A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
In this section
11. THE BLACK FRIARS
The first Dominicans to enter England arrived at Canterbury in 1221 in the train of Peter des Roches bishop of Winchester. (fn. 1) Three of these came to London in August of that year (fn. 2) and settled in Holborn near the Old Temple. Their chief benefactor appears to have been Hubert de Burgh, (fn. 3) who made them many gifts and bequeathed to them his mansion near Westminster. By 1250 they must have been established in buildings of considerable size, for at that date a general chapter was held there (fn. 4) at which 400 members of the order were present. Their resources were, however, unequal to the task of providing for such a number, (fn. 5) and food was supplied on this occasion by various persons dwelling in or near London, among them the king and queen, the bishop of London, and the abbot of Westminster. (fn. 6) Henry III evidently thought much of the Dominicans: in 1256 he chose the prior of Holborn, John de Darlington, as his confessor, (fn. 7) and found him so useful in political affairs that he asked the provincial in 1265 (fn. 8) that he might be appointed to assist him again. The king's favour naturally extended to Darlington's house, which received from him at this time (1258–61) stone for its building operations, and lead for its aqueduct. (fn. 9) Perhaps because of this tie with the court, which appears to have continued unbroken until the reign of Henry IV, (fn. 10) the Black Friars were never as popular as the Franciscans with the City. (fn. 11) In 1255, indeed, the convent had aroused extreme resentment on the part of the citizens (fn. 12) by interceding on behalf of the Jews imprisoned on suspicion of complicity in the death of Hugh of Lincoln.
It is possible that in witnessing the success of the Friars Minors the Black Friars may have felt that they were handicapped by their position outside the City. This disability was removed in 1276, when Robert Kilwardby, the Dominican archbishop of Canterbury, obtained from the mayor and commonalty a commanding site on the Thames within Ludgate (fn. 13) and close to Montfichet's Tower which was now pulled down and the material used to construct the new house of Black Friars. (fn. 14) Of this new foundation Edward I was the principal patron (fn. 15) : in 1278 he granted for its aid all deodands falling to him during the next three years, and besides other sums, (fn. 16) a gift of 200 marks in 1280 (fn. 17) to the building of their church, begun in 1279, (fn. 18) and dedicated to the honour of St. Mary the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist. (fn. 19) The work must have extended over some years. The church was still unfinished in 1288 (fn. 20); the cloister was being made in 1292, (fn. 21) and in 1312 (fn. 22) and 1313 (fn. 23) more land was needed to enlarge the convent quarters, for a house of seventy inmates (fn. 24) required some space. Unfortunately there is no record, such as exists for the Grey Friars, of the contributors to these buildings, the cost of which could not have been defrayed entirely by the king. The friars had certainly obtained 550 marks for their house in Holborn from Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, (fn. 25) and they doubtless received many bequests similar to that of Richard de Stratford, (fn. 26) a novice of the house, who, in 1281, assigned the proceeds of the sale of his property in London towards the building of the chapter-house, and that of Elizabeth de Bohun, countess of Northampton, (fn. 27) who left to the church 100 marks and the cross made of wood of the Holy Cross, besides altar cloths, &c.
The Black Friars of London received an ample share of the favours shown to the whole order by Edward II, (fn. 28) and most probably laid then (fn. 29) the foundation of the peculiar franchises (fn. 30) of their precinct. The king appears to have sometimes resided at the house, (fn. 31) and the amount of state business transacted there (fn. 32) in this reign is sufficient indication of the importance of the convent. The presence of the prior at the examination of the Templars in 1309 (fn. 33) is also of significance in this connexion. It is possible that power may have turned their heads, (fn. 34) and that they may have shown the lack of becoming humility of which they were afterwards accused. (fn. 35) But the affection of the king was in itself quite sufficient to account for the hatred with which they were regarded by the City, where they became so unpopular that when the king fell they feared for their lives and fled. (fn. 36) If it is true that Friar Dunheved was a member of the London house, (fn. 37) the convent was closely connected with the movement for the rescue of Edward II in which the Dominicans generally were implicated.
The power of the London friary had received a check from which it took a few years to recover —at least that seems to be the explanation of the length of time their contest with Hyde Abbey (fn. 38) lasted. Both the abbey and the friary claimed a certain Arnold Lym as belonging to their community. The bishop of Winchester decided in favour of the friars, but the monks overrode his sentence with papal bulls, kept possession of Arnold for about ten years, and blocked all action on the part of the friars until in 1347 in answer to a petition in Parliament the king ordered right to be done.
