The House of the Greyfriars in Canterbury
|The House of the Greyfriars in Canterbury|
In the heart of Canterbury, very near to this ancient city's busiest thoroughfares, yet, in its peace, strangely removed from them, stands Grey Friars dreaming of bygone days.
Its image, now restored to something if not all of its original picturesque form, is reflected in the clear, tranquil waters of that arm of the Stour over which it has been built, and looking at it even with the eye of inexperience it is not difficult to recognize in Grey Friars a treasure of early English architecture dating back, to the middle of the 13th century.
St. Francis of Assisi was the founder of the Order of the Grey Friars - or Friars Minor as they were often called - from whom the little house takes its name. Not permitted to own worldly goods, these ill-clad, quiet brothers of the poor went out into the world at their leader's bidding to give comfort and succor where they could, begging their bread from door to door, sleeping among the outcast and living lives of extreme self-sacrifice.
On September 10, 1224, a little company of nine Friars landed at Dover, sent by St. Francis himself, and tramped their way to Canterbury.
Entering the city through the Roman Riding Gate, the Friars, Dr. Cotton writes, " proceeded as far as the ' Iron Cross,' where the four original streets of the Roman city met, and then passed up St. Margaret's Street and across the Middle Row at the West Front of St. Andrew's Church, which was then in the centre of the main street, continuing along the Mercerie and Palace Street to the Green Court Gate of the monastery, then known as the Priory of the Holy Trinity. Here they were hospitably entertained for two days by the monks."
A few days later they broke into two companies, four of them setting off for London while the remaining five stayed on at Canterbury to begin a ministry that went on for over 300 years.
These five, after their two days' entertainment at the Priory, were conducted to the Poor Priests' Hospice, an asylum endowed for Poor Priests. It is interesting to note that the Priests' Hospital is still standing, though most of it is of later date, having been rebuilt in 1373, and may be seen immediately in front of Grey Friars, on the further bank of the Stour and facing Stour Street.
Shortly after their arrival at the Poor Priests' Hospice the five Friars were given a small room at the back of a school house. It was the opinion of the late owner, Major H. G. James, who was responsible for its restoration, that this original school house was actually on the site of the present building, the foundations of which are conclusively proved, during the restoration work, to be of Roman or early Saxon origin.
The Master of the Priests' Hospice was one, Alexander of Gloucester, and it was not long before this worthy man presented the Friars with a plot of ground for the purpose of building a chapel.
Behind the hospital, but separated from it by the Stour, was a small island formed by the forking of the river. This piece of land belonged to the hospital and was used by the Poor Priests as a garden. It was part of this garden which Alexander now desired to make over to the Friars, and upon which he built them a small and humble chapel " sufficient for their needs." Here, on the very strip of land which now forms the garden of Grey Friars between the two arms of the Stour, the Friars Minor founded their first permanent English house.
Truly it could be said of these early brethren that " in going after the poor they won the hearts of the rich," for we are told that very soon after they had settled in Canterbury they counted among their closest friends Simon Langton, Archdeacon of Canterbury and brother of the Archbishop; Sir Henry de Sandwich a wealthy Kentish gentleman; the Lady Inclusa de Hakington, so called because she afterwards herself became a recluse (Inclusa), who, as Thomas of Eccleston writes: "cared for the Friars as a mother cares for her sons, wisely gaining for them the goodwill of princes and prelates by whom she was highly favoured."
This humble settlement on the little island behind the Poor Priests' Hospice was the home of the Grey Friars for nearly 50 years. But, as time went on and others came to join the Order, without the inspiration of their great leader, St. Francis, they devoted themselves less ardently to their early vows, and worldly possessions were no longer despised.
However, when in 1267, John Digge, an alderman of Canterbury, purchased some land on the other side of that arm of the Stour which bounded the Poor Priests' garden on the north-west, and desired to present it to the Friars, unwilling still to own actual property of their own, they asked that it be made over to the City. The Corporation thenceforth held it in trust for them right up to the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. John Digge himself transferred the Friars to their new home.
Later, other land was acquired until eventually the total acreage in the use of the Friars was about 18 acres with orchards and gardens.
