Friaries: The black friars of Northampton

A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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'Friaries: The black friars of Northampton', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 144-146. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

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The Dominican or Black Friars, otherwise called the Friars Preachers, established themselves at Northampton, with the hearty sanction of Bishop Hugh Wells, about 1230. They obtained a site near the centre of the town, with a frontage to the horse market. (fn. 1) In Henry III., and afterwards in Edward I., the friars found liberal patrons.

The first notice of their building occurs 1233, when the king granted the friars twenty oaks out of the royal forests of Northamptonshire. (fn. 2) Two years later the king gave them fifteen oaks from the forest of Salcey for the timber of their church; in March, 1236, timber from the same woods to make sixty rafters for their fratery; in August of the same year, ten logs (fusta) from Kenilworth, for roofing shingles; and in September, 1240, twelve more oaks from Salcey for general building purposes. (fn. 3) In May, 1241, the sheriff was directed to fell and carry to the Friars Preachers at Northampton, at the royal cost, fifteen oaks from Salcey, with all their branches. (fn. 4) These gifts of timber continued for some time; in 1244, twenty oaks for the fabric of the church from Salcey, four from Whittlewood, and ten ready cut into shingles were bestowed by the keepers of the bishopric of Chichester, the see being vacant; in 1245, twenty oaks from Salcey, or Silverstone, for roofing the church and the cloister; and in 1246, a hundred shillings towards buying shingles to roof the church. (fn. 5)

In 1246 the Knights Templars gave the friars ten oaks in their wood of Balsall, and the sheriff of Warwickshire received the royal command to carry them to Northampton.

The friars added to their grounds in 1247, and the king contributed forty marks, through the sheriff, 'ad septa ecclesie sue amplianda.' In 1249 the addition to the church was ready for roofing, and the king gave thirty oaks for shingles for that purpose. Six good oaks from Salcey forest were given in 1258, towards the erection of study-rooms, and this was followed by further gifts of timber in 1261, 1265, and 1270. On 30 May, 1266, the friars received letters of safe conduct for their men and servants traversing the kingdom with wains for timber and other building materials. (fn. 6)

Edward I. continued the liberal timber benefactions of his father. His first gift was in 1277, and it was followed by others in 1278, 1279, 1286, and 1301, from the woods of Salcey, Whittlewood, Geddington, and Hanley. Six of the oaks given in 1278 were for the fabric of the church, and on 9 May, 1286, as much timber as was necessary was found, 'ad novem copulas quas Rex eis concessit in auxilium chori ecclesie sue ibidem perficiendi.' (fn. 7)

These interesting entries show that the building of this friary and its gradual development extended over sixty-seven years, namely from 1233 to 1301. Sufficient accommodation was, however, provided by 1239 for holding the provincial chapter of the Dominicans at Northampton.

At the special inquisition of 1274, dealing with encroachments, the jury found that these friars had enclosed for their use a common way 6 feet broad, stretching from their new churchyard to St. Martin Street, to the detriment of the commonalty of the town to the amount of half a mark. (fn. 8)

A spring of flowing water, termed 'Floxewell,' at Kingsthorpe, was granted to the friars by Queen Eleanor in 1279; the water was conveyed to their buildings by an underground conduit. (fn. 9)

In 1301 their grounds were enlarged by two plots of land, one 60 feet by 40 feet, and the other 50 feet by 49 feet; the mortmain licence for the former was granted on condition of two hundred masses being celebrated for the king and queen and their children. (fn. 10) Further licences for enlarging their grounds followed in 1314 and 1319.

In 1358 the crown seized a house called 'La Garyt,' a messuage, and two shops, which had been acquired for enlargement, on the ground that the friars, contrary to their rule and to the licence in mortmain, had let them to tenants for yearly rents. But the king ordered their restoration, on condition that they should be no longer let, but used for enlargement. (fn. 11)

This friary seems to have attracted the special benefactions of royalty. In addition to the oaks for building purposes, both Henry III. and Edward I. were constant in their gifts of oaks for fuel. On 26 May, 1284, Edward gave twelve leafless oaks in the nearest woods outside Northampton, to be used for fuel by the friars preachers, as the provincial chapter was about to be held there. In December, 1295, he gave them half the twigs cut down in winter in Moulton Park. When Edward was passing through Northampton or sojourning at the castle, it was usually his custom to send the Dominicans alms for one day's food, their joint board being estimated at about a mark a day. In December, 1300, he gave Henry de Odiham, the prior, £4 12s. for food on Christmas Day and the five following days, on behalf of himself, his queen, and Thomas of Brotherton, their son. On 13 August, Prince Edward, being at Northampton, gave 13s. 4d. to the friars for celebrating mass for his good estate on St. Dominic's Day, that feast being also his birthday. The princes Thomas and Edward, in the following month, gave 13s. 4d. for one day's food to the friars in acknowledgement of their having celebrated mass for the king during his sickness.

