Friaries: The Franciscan friars of Lichfield

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.

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'Friaries: The Franciscan friars of Lichfield', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, (London, 1970) pp. 268-270. British History Online [accessed 18 April 2024]

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From the autumn of 1237 come the first signs that the Grey Friars were beginning the 'construction of their dwellings and chapel' at Lichfield, (fn. 2) but no contemporary evidence has survived to show who gave them their site. Royal letters patent 20 years later in date spoke of the house as 'founded by the king's predecessors', (fn. 3) but the friars did not reach England until Henry Ill's own reign. When Leland made his tour of England about 1540 he found that local tradition, probably correctly, credited Alexander Stavensby, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (1224-38), with being 'the first founder' and with having given the friars 'certain free burgages in the town for to set their house on'. (fn. 4)

In 1237 King Henry assigned the friars ten oaks from each of the hays of Alrewas, Bentley, and Hopwas in Cannock Forest, (fn. 5) but he raised the contribution from Alrewas to twenty when the friars informed him that there was no timber in Hopwas Hay suitable for building their church. (fn. 6) In 1239 the king made them two grants of 10 marks and £5 from the revenues of the bishopric, then vacant; (fn. 7) in 1241 the sheriff was authorized 'to clothe the friars minor of Lichfield', (fn. 8) and in 1244 they were assigned £5 'to pay their debts' from the issues of the bishopric, once again vacant. (fn. 9) Free passage in Whittlewood Forest (Northants.) was granted them for five years from 1258. (fn. 10) In 1286 Edward I gave eight oaks from Cannock Forest. (fn. 11)

Five years later 'almost all the town of Lichfield and the habitation of the friars minor' were destroyed in a great fire. (fn. 12) This disaster roused wide sympathy within the Franciscan order, comparable with that which had been felt when Winchelsea (Suss.) was destroyed by the sea in 1287. It is not surprising therefore to find that when in 1294 the English Franciscans accepted a sum of 60 marks from the monks of Westminster as the settlement of a dispute between the two, the money was assigned to the houses of Lichfield and Winchelsea to be paid in instalments to relieve their indigence. (fn. 13)

The next recorded benefaction was the provision of a water-supply by Henry Bellfounder, son of Michael of Lichfield, bellfounder, who in 1310 granted the friars for their 'use and comfort' his springs at Fowlewell near Aldershaw south-west of the city. The friars were empowered to erect a conduit head there and construct pipes to convey the water 'to their own place', but they were not to give away even a small vessel (vasum) of the water without the donor's special permission. (fn. 14) In 1329 Ralph Bassett of Drayton received royal licence to assign the friars 2 acres of land adjoining their house for its enlargement. (fn. 15) Philip de Turvill, Prebendary of Curborough in Lichfield Cathedral (d. 1337), included the friary among the 33 religious communities entrusted with providing 100 masses a year for his soul and the souls of his relatives and friends. Three of these masses were assigned to the Lichfield friars, and as each celebrant was to receive 5 marks this made an addition of £10 a year to their income. (fn. 16) Other legacies included £20 from Catherine, Countess of Warwick (d. 1369), 6s. 8d. from Isabel de Sutton (d. 1397), (fn. 17) and 10s. from John Comberford of Tamworth by will of 1414. (fn. 18) The Lichfield friary was one of the mendicant houses which benefited under the will of Roger Horton, justice of the King's Bench; for years he was active on commissions of the peace in Staffordshire and adjacent counties, and by his will of 1422 he left 6s. 8d. to each of several mendicant houses in the area. (fn. 19) Richard Martin, a suffragan bishop to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in disposing of his books in his will of 1498, allotted four to the friars at Lichfield. (fn. 20) As late as 1537 Nicholas Rugeley, who died that year at Dunton in Curdworth (Warws.), left the friary 12d. (fn. 21)

Relations with the outside world were not always good, however. In the 1320s and 1330s there occur two cases of violent attack on Lichfield friars who had been sent on a journey by order of their superior. The first occurred in or before 1325. As the friars were going on their way ad conventum Novi Burgi — possibly the house of Austin Friars at Newport in Shropshire — they were beaten and imprisoned by 'sons of iniquity' unknown to them. (fn. 22) The second assault evidently took place in or before 1338. The friars were on their way to the house at Worcester when the assailants fell upon them, carried off a novice in their company, stripped him of his habit, and clothed him as a layman. (fn. 23) This abduction and the fact that begging friars can have offered little inducement to any ordinary robber make it not unreasonable to suspect that some special factors were at work on these occasions.

