Friaries: Friars Observant of Richmond

Pages 116-118

A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1967.

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Henry VII. in 1499 founded six English houses for Friars Observant, of which Richmond was one. These friars were a reformed branch of the great Franciscan order, instituted about 1400 by St. Bernadine of Sienna. After Henry VIII. had been several years on the throne, he wrote more than once to Pope Leo X. in favour of the Observants, especially those of Greenwich and Richmond, declaring his deep and devoted affection for them, and saying that it was impossible to adequately describe their zeal night and day to win sinners back to God, and that they presented the very ideal of Christian poverty, sincerity and charity. (fn. 1) Henry on several occasions gave special alms to the Richmond friars, who possessed no property save the site of their house, although they were often remembered in wills. (fn. 2)

Towards the latter part of his reign the king took a dislike to these friars, who protested against the putting away and subsequent divorce of Catherine. But even among them the king and Cromwell could find tools. Friar Laurence, writing to Henry VIII. on 29 August 1532, to certify him of what was done at their provincial chapter, stated that Father Robynsone had been chosen 'discrete' for their convent of Richmond to the said chapter. Laurence voted against him, knowing he was not in favour with the king, and recorded a conversation alleged to have taken place in which Robynsone defended his action and utterances, and said he would never take any promotion at the king's hands. In another communication from Laurence to Cromwell, he stated that he was forbidden to write to the king or Cromwell under pain of imprisonment, but proceeded to traduce his brethren, and promised to communicate viva voce with the latter. (fn. 3) Laurence did his best to make further mischief later in the same year by writing again to the king and to Cromwell. His letter to the former begins by saying that he was in the greatest anguish of heart, for his father minister (the superior) had put him out of office for his communications, saying 'I will not obey the king but the religion.' (fn. 4)

Richard Lyst, a lay brother of the Greenwich Observants, wrote at great length to Cromwell on February 1533, stating that in less than three quarters of a year five of the brethren had gone over the walls out of our religion, namely three from Greenwich and two from Richmond; little credit however can be given to any of his statements. (fn. 5)

In spite of all remonstrance, the divorce of the king was announced on 23 May 1533, and on 1 June Anne Boleyn (to whom Henry had been secretly married some months before) was crowned at Westminster. One of the boldest to rebuke Henry was Friar Peto of the Observants, who had been transferred from the priory of Richmond to that of Greenwich. In May, at the latter house, Peto preached a sermon of singular vigour and plainness as to sin in high places. Henry ordered Dr. Curwin, afterwards Archbishop of Dublin and Bishop of Oxford, to answer him in the same place on the following Sunday, and attended to hear the confutation. But, at the end of the sermon, Friar Elstow answered Curwin from the rood-loft to the king's discomfiture. (fn. 6) On the Monday Peto and Elstow were brought before the council, and apparently escaped with a severe reprimand and exile.

John Coke, clerk to the Merchant Adventurers at Antwerp, wrote to Cromwell in June 1533, stating that Peto and other friars of Richmond, Greenwich and Canterbury were at Antwerp, writing books against the king's marriage with Queen Anne; he had got hold of three of their letters which he enclosed. (fn. 7)

This is not the place to enter into the remarkable story of Elizabeth Barton, 'the holy maid of Kent,' a nun of St. Sepulchre's, Canterbury, and her supposed revelations and ecstasies. (fn. 8) But the Observants of Richmond were among those accused of conniving with her denunciation of the king's conduct. Father Hugh Rich, the warden or minister of the Richmond friars, was imprisoned for a long time on this charge. On Sunday, 23 November 1533, he, together with the nun and several other priests and two laymen, was placed on a high scaffold at St. Paul's Cross to do public penance. Dr. Capon, the bishop-elect of Bangor, was the preacher, and specially blamed the two Observant friars, Hugh Rich and Richard Risby of Canterbury, for maintaining the quarrel of Queen Catherine against the king. (fn. 9) After the sermon the nun and her companions were taken back to the Tower. Eventually Father Rich and the rest, were condemned unheard by a special act of attainder and executed as traitors at Tyburn on 5 May 1534. It is said that Fathers Rich and Risby were twice offered their lives if they would accept Henry as supreme head of the English Church. (fn. 10)

The Friars Observant and the Carthusians were foremost among the small minority of the religious of England who offered serious opposition to the Act by which the papal authority over religious houses was transferred to the king, and his supremacy in the church openly proclaimed. All the houses were called upon to sign a formal assurance of their acceptance of the change.

