Friaries: Franciscan friars of Coventry

Pages 103-104

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.

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The exact date of the establishment of the Franciscan or Grey Friars at Coventry is not known, but the Pipe Rolls of 1234 show that at that time Henry III was allowing them timber out of the woods of Kenilworth, to use for shingles to cover their oratory or church. As this is only eleven years after the first introduction of these friars into England, it is evident Coventry was one of their earliest settlements. From later documents it is manifest that they were permitted to erect their house by Ralph Blundeville, earl of Chester, on his manor of Cheylesmore, on the south-west side of the city. Roger de Montalt, who married Cicely, niece of this earl, in a grant in 1250 to the Benedictines of Coventry, specially reserved his manor of Cheylesmore and the house of the Grey Friars. Roger and Cicely were both buried in the quire of the friary church. (fn. 1)

In August, 1289, the Franciscan Friars of Coventry had a site granted to them by Roger de Montalt for the enlargement of their area, and obtained licence, after inquisition before the sheriff, to close the way leading from Kenilworth to Coventry, on condition of making another way of the same breadth on the adjacent land granted to them by Roger. (fn. 2) It would seem that this grant was at first opposed by the monks of Coventry Priory, for Archbishop Peckham wrote to the prior in June, 1269, expressing his sorrow that any bitterness should exist between the monks and the friars, and desiring him to be friendly with them, and to allow them to receive land for the enlargement of their house. (fn. 3)

On 15 November, 1331, mandate was issued to the sheriffs, bailiffs, ministers, and others to permit Joan, late the wife, and Edmund the son of Roger Mortimer, earl of March, to take the body of the earl from the church of the Friars Minors of Coventry, where it then lay, and to convey it to Wigmore, there to be buried with the rites of the church. (fn. 4)

Inspection and confirmation of his father's grant to the Friars Minors of Coventry in 1359 was made by Richard II in 1378, whereby he granted them as much stone from the quarry in the Black Prince's park at Cheylesmore as they needed for the works of their house, with free egress and ingress for their workmen and the carriage of the stone; grant was also made by the prince's steward at the same time of the right of digging earth for the walls and plaster, with leave to have a postern gate into the park for the recreation of the friars, who were not, however, to pass beyond the quarry. (fn. 5) The key of this gate was to be kept by the warden, and it was only to be used by those who were sick.

Originally the Franciscan friars were content with very humble churches as well as conventual buildings. A church of stone was indeed contrary to their first rule; but as time went on this rule was relaxed, and their admirers in several cases, as at Coventry, were permitted to erect fine churches on their sites, for they were not allowed to accept any endowments of lands, rents, or advowsons.

Many small bequests to the church of the Grey Friars were made from time to time by the citizens of Coventry, and burial in their church or churchyard was eagerly sought.

The Hastings family were permitted to build a chapel on the north side of the friars' church, circa 1300, where several generations were buried. Among others who were buried in the church of the Grey Friars were John Ward, the first mayor of the city, 1348; Henry Dodenhall, mayor, 1365; Adam Botoner, mayor, 1374-7 and 1405; and various members of the Boteler, Spencer, and Langley families. Among bequests may be named Katherine, countess of Warwick, 1369, £20; John Lusterley, 1448, 10s.; John Wylgrise, 1493, 6s. 8d.; Thomas Bradmedow, mayor, 1462, 40s. for repair of the church; William Pysford, mayor 1500, 20s.; and Sir Edward Raleigh, 1509, 10s.

John Haddon, by his will dated 23 March, 1518, bequeathed to the Grey Friars 20s. for two trentals:—

Also I will that the Feliship of Drapers geve yerely to the gray freres in Coventre on saint Giles day vs. and the said gray freres to kepe a masse on the said day of saint Giles, and the dirige on the evyn, for me and my wyfe and all my frends soules: and the keepers of the drapers for the yere beinge to be at the said masse and they to see a frere to say daily masse for me and my wyfe in saint Annes Chapell for ever in the said freres (church), as they be bounde for the Reperacion maid by me in the said freres church, as it appereth by a pair of Indentures made betwene me and the wardeyn and convent of the said freres.

Henry Pisford, in 1522, directed that five trentals should be celebrated in this church after his decease, and that his executor should cause five great lights to be placed before the picture of our Lord. He also ordered 100 marks to be spent on the enlargement of the Rood chapel there, that people might have more room to see the devotion therein. In conjunction with his father William, Henry Pisford had spent over 500 marks in building, in the year 1520, a chapel called the Rood chapel in the churchyard of the friars.

The provincial chapel of the Grey Friars of England was held here on four recorded occasions, namely in 1420, 1472, 1489, and 1505.

The Grey Friars of Coventry achieved considerable celebrity by the great sacred drama which was played under their auspices at the feast of Corpus Christi. These Mysteries comprised an outline of Biblical history, consisting of forty-two distinct acts, seven of which were illustrative of Old Testament and the remainder of New Testament scenes. The well-known MS. in English rhyme of these Mysteries, which were distinct from the trade pageants, called Ludus Coventrie, chiefly written in 1468, is generally accepted as having belonged to the Franciscans of this city. (fn. 6)

Dugdale had himself talked with old people of the city who remembered this Mystery acting of the Grey Friars, who had theatres for the various scenes mounted on wheels and drawn about to the most eminent parts of the town for the better advantage of the spectators. The concourse of people from far and near was at such times extraordinarily great. Royalty did not disdain to come expressly to see the play. The city annals show that Queen Margaret attended in 1456, Richard III in 1484, and Henry VII in 1492. On the last of these occasions it is expressly stated that Henry came 'to see the plays acted by the Grey Friars.'

The endeavours made by the corporation of the city to prevent the destruction of the church of these Franciscan friars has been already set forth. (fn. 7)

On 5 October, 1538, John Stafford, the warden, and ten of the friars signed the 'surrender' of their house to Dr. London. (fn. 8) This is an absurdly and extravagantly worded document. It has been several times printed. No person acquainted with Ingworth's and London's dealings with the friars will believe that this warden and his brethren were conversant with the wording of the document to which they are supposed to have set their hands. It suggests 'surrender' of St. Andrew's, Northampton, known to be the composition of the visitors.


  • 1. 'Mems. of the Franciscans of Coventry,' Birm. and Midland Inst. (Arch. Sec.), 1882.
  • 2. Pat. 17 Edw. I, m. 11.
  • 3. Reg. Epist. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, 963.
  • 4. Pat. 5 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 16; Close, 5 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 10 d.
  • 5. Pat. 2 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 18.
  • 6. Cott. MSS. Vesp. D. 8. It consists of 225 folios; the more extravagant portions, taken from the Apocryphal New Testament, were printed in Hone's Ancient Mysteries, 1823.
  • 7. See 'Eccl. Hist.' p. 26.
  • 8. Rymer, Foedera, xiv, 611.