The Lichfield house was one of the nine friaries forming the custody of Worcester. (fn. 24) Information concerning the size and personnel of the house is scanty. During the episcopate of Robert Stretton (1360-85) over 60 candidates described as friars minor of Lichfield were ordained, but this gives only a rough indication of the size of the community. (fn. 25) As to individuals, the warden of the friary was associated in 1337 with two canons in an inquiry into a dispute between the Archbishop of York and his dean and chapter. (fn. 26) A Lichfield friar named Thomas Joys was ordained deacon in 1414 or 1415; he was subsequently for some years chaplain to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, on whose recommendation he was dispensed from his vows and in 1442-3 given permission to hold any benefice with cure of souls. (fn. 27) In 1451 the warden of the Lichfield house was Richard Leeke or Leech, who between 1430 and 1438 had been provincial minister. (fn. 28) The Lichfield friars played their part as confessors during the 14th and 15th centuries. William de Otteley was appointed penitentiary for two years to Sir John de Clinton, his wife, and his household in 1379, and the following year William Blunt was made a penitentiary during the bishop's pleasure. (fn. 29) In 1392 the warden, John London, and in 1405, another of the community, Thomas Schawbery, received licence to hear confessions. (fn. 30) One of the brethren was in trouble in 1531 for having preached a sermon which many people in Lichfield interpreted as an attack on tithes and oblations. He and the warden, Richard Mason, came before the cathedral chapter to apologize and were rebuked. The chapter took the opportunity to order the removal of the seats which were in the nave of the friars' church, hoping to stop the friars from attracting the inhabitants of the city into their church. (fn. 31)

An early case of burial in the precincts of a person outside the order desiring it was that of Richard the merchant. His coffin lid, believed to date from the late 13th century and bearing an inscription in Latin verse, (fn. 32) is built into a wall of the Friary School. There used also to be an epitaph in the friary recording the death in 1464 of John Harpur, lord of Rushall. (fn. 33) Sir William Dugdale during his Staffordshire visitation of 1663 and 1664 saw at Lichfield a tombstone which showed a man in a surcoat kneeling before Christ and St. Francis; an inscription over his head asked for prayers for the souls of 'Master Roger Illari and the Lady Mar . . .', probably Sir Roger Hillary and his wife Margaret, who was sister and coheir of Nicholas, Lord Audley, and who died in 1410-11. (fn. 34)

On 7 August 1538 Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, received the surrender of the house in the presence of Richard Wetwode, a warden of the town guild, and of the two constables; to suit the accepted formula the surrender was certified as made 'voluntarily, without any counsel or constraining, for very poverty'. (fn. 35) Ingworth gave the friars letters permitting them to visit their friends and left the house and goods in the keeping of Wetwode and the two constables. He also gave them the inventory of the property, sending a copy of it to Cromwell next day when reporting to him. According to this report the warden, hideously disfigured in the face by a skin disease — 'whether of a canker or a pock or a fistula I know not' — had been little at home of late, but now having returned he was loath to give up his house, 'though it is more in debt than all the stuff that belongs to it will pay, chalice, bells, and all, by 20 nobles'. Debts included 20s. due to the bishop for 5 years' rent and 30s. borrowed 'for building of the choir'. The warden, Richard Mason, received a pension of £5 which was evidently still being paid at his death in 1558. (fn. 36)

Bishop Lee and Dr. Thomas Legh tried to secure the house for Wetwode, who had 'formerly shown great pleasure' to both of them. (fn. 37) Their attempt, however, was unsuccessful, and in October the house and its contents were put up for sale. (fn. 38) The items ranged from a friar's mass book, sold for 4d., and a holy water stoup, which went for 1s. 8d., to the entire stock of copes, vestments, and tunicles, which fetched £2. The household furnishings were of the simplest; for instance, a press, a bedstead, and a door, sold as a single lot, went for 4d. Such things as timber, stone and tiles from the structure and pavements found ready buyers. 'The glass that is loose in the new lodging' was sold for 3s., but 'the long new house' on the east side of the inner cloister with the church and choir, the cloister quadrangle, the frater, and 'the chambers stretching to the kitchen' went for £42 13s. 4d. to a group of eight purchasers; lead, bells, paving (except that in the church), and gravestones were reserved. It was stipulated that unless the purchasers secured a licence to the contrary they must deface tower, cloister, 'and choir forthwith the church' within 4 months and pull down the rest of the buildings in 3 years. In 1544 the site and certain lands were sold by the Crown to Richard Crumbilhome of Dutton near Blackburn (Lancs.); the church and the conventual buildings were excluded from the sale, but 'an inn called le Bishop's Lodging or le Great Chamber' was included. Crumbilhome was evidently a middleman for a few days later he received licence to sell the property to Gregory Stonyng and his wife, who were already in occupation. (fn. 39)