Notwithstanding the execution of their warden for refusing to recognize the supremacy of Henry, the majority of the Richmond Observants remained steadfastly opposed to the new order of religion. Rowland Lee, one of the king's chaplains, lately preferred to the see of Coventry and Lichfield, together with Thomas Bedyll, the clerk of the council, were commissioned by Henry to make a final effort to bring about the submission of the Richmond Observants. Lee and his companion wrote to Cromwell saying they only received order to visit Richmond at six o'clock on the previous Saturday evening (15 June 1534), but departed that night reaching the town between 10 and 11. The next morning they first had communication with the warden and one of the seniors named Sebastian: and after that, with the whole convent, begging them to affix their seal to the articles of supremacy: but they only met with a resolute refusal. At last the convent was persuaded to leave the settlement of the matter to their seniors, 'otherwise called "discretes,"' who were four in number. They then arranged that these four friars should meet them on the morrow (Monday 17 June) at the house of the Greenwich Observants and bring their convent seal with them. At Greenwich, however, the king's commissioners met with resistance from all the friars of that house, as well as from the Richmond deputies. Bishop Lee recited the arguments he used to Cromwell, adding: 'all this reason could not sink into their obstinate hearts,' and they resolved 'to live and die in the observance of St. Francis' religion.' The style of reasoning adopted by the bishop and the official of the council was not very likely to be convincing according to their own showing. When the Observants cited the rule of St. Francis as to the pope, the commissioners coolly remarked that they considered that part had been forged by some malicious friars. (fn. 11)

There was but one way, in the opinion of Henry, to deal with these friars who refused to be convinced. The whole order of the Observants was speedily suppressed, and within a few days of the visit of Lee and Bedyll to Richmond and Greenwich two cartloads of these friars passed through the city to the Tower. (fn. 12) By the beginning of August four of the Observant houses including that of Richmond were emptied of their occupants, and the other two were daily expecting to be expelled. At the end of the month, Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, wrote that all the Observants had been driven from their monasteries, and had been for the most part distributed in several monasteries, 'where they were locked up in chains, and worse treated than they would be in prison.' Fifty of the Observant friars died in prison, but some of them obtained leave through Wriothesley's influence to retire into France, Scotland and Ireland.


  • 1. Ellis' Original Letters, 3rd ser. i. 165.
  • 2. A will dated 14 April 1524, of which the name is illegible, leaves to the friars of Richmond 10s. and six sheep for a trental of masses (L. and P. Hen. VIII. iv. 248). Sir John Starington, alderman of London, by will of 31 December 1524, left 40s. to these friars (ibid. 952). Lord Darcy, in 1526, granted them an annuity of five marks (ibid. 2527).
  • 3. L. and P. Hen. VIII. iv. 1259, 1260.
  • 4. Ibid. 1738, 1739.
  • 5. Ibid. vi. 168.
  • 6. The story is told with much graphic detail in Stowe's Annals.
  • 7. L. and P. Hen. VIII. vi. 726.
  • 8. The best account is that given in Gasquet's Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries, i. 110-50.
  • 9. L. and P. Hen. VIII. vi. 1460, and vii. 72.
  • 10. Gasquet, Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries, i. 150.
  • 11. Cott. MS. Cleop. E iv. 40.
  • 12. L. and P. Hen. VIII. vii. p. 28 of Mr. Gairdner's preface.