage of Henry VIII with Catherine brought the friars into direct conflict with the king. In December, 1528, a discontented friar asserted that many of his brethren were guilty of Lutheranism and spoke ill of the king and of Wolsey. (fn. 31) On Easter Sunday (31 March), 1532, William Peto, provincial of the friars, preached at Greenwich before the king, and warned him that he was endangering his crown, for both great and little were murmuring at the marriage. The king dissembled his ill-will, but on the provincial's departure for a chapter, he caused one of his chaplains, Dr. Curwen, to preach in the friars' church, contrary to the custom of the convent and the will of the warden. The chaplain's sermon roused the warden, Henry Elston, to expostulate; in the king's presence he gave the chaplain the lie. Henry was very angry, and bade the provincial on his return depose the warden. This he refused to do, and the king had them both arrested (fn. 32) Elston was confined at the Grey Friars of Bedford, (fn. 33) but some months later he and Peto were at Antwerp carrying on the campaign against the king. (fn. 34)
Meanwhile the general feeling in the Greenwich convent was strongly in favour of Catherine. Friar William Robinson, a former warden, offered to dispute and preach at Paul's Cross on the queen's behalf, and was strongly supported by William Curson, vicar of the house. (fn. 35) A young friar, Thomas Pereson, reproved the king's chaplain for speaking against the queen. (fn. 36) John Forest organized the opposition to the king in the provincial chapter (1532). (fn. 37) Cromwell was kept fully informed of the state of affairs by some friars (fn. 38) who acted as his agents and spies. The chief of these were friars John Lawrence and Richard Lyst, (fn. 39) a lay brother who had been an apothecary in Wolsey's service, and who, on the death in prison of another lay brother named Ravenscroft, suggested that a charge of murder against his fellow friars would be an effective method of keeping them quiet. (fn. 40) Both these friars found life in the cloister intolerable and escaped. (fn. 41) The king tried to induce the general commissary of the province to deprive his enemies of their offices, but without much success. (fn. 42) Peto, however, was not re-elected provincial, and a more amenable brother was made warden of Greenwich; (fn. 43) but Forest rejoiced to have put the king beside his purpose at our last chapter, saying that if he had not been there the king would have destroyed our whole religion. (fn. 44)
Two Observant Friars were caught by Cromwell's spies holding secret communications with the princess dowager in July, 1533: 'it is undoubted,' wrote Cromwell to his master, 23 July, 1533, that they have intended and would confess some great matter if they might be examined as they ought to be, that is to say by pains.
The warden of Greenwich was anxious to have the punishing of them, (fn. 45) perhaps to save them from a worse fate. One of them, Hugh Payne, was soon at large again, preaching obedience to the pope and denouncing the king's marriage, in the west of England. (fn. 46)
Henry probably hoped to bend the friars to his will at this time. He gave them an alms of 10 marks; (fn. 47) the Princess Elizabeth was christened in the church with great pomp I o September, (fn. 48) and the minister, warden, and friars of Greenwich begged for the king's pardon 21 December. (fn. 49) But on 13 April, 1534, a royal commission was issued to the provincial priors of the Austin and Black Friars to visit all the friars' houses and bind every friar by oath to acknowledge the king as supreme head of the church and repudiate the pope's authority. (fn. 50) On 14 June Roland Lee and Thomas Bedyll, acting on instructions from the commissioners, visited Richmond, and induced the friars there to entrust their case to four ' discreets' or representatives, who should attend the visitors the next day at Greenwich. On 15 June the visitors tried to induce the Greenwich friars to adopt the same procedure, ' specially to the intent that if the discreets should refuse to consent, it were better after our minds to strain a few than a multitude.' The friars, however, ' stiffly affirmed that where the matter concerned particularly every one of their souls, they would answer particularly every man for himself.' After further discussion, the visitors were compelled to examine each friar separately, and each refused to accept the articles, especially that which denied the papal authority. In answer to all the arguments of the visitors they declared that ' they had professed St. Francis' religion, and in the observance thereof they would live and die.' (fn. 51)
On 17 June two cart-loads of friars drove through London to the Tower, (fn. 52) and it is possible that some of the Greenwich Observants were among them. On or before 11 August the friars were expelled from their convent (fn. 53) (though they seem to have made some kind of submission (fn. 54) ) and distributed in different places, generally in houses of the Grey Friars, where, wrote Chapuys to Charles V, 'they were locked up in chains and treated worse than they could be in prison.' (fn. 55) Some, such as John Forest, were actually in prison in London. (fn. 56) Two of them, inclosed in a poor lodging at the Grey Friars, Stamford, and treated as prisoners, were ' in meetly good case as the world at this time requireth,' and sent to London for their little belongings, including a new Psalter, a pair of socks, a penner and inkhorn. (fn. 57) But the severity of their treatment is shown by the fact that out of 140 Observant Friars thirty-one soon died, (fn. 58) and this does not account for all the deaths. Thomas Bourchier, who was a member of the Greenwich friary in the reign of Mary, gives details of several martyrdoms which probably belong to this time, though the writer assigns them to 1537. (fn. 59) On 19 July Anthony Brdrbe, formerly of Magdalen College, Oxford, a distinguished scholar, who had been imprisoned and tortured to such an extent that ' for twenty-five days he could not turn in bed or lift his hands to his mouth,' was strangled with his own cord. (fn. 60) On 27 July Thomas Cortt, who had been imprisoned for a sermon against the king in the church of St. Lawrence, London, died in Newgate. (fn. 61) On 3 August Thomas Belchiam, a young priest, who had composed a book against the king, one copy of which he left in the hands of his brethren at Greenwich, died of starvation in Newgate. (fn. 62) No mention of these three friars occurs in extant contemporary authorities, but Bourchier's account representing the traditiqn of the Order is probably substantially correct, though the names may be misspelt.