By this time they were on good terms again with the City, since in 1350 the mayor and commonalty petitioned the pope (fn. 39) to empower brother John de Worthyn alone to grant absolution there, and in case of his death to allow the prior of London, with the counsel and consent of the mayor, to appoint a brother of the same order, and although they may have been induced to act thus from a mistaken idea of Worthyn's influence with the pope, (fn. 40) there can have been no motive of self-interest in their letters to the pope, 24 November, 1364, in favour of the English provincial, Robert Pynk. (fn. 41) The general esteem in which the friars were held is also shown by the number of citizens who, during the next two centuries, chose their church and churchyard as a place of burial. (fn. 42) One of the numerous fraternities founded in the fourteenth century, viz. the brotherhood of the Assumption of our Lady, was established at the Friars Preachers in 1375. (fn. 43) The journeymen cordwainers who in 1387 tried to constitute themselves a gild, held their meeting at the Black Friars, and William Barton, one of the convent, promised to get them papal sanction. (fn. 44) Probably the precinct was chosen by the cordwainers owing to its special immunity.
The Dominicans, as might be expected, played a prominent part in the discussion over the Wycliffite heresy, the London house especially, owing to the school of early foundation there (fn. 45) and its important position. The council of 1382 was held at the Black Friars, London, and the prior, William Syward, and two others of the convent (fn. 46) were chosen to take part in the proceedings. The examination of Sir John Oldcastle for heresy in 1413 also took place there. (fn. 47) The champions of orthodoxy, however, with the other mendicant orders, laid themselves open to the charge of heresy in 1465, and the friar preacher who in his sermon had maintained the doctrines of the London Carmelite reflecting on the beneficed clergy was examined before the bishop of London and made to revoke them as publicly as he had preached them before. (fn. 48)
The convent had learned by experience the wisdom of abstaining from political affairs, and although Richard II had been their patron, granting them in 1394 (fn. 49) perpetual exemption from all tenths, fifteenths, subsidies, and tallages, they did not involve themselves in the movements which followed his fall. Their prosperity accordingly remained unbroken by the rise of the Lancastrian dynasty, and when Henry IV before the end of his reign reverted to the fashion of his predecessors of choosing a Dominican as confessor he appointed to this office one of their number, Friar John Tylle or Tilley. (fn. 50) The ambassadors of the duke of Brittany in 1413 (fn. 51) and the French ambassadors in 1445 (fn. 52) stayed at the friary, and it was there that the Parliament of 1449 met. (fn. 53) Neither the size nor the convenient situation of their buildings would alone account for this use of them. Sir John Cornewaill, Lord Fanhope, who was connected with the Lancastrian family by marriage, established a chantry in 1436 (fn. 54) in the chapel which he had built in honour of the Virgin in the churchyard of the Black Friars and endowed it with an annual income of 40 marks, for the payment of which the Fishmongers' Company was responsible. Yet the Friars Preachers of London could not have been partisans, for John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, (fn. 55) or some members of his family, (fn. 56) founded the chapel in the nave of their church in which he was buried after his execution in 1470. Moreover the annual grant of £20 which the London convent, instead of the general chapter, (fn. 57) had received from the crown (fn. 58) since the beginning of the French wars of Edward III was continued both by Yorkist (fn. 59) and Tudor (fn. 60) kings, while the house continued to be a favourite spot for the transaction of state business. (fn. 61)
Outwardly then the Black Friars must have seemed much the same as ever during the reign of Henry VIII except that their numbers had probably decreased (fn. 62) considerably since the early fourteenth century: the church was still a centre of religious activity (fn. 63) and a favourite place of burial for all classes. (fn. 64) But it appears as if the intimate connexion of the friary with the court had stifled much of the spirit of the house, for the religious changes of the sixteenth century met with the same acquiescence as the dynastic changes of the fifteenth. It is, however, impossible to judge of the character and feeling of the house by those of its head. Considering that John Hilsey as provincial was resident (fn. 65) at the Black Friars and that he in conjunction with Browne, the Austin friar, had a commission from the king to visit the friaries throughout the kingdom, it is natural that no difficulty was made over the acknowledgement of the royal supremacy, which was signed by the prior, Robert Strowdyll, (fn. 66) S.T.P., on behalf of the convent, 17 April, 1534. This did not, however, secure Strowdyll in his post. Hilsey was entirely subservient to the king and Cromwell, and consequently a convenient head for the London priory, and the convent being in his debt was obliged to support his candidature. (fn. 67) The bishop of Rochester was accordingly made prior commendatory of the Black Friars of London, March, 1536, (fn. 68) and finding Strowdyll difficult to live with he sent him to Dartford to be president there, to the disgust of the prioress. (fn. 69) Under such a prior, (fn. 70) those who like Friar John Maydland were opposed to the New Learning and all its supporters (fn. 71) would find it expedient to leave the house or suppress their opinions. The policy of Hilsey's appointment from the king's point of view was soon apparent: in the space of about two years he had become so convinced that the whole institution was antichristian, that he wished the friars to change their habits, as he trusted those honest among them had changed their hearts. (fn. 72) The surrender of the house was made 12 November, 1538, by the prior and fifteen friars. (fn. 73) Hilsey received a pension of £60 for the term of his life and the prior's lodging in Blackfriars (fn. 74) as he held it at the Dissolution.