Edward II. continued this custom when visiting Northampton, and Edward III. when he arrived in this town on 14 January, 1329, gave a groat to each of the thirty-six friars for a day's food. A groat, or four pence, was evidently the customary reckoning for food for a single friar, which seems a liberal allowance, but probably they had extra fare on the days of this royal benevolence. In 1335, on 27 March, the king gave an alms of 11s., there being then thirty-three friars in the house.

Royalty was specially generous at the time when the provincial chapters of the Dominican Order were held at Northampton. In 1239 Henry III. ordered the sheriff to pay 10 marks to provide food for the assembly on 14 September and following days, and in addition he was to find three courses and good wine for the dinner on the first day the provincial chapter met here both in 1271 and 1272; on the first occasion the king gave two casks of wine, and on the second £5 9s. 9d. towards the expenses. The donation of Edward I. in 1284 of the leafless oaks has already been named. In 1313 there was again a provincial chapter, when Edward II. gave £15 for three days' food. If the rations for such an assembly were calculated at a groat a day per head, this would yield an attendance of 300; but probably on such an occasion, with wine included, it may be taken at double the amount, which would leave a gathering of 150. There was also a provincial chapter here in 1361, when Edward III. paid a like sum towards the expenses. Several fifteenthcentury provincial chapters of the Premonstratensian Canons were held at this friary, as stated in the account of Sulby Abbey.

The most celebrated man connected with the Northampton Dominicans was Robert Holcot, one of the first divines of the fourteenth century; he was born at Northampton, of good family, and in his early days was on the commission of the peace for the county. Joining the Friars Preachers he took the degree of D.D. both at Oxford and Cambridge, and for a long time was professor of scripture and morals at the former university. He was known as 'the firm and unwearied doctor,' and wrote twenty-six treatises on various branches of theology and philosophy. His reputation so far outlasted his own days that the greater proportion of his works were issued in repeated editions from the chief continental presses so soon as the art of printing had been discovered. He fell a victim to the Black Death when it was raging in Northampton in 1349, and was buried in the Dominican Church. His memory was much venerated, especially as he caught the fatal illness while assiduously ministering to the sufferers. Mary Myddleton, by her will of 1536, 'desired to be buryed within the blacke friers church next to Holcott.' (fn. 12) The same testator bequeathed a goblet of silver to the prior of the Black Friars. Sir Everard Fielding, by will of 19 April, 1515, directed his body to be buried before the altar of our blessed Lady in the Black Friars at Northampton, to which he bequeathed a cope of blue velvet with garters, a pax of silver and gilt, and two cruets of silver. (fn. 13) Dame Gyllys Fieldyng, by her will of 1529, desired 'to be buried in the Churche of the blake Frears byfor the ymage of our lady in the tombe of my husband. I bequeath for my mortuarie to the prior and his bretheren a cowe.' (fn. 14)

When Jane Brafeld, of St. Giles's parish, made her will in 1522, she desired 'to have ye pall of ye blacke frears upon my herse, and yey to have xxd for it.' (fn. 15) The Northamptonshire wills of the sixteenth century frequently contain small bequests to each of the four orders of friars at Northampton from various parts of the county. The light that burnt before the altar of our Lady in this church was maintained by the gild of the tylers' craft. (fn. 16)

Among the charters of the British Museum (fn. 17) is the certificate of the admission of Robert Greenway and Alice his wife into the confraternity of the order of Friars Preachers by Richard Metteley, prior of Northampton, dated 1511. This well-written parchment certificate, with rubricated initial, shows that admissions were of usual occurrence, for the names of Robert and Alice, as well as the precise year, have been filled up in a running hand, forms of admission being evidently kept ready for use. The official seal is missing.

The Valor of 1535 showed that this friary possessed £2 18s. 6d. in rents of buildings and gardens within the site, and an average of £2 13s. in charitable gifts. The outgoings were a pension of 3s. 4d. to the abbey of St. James, and 4d. to the mayor and bailiffs of the town, leaving a clear annual value of £5 7s. 10d. (fn. 18)


  • 1. Leland, Itin. (Hearne ed.), i. 10.
  • 2. Close, 17 Hen. III. m. 2.
  • 3. Ibid. 19 Hen. III. pt. 1, m. 6; 20 Hen. III. m. 14, 5; 24 Hen. III. m. 6.
  • 4. Ibid. 25 Hen. III. m. 9.
  • 5. Liberate and Close Rolls. See article on this house, Reliquary, vol. xxi. 25–32, by the late Father Palmer, to which we are much indebted. Various statements in this account, to which references are not appended, are taken from this trustworthy source.
  • 6. Pat. Hen. III. m. 15.
  • 7. Close, 14 Edw. I. m. 5.
  • 8. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii. 3.
  • 9. Pat. 7 Edw. I. m. 11.
  • 10. Inq. p. m. 29 Edw. I. No. 86.
  • 11. Close, 32 Edw. III. m. 8.
  • 12. Northampton Wills, F. 172.
  • 13. Nicolas, Test. Vet. Garters in this instance mean fastenings.
  • 14. Northamptonshire Wills, D. 68.
  • 15. Ibid. B. 128.
  • 16. Northampton Borough Records, i. 330.
  • 17. Add. Chart. 22,376.
  • 18. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 318.