Here on the north-western bank of the small arm of the Stour, the brethren built their permanent home, this time vastly different from the one that had served them for the past fifty years on the smaller island, which afterwards became the site of their first cemetery and, in course of time, came to be used simply as a garden in the same way that it is seen today.
The new home comprised, Dr. Cotton tells us, " if the house was planned after the model of houses elsewhere, a Friary Church, Cloister, Refectory or Frater, Dortor, Chapter House, Studies, Library and Infirmary."
Only one of these buildings is still standing, and that is the one built over the Stour.
Originally the building was much as it is seen today. Here in this beautiful Early English House, its picturesque arches spanning the river, the Grey Friars of Canterbury dwelt for considerably over 250 years, each day begun and ended with prayer in their Church, the site of which has only recently been rediscovered after having been lost for centuries.
There were two entrances to the Friary. That from the main street was in what is now St. Peter's Street. This north gate, which was erected about 1356 and was pulled down in 1595, opened into a lane which led directly to the west door of the Friars' Church and to the new churchyard adjoining it. Part of this western wall of the church has, since the recent excavations, been revealed together with the ruined west door. Where the north gate once stood, a shop was eventually erected early in the 17th century with a passage on its western side, and this still leads directly to the church door, giving access just as it originally would have done to Grey Friars.
Entry to the house from the east was afterwards altered. As soon as the Friars were granted their early settlement in the garden of the Poor Priests' Hospice they needed an entrance from Lamb Lane (now Stour Street). From the lane another little roadway or water-lock led to a piece of land called Brokmede, which also appears to have been used by the Friars, though when or how it came into their " possession " is not known. However, we do know that in the year 1264 they obtained " licence to build a bridge over the water to the Stour, between the site of their house and the place called Brokmede, and to hold it to them and their successors for ever, so that boats may pass under it without impediment, on testimony by the bailiffs and citizens of the City of Canterbury that this will not be a nuisance to the City."
This wooden bridge was erected over the river exactly where the present wooden bridge stands, by which access is gained to Grey Friars today, while the roadway leading to Brokmede from Stour Street remained until 1309.
To the north of this roadway was a piece of ground which was also bought by John Digge in 1267 and called in the registers "... the place of the gate upon Stour Street for the use of the Friars Minor. ..." Here the actual East Gate to the later House was built, and from it, in 1309, a second bridge was thrown across the Stour, this time of stone and brick. This bridge, which can be seen just to the north of the wooden bridge, was erected for the benefit of those who wished to attend service in the Friary Church, and, like the first, it had to be built so as to allow a clear passage for boats underneath it. That is evidently the reason why one arch of the bridge is of so much greater span than the other, and would thus have allowed for the passing of boats.
In the 17th century the Eastern Gate was replaced by a house, now No. 6 Stour Street, along the passage to the south of which we gained access to the wooden bridge leading to Grey Friars. A narrow passage to the north of the house still leads from Stour Street to the stone bridge.
Connecting these two gates and surrounding the actual buildings of the Friars Minor was a wall, but little of this can now be identified.
Practically nothing but a few remains of foundations are left to the west of Grey Friars to show where the original block of domestic buildings stood, and these extend westwards and southwards into what is now adjoining property, no part of which has yet been excavated. Doubtless if these excavations could be carried out the result would lead to the conclusive determination of the ground plan and arrangement of the Friary.
Turning to the Church which, as may be seen from an existing plan, was built (subsequently to 1267) to the north of the House, we are now able to gain a very fair idea of its construction. Even up to the time of the restoration of the house over the Stour, the site of this church had been considered purely conjectural, as no evidence of any remains had ever come to light. It was while the actual restoration work was in progress on the house that Major James himself, digging in the overgrown garden to the north, discovered the existence of parts of the foundations of the south wall of the church. Following this up, he at length succeeded in revealing the beautiful west door and one of the windows, which for years had been entirely hidden by a glasshouse erected against it and into the brickwork of which the masonry had been embedded.
In its plan, taken from an ancient drawing of 1572, the church was long and narrow, and it is now believed that between the choir and the nave was a " walking place " called also the " belfry," and which was a unique feature in the churches of the Grey Friars in this country. Upon this " walking place " was built the bell-tower which was surmounted by a light steeple.