The income of the convent from rents of houses and shops within the precinct amounted to £104 15s. 4d., (fn. 75) and seems to have been exclusive of the various chantries and obits established there. Among these was the Cornewaill chantry already mentioned, one of 4½ marks for the soul of Henry VII, and another of the same amount for Thomas Rogers. A sum of £13 6s. 8d. was also paid yearly by the Goldsmiths' Company partly for masses and partly for the maintenance of a schoolmaster. (fn. 76) The amount of plate contained in the church was not as large as that owned by the Grey Friars, but comprised 400 oz. of gilt, 400 oz. of parcel gilt, and 332 oz. of white. (fn. 77)
During the short revival under Queen Mary the Friars Preachers were established at Smithfield. (fn. 78) The only officer mentioned besides the prior is the sub-prior. (fn. 79)
Priors of the Black Friars
Walter, occurs 1244 (fn. 80)
John de Darlington, occurs 1256 and 1262 (fn. 81)
John de Sevenak, occurs 1282 (fn. 82)
Nicholas, occurs 1286 (fn. 83)
Robert de Newmarket, occurs 1288 and 1295 (fn. 84)
William de Pykering, occurs 1305 and 1309 (fn. 85)
John de Wrotham, occurs 1309, (fn. 86) 1315, (fn. 87) and 1319 (fn. 88)
William de Pykering, 1320 and 1321 (fn. 89)
John de la More, occurs 1321 (fn. 90)
John, occurs 1347 (fn. 91)
William Syward, occurs 1382 (fn. 92)
John Deping, occurs 1383 to 1396 (fn. 93)
Thomas Palmer, occurs 1398 (fn. 94)
John Montagu, elected 1407, (fn. 95) but did not accept office
John Tilley, occurs 1408 and 1412 (fn. 96)
— Berkles or Bekles, occurs 1416 (fn. 97)
John Rokell, occurs 1448 (fn. 98)
John Mersh, occurs 1455 (fn. 99)
Thomas London, occurs 1464 (fn. 100) and 1475 (fn. 101)
— Wynchelseye, occurs 1490 (fn. 102)
Morgan Jones, occurs 1508 and 1509 (fn. 103)
John Howden, occurs 1518 and 1523 (fn. 104)
Robert Strowdyll, D.D., occurs 1534 (fn. 105)
John Hilsey, bishop of Rochester, became prior commendatory 1536. (fn. 106) He was prior at the surrender in 1538 (fn. 107)
Dr. Peryn, master under Queen Mary, died 1558 (fn. 108)
A seal of the fourteenth century, (fn. 109) a pointed oval in shape, represents Our Lord on the cross between two saints: the Virgin on the left with the inscription at her side, ECCE MATER TVA, and St. John the Evangelist on the right with the inscription on the right, ECCE FILIVS TVVS. Legend :—
s' CONV . . TVS . FSM . PREDICATOR LVNDONIEN'
Another seal (fn. 110) of the fifteenth century is also a pointed oval, and represents Our Lord on the cross between St. Mary and St. John, in a canopied niche. In the exergue is a floral ornament. Legend:—
s' CONVENTVS. . . . . . .
The seal (fn. 111) of the new foundation by Queen Mary is a pointed oval. Under a dome-shaped baldachin or canopy of the style of the Renaissance supported on two pilasters stands St. Bartholomew, his head surrounded by a nimbus. He holds in his right hand a knife and in his left a book. In the exergue is a floral ornament. The inner border is beaded. Legend:—
SIGILLB CŌVĒT SCTI BARTHOLMEI: ORDINIS FRATRE PREDICATORE LŌDŌ.