The friary stood in the south-west part of the city on the west side of Bird Street and St. John Street. The site is crossed by Friary Road, built in the 1920s, (fn. 40) but the portion formerly occupied by the church and some of the conventual buildings is preserved as an open space. The references in 1538, already noted, to 'the new lodging', to 'the long new house' on the east side of the inner cloister, and to the debt of 30s. contracted in the building of the choir indicate that building was in progress on the eve of the dissolution. The church was large: the nave was of five bays and measured 110 × 60 feet, while the chancel was 95 × 28 feet. The tower was probably at the crossing. The cloister, 80 feet square, lay on the south side of the church, and Friary Road follows the line of its south wall. The Bishop's Lodging on the southern part of the site was enlarged by Gregory Stonyng, in 1545 and is now incorporated in the Friary School.


John London, occurs 1392. (fn. 41)

Richard Leeke or Leech, D.Th., occurs 1451. (fn. 42)

Dr. David Rules, occurs 1470. (fn. 43)

John Eton, occurs 1484. (fn. 44)

John Wyllnall, occurs 1525. (fn. 45)

Richard Mason, occurs 1531, warden at the dissolution. (fn. 46)

No seal is known.


  • 1. The writer wishes to acknowledge Miss M. T. Rashleigh Toone who in 1952 generously placed at the disposal of the Staffs. V.C.H. her large collection of notes on the Franciscans of Lichfield, made while she was resident at Lichfield, and a paper embodying the results of her researches which she read in 1929 to the Walsall branch of the Historical Assoc.
  • 2. Close R. 1234-7, 502.
  • 3. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 651.
  • 4. Itin. ed. L. Toulmin Smith, ii. 100. Stavensby opposed the settlement of the Grey Friars at Chester, but apparently only because he doubted whether sufficient alms would be forthcoming to support them as well as the Black Friars already established there: Letters of Rob. Grosseteste (Rolls Ser.), 121-2; De Adventu Fratrum Minorum, ed. A. G. Little, 80 n.
  • 5. Close R. 1234-7, 502.
  • 6. Ibid. 1237-42, 106.
  • 7. Cal. Lib. 1226-40, 373, 407.
  • 8. Ibid. 1240-5, 71.
  • 9. Ibid. 283.
  • 10. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 651. The writ was addressed to the prior and monks of the priory of Lichfield, but this confusion between friars and monks can be paralleled by many similar slips on the part of clerks in the royal chancery and elsewhere; Austin canons, for instance, 'are referred to as monks in medieval documents of all kinds': H. M. Colvin, White Canons in Eng. 30 n.
  • 11. Cal. Close, 1279-88, 390.
  • 12. Annales Monastici (Rolls Ser.), iii. 365. Possibly the annalist chose the word 'habitatio' to indicate that the church itself escaped damage.
  • 13. Monumenta Franciscana (Rolls Ser.), ii. 60. The final instalment of the sum due was paid by 2 July 1295. See ibid. 31-62 for docs. illustrating the whole course of the dispute. For a clear summary see E. H. Pearce, Walter de Wenlok, Abbot of Westminster, 37-40.
  • 14. S.H.C. 1924, pp. 252-3; Harwood, Lichfield, 488, 565. At the dissolution there was a conduit of lead in the cloister and a little conduit 'at the revestrye door': Hibbert, Dissolution, 254. Leland soon afterwards noted the 'conducte of water out of an hill brought in lead to the town' and the 'two castelets in the town, one in the east wall of this friars' close on the street side, another about the market place': Itin. ii. 100. The Crucifix Conduit near the gates of the friary still stood in the early 19th cent.: Harwood, Lichfield, 489.
  • 15. Cal. Pat. 1327-30, 465. In 1449 the subchanter and vicars of the cathedral leased the friars a garden adjoining the friars' orchard for 3 years at a rent of 3s. 4d.: D. & C. Lich., Evidence Bk. of Vicars, ff. 21-22.