Some of the friars fled abroad, to Scotland 01 over sea. (fn. 63) Others obtained permission through Wriothesley's influence to leave the country. (fn. 64) Among Cromwell's ' remembrances' of this time is the entry: ' Item to remember the friars of Greenwich to have licence to go to Ireland.' (fn. 65)
It is clear that not a few made formal submission (fn. 66) and were set free, but they could not refrain from teaching what they believed, and after the rebellions of 1536 the king renewed his attack on them. Thus Friar Hugh Payne wrote from the prison into which he had been cast in July, 1534, promising to submit entirely to the king and begging for deliverance; (fn. 67) in 1536 he was acting as curate of Hadleigh, Suffolk, and then as priest of Stoke by Nayland. (fn. 68) Being denounced by Cranmer for his preaching, he was thrown into the Marshalsea, whence he wrote (1537) to the duke of Norfolk urging that his trial should be hastened, as he was like to die of sickness and the weight of his irons. (fn. 69) He died soon afterwards in prison, but not before a patron had presented him to the living of Sutton Magna in Essex, which another ex-Observant then tried to obtain. (fn. 70) The king, on 17 March, 1536-7, declaring that the Friars Observants were ' disciples of the bishop of Rome and sowers of sedition,' ordered that they should be arrested 'and placed in other houses of friars as prisoners, without liberty to speak to any man till we decide our pleasure concerning them.' (fn. 71)
Forest was the most famous victim of the new persecution. From his prison he had written to Catherine of Aragon in expectation of immediate death, probably in 1534; he was then sixty-four years of age, and had spent forty-three of these in religion. (fn. 72) He was, however, transferred to the Grey Friars, London, in consequence probably of having made his submission. (fn. 73) At the Grey Fliars he enjoyed considerable liberty; from well-wishers he received small sums of money for fuel and other necessaries, and was allowed to celebrate mass and hear confessions. (fn. 74) Suspicion arising, Forest was cast into Newgate, and in examination admitted that he induced men in confession ' to hold and stick to the old fashion of belief.' (fn. 75) On 22 May, 1538, he was roasted alive as a traitor and heretic. (fn. 76) Another Greenwich friar, Anthony Browne, who on the break-up of the convent became a hermit, was brought before the justices at Norwich in July, 1538, confessed, (fn. 77) and received judgement accordingly; the execution was postponed for ten days, partly because the judges thought it well that a sermon should be made by the bishop of Norwich, as was done by the bishop of Worcester at Friar Forest's execution, partly in case Cromwell wished to have him brought to the Tower and tortured. (fn. 78)
Meanwhile the king instituted a convent of Grey Friars at Greenwich, to which in March, 1537, he assigned an annuity of £100; (fn. 79) and on 25 March, 1538, a payment of £25 was made to the warden of the Grey Friars of Greenwich for their relief; (fn. 80) this is the latest grant recorded.
The friary was revived by Mary, who repaired the buildings and had the Observant Friars. reinstated on 7 April, 1555, by Maurice Griffin, bishop of Rochester. (fn. 81) Peto, now nominally bishop of Salisbury and soon to be cardinal, (fn. 82) and Elston returned to their old monastery.
They complained to the queen in July, 1555, of having been ' beaten with stones which were flung at them by divers lewd persons as they passed from London to Greenwich on Sunday last.' Among the inmates of the house were Thomas Bourchier, author of the Historia de Martyrio Fratrum Ordinis Divi Francisci, &c., and several Spaniards. (fn. 83) Cardinal Pole was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury in the friars' church 23 March, 1555-6, (fn. 84) two days after the burning of Cranmer. The friars were again expelled by Elizabeth, 12 July, 1559; (fn. 85) most of them seem to have taken refuge in the Netherlands; they are found at Liège and Antwerp, Lisbon, and the convent of Ara Coeli in Rome. (fn. 86)
Wardens (fn. 87)
William Robinson, (fn. 88) 1528
Henry Elston, (fn. 89) 1532
William Sydenham, (fn. 90) 1533
Henry Elston, (fn. 91) 1555
Stephen Fox, (fn. 92) custos of Greenwich, c. 1558
The seal of the warden in the time of Queen Mary was pointed oval, and represented the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, who is seen supported by four angels; a radiant nimbus round her head; beneath is an escutcheon of the arms of France and England, quarterly, ensigned with the head of a cherub. Legend:—
SIGILLVM GARDIANI .GCEWVBQSIS (fn. 93)