In the choir—part of the south wall of which may now be seen—the high altar was dedicated to St. Francis. Mention is also made in an old will of the Chapel of the Holy Saviour within the Grey Friars Church, and this it is believed was built out from the south side of the nave.
The churchyard was on the north side of the Church and must have been of considerable size, since records serve to show the vast number of people of all ranks who desired to be buried there and left bequests accordingly.
Like all the churches of the Friars Minor, the Canterbury Church was regarded as " sanctuary," and there are still a few records which show that felons must frequently have sought refuge there. In 1338 two of the Canterbury Friars were pardoned for rescuing two felons who were on their way to execution.
So we pass on to the early part of the fifteenth century, where we find that the Franciscan Order had changed considerably from the charm and simplicity with which its early years had been endowed. The Minorites had become easy-going and luxury-loving after the fashion of the monks, and the possession of property was no longer something to be shunned. But about this time certain brethren abroad decided to return to the early principles. Calling themselves the Friars Observants, they denounced the modern Friars and then comfortable lives, styling them Conventuals, though even the Observants had no intention of returning to the extreme rules of poverty laid down by St. Francis. The Observants were introduced into England by Edward IV in 1482, and the Canterbury House became one of the only six Observants' Houses in this country.
We must now turn with regret to the final phase in the Franciscan history of Canterbury. It is a tragic story and one which casts a shadow over the peaceful beauty of Grey Friars.
Following his quarrel with the Pope, Henry VIII determined to make himself Supreme Head of the English Church. The monks and friars were early recognised by the King as likely to offer the most resistance to his plan, and he therefore had all their houses visited, the inmates examined concerning their faith and obedience to him, and bound by an oath of allegiance.
In April, 1534, a Commission was appointed and the work began. Generally speaking, the Conventuals seem to have accepted the oath, but the Observants resisted it.
In 1538 the King gave Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, a commission to visit and take possession of all English Friaries. He reached Canterbury on December 13 and the formal Deed of Surrender was signed. It is safe to assume that the Friars were given a small sum of a few shillings each and thereafter left to depart where they would.
A few months later Grey Friars was let to Thomas Spylman, the local receiver of the Court of Augmentation, for forty shillings a year. Later, this man bought the whole site, including the church and the bell-tower, for £100.
In 1565 Thomas Rolf granted the property to William Lovelace, a member of the famous old Kentish family of that name. By his will, dated July, 1576, William Lovelace left "one house and site of the Grey Friars in the City of Canterbury " to his son and heir, another William, who was grandfather of the famous Cavalier-Poet, Colonel Lovelace, and he was the last of his family to live in Canterbury. Later, the property passed into various hands until, in 1898, it was bought by a Mr. D. W. Hodgkinson, who died in 1916. His nephew, Mr. W. Hodgkinson, conveyed the house and its present surrounding land in 1919 to Major H. G. James.
At one time the house was certainly used as a gaol, and there are still marks on the walls purporting to have been the work of various prisoners, while a heavy iron door, studded and barred, still testifies to this gloomy use. Later, the Huguenots, after the great massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, swarmed out of the continent, many of them fleeing to England, bringing their weaving industry with them. In Canterbury the first home of the Huguenot Refugees was at Grey Friars, where for a time they did their weaving over the beams in the ancient dormitory.
Harbour of refuge and hospitality that the little house has ever been, its friendly doors were still offering a welcome to the distressed, even in those momentous days of the first Great War, when some of the Belgian Refugees found safety and peace within its walls.
Discerning the true value of Grey Friars, Major James restored it as nearly as possible to its original form, thus providing a fitting memorial to those Little Brothers of the Poor who for more than 300 years lived and worked among us.
The property suffered considerable damage by enemy action in the recent war. Fortunately, however, the house itself suffered little. The gardens were dug up, under Ministerial direction, and much war damage still remains, though in course of time it is hoped to restore the grounds of the Grey Friars to their former peaceful beauty.
The plan for the reconstruction of Canterbury and the easing of its traffic problems contains provision for a relief traffic road to cross the centre of the garden. Should this ever be carried into effect, there will be countless friends in all parts of the world who will regret this spoliation of one of the ancient City's most beautiful links with the past.
|< Prev||Next >|