  • 16. Sede Vacante Wills, Canterbury (Kent Arch. Soc. Records Branch, iii), 119; Le Neve, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1300-1541 (new edn.), x. 27.
  • 17. N. H. Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta, i. 78 (not p. 54 as given in A. R. Martin, Franciscan Architecture in Eng. (Brit. Soc. Franciscan Studies, xviii), 164 n.); Complete Peerage, xii(2), 374; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/6, f. 49; S.H.C. ix(2), 57.
  • 18. Reg. Chichele, ed. E. F. Jacob, iii. 321. He also left 10s. to the Carmelites of Coventry. For legacies to Tamworth church see below p. 314.
  • 19. Reg. Chichele, ii. 256-7. The will was proved in 1423.
  • 20. C. Cotton, Grey Friars of Canterbury, 96. His will was proved in 1503. He left 4 books to the Franciscans at Worcester and 10 to those at Canterbury of whom he was guardian: ibid.; D.N.B.
  • 21. Details of will supplied to Miss Toone in 1928 by the Revd. L. Mitchell, Rector of Curdworth; V.C.H. Warws. iv. 64. Nic.'s ancestor Nic. Rugeley of Hawkesyard, in Armitage (Staffs.), bought the manor of Dunton in 1422.
  • 22. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/3, f. 18.
  • 23. Ibid. f. 56v.
  • 24. See the list prepared for the general chapter at Perpignan in 1331, printed in E.H.R. xxxiv. 206.
  • 25. S.H.C. N.S. viii. 159-396.
  • 26. Cal. Papal Regs. ii. 536.
  • 27. Reg. Chichele, iii. 328, 332; Cal. Papal Regs. ix. 410. He was ordained deacon during the vacancy in the see between May 1414 and Feb. 1415. The writer's attention was drawn to the ref. in the Papal. Regs. by the Rt. Revd. Dr. J. H. R. Moorman.
  • 28. Harwood, Lichfield, 275; A. G. Little, Grey Friars in Oxford, 259 (not p. 359 as given in Martin, Fran. Architecture, 172 n.). He was buried at Lichfield.
  • 29. S.H.C. N.S. viii. 78, 81.
  • 30. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/6, f. 128v.; ibid. /7, f. 156.
  • 31. D. & C. Lich., Chapter Acts iv, f. 74.
  • 32. Martin, Fran. Architecture, 171; Shaw, Staffs. i. 321-2 and pl. facing p. 320; Harwood, Lichfield, 487-8.
  • 33. Martin, Fran. Architecture, 171.
  • 34. Ibid.; Shaw, Staffs. i. 321 and pl. facing p. 320; Complete Peerage, i. 340 n.
  • 35. For this para. see L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), pp. 15, 17, unless otherwise stated.
  • 36. E 178/3239, m. 8. He evidently became one of the guild priests at Lichfield and may have been Vicar of St. Mary's there; he died at Rolleston in 1558: ibid.; S.H.C. 1915, 170, 171, 216.
  • 37. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), p. 30.
  • 38. For this sale see Hibbert, Dissolution, 252-4.
  • 39. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xviii(1), p. 366; xix(1), pp. 378, 386. In 1552 Stonyng was licensed to assign the property to trustees: Cal. Pat. 1550-3, 430. He was a civil lawyer who became one of the first two bailiffs of the city on its incorporation in 1548: Harwood, Lichfield, 419.
  • 40. For this para. see P. Laithwaite, 'The Lichfield Friary', Trans. Birm. Arch. Soc. lviii. 53-55; Martin, Fran. Architecture, 168-72; Shaw, Staffs. i. 321. For medieval buildings still standing in 1782 see above plate facing p. 213.
  • 41. See above p. 269.
  • 42. See above p. 269; A. B. Emden, Biog. Reg. of the Univ. of Oxford to A.D. 1500, ii. 1125.
  • 43. When he was admitted to the Lichfield Guild: Harwood, Lichfield, 405. Harwood also gives him as warden in 1471: ibid. 482.
  • 44. When he was admitted to the guild: ibid. 407.
  • 45. A friar minor of this name was admitted to the guild in 1525: ibid. 413.
  • 46. See above pp. 269, 270.