The Greyfriars – the Franciscans in Lincolnshire

The Greyfriars building off Freeschool Lane in Lincoln is one of the very few friary remains in Britain and one of the best preserved. The Orders of Friars first appeared in the early 13th Century, a new type of religious order dedicated to preaching, travelling around and living on charity amongst the people, as opposed to locking themselves away from the world as monastic orders tended to do. Known generally as Mendicants (or beggars) the first two orders were founded at around the same time, the Dominicans or Friars Preacher (by St Dominic) and the Franciscans or Friars Minor (by St Francis). They were also popularly denominated by the colours of their habits, the Dominicans as Blackfriars, the Franciscans as Greyfriars (although they later adopted brown habits). More orders appears subsequently, eventually settling at four.  Eagerly supported by the Papacy, popular amongst kings and commoners alike, the orders spread rapidly throughout Europe.

The Franciscans first appeared in England in 1224, a little after the first Dominicans, and made rapid progress, and like all the mendicant orders, made for the major towns to establish bases for their preaching activities. They first arrived in Lincolnshire in Stamford a little before 1230 (the exact date is unknown) and then in that year arrived in Lincoln. It is indicative of the importance of the Lincolnshire towns that a further three Franciscan friaries were established here, in Boston, Grimsby and Grantham.

The Franciscans were greatly helped in their establishment in England by the patronage of Robert Grosseteste, the foremost scholar and teacher of his day, who assisted them in setting up a “studium” or school in Oxford to properly educate would-be friars in theology. When he became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235 he was able to help them further and employed several in his household. One of his former pupils, Adam Marsh became a major European figure in his own right as a scholar and adviser to kings and nobles. A great friend of Grosseteste he appears to have visited him regularly, living for some time in Lincoln. When he died in 1258 he was buried by the side of his friend and mentor Grosseteste (obit 1253) in the cathedral.

Nothing is left of the other Lincolnshire Franciscan friaries, nor indeed much of any friary in Britain, so the survival of the Greyfriars building in Lincoln, along with the archaeological remains found on the former friary site (4 acres, bounded by Freeschool Lane to the west, Silver Street to the north, Broadgate to the east and St Swithin’s Church to the South) are an important source of information for friary sites in general. And there is controversy!

The existing building has been variously described as the original church and as the later infirmary of the friary site. It is no longer possible to determine the full plan of the precinct from the fragmentary remains and the existing building has been extensively remodelled over the years. However,as recent research into the history of friary sites in Europe has revealed, the structure and plan of friaries in general changed quite radically as they became wealthier. Originally dedicated to poverty, St. Francis insisted that his followers should own nothing individually nor the order any land or buildings. However as the orders were so popular and many people both donated land or money or bequeathed it in their wills, they accumulated wealth. From rough sheds, their buildings became more permanent and grander and as more land was donated, the sites themselves were replanned, sometimes more than once.

Evidence of this has been found on the Lincoln site where a large building to the north of the present structure has been interpreted as a later church and this may suggest that the present Greyfriars was the early church, remodelled and then repurposed as an infirmary for the increasing numbers of friars permanently based in Lincoln.

Some details are known of the sites in both Stamford and Grantham and these can suggest the types of buildings and activities that may have been carried out on the Lincoln site (for instance both friaries appear to have been operating breweries before the Dissolution). The Dissolution of the religious orders following the reformation lead to widespread destruction and despoliation of the former friaries and then rapid redevelopment as they often occupied prime urban sites and were good sources of stone and timber for new buildings. That Lincoln’s Geyfriars survived at all was down to the fortunate establishment within it of a school that lasted for around 350 years, assisted by the economic decline of the city in the intervening period. By the time of Lincoln’s economic revival, the site had been recognised as an historic monument worthy of survival. Now it is due for a new lease of life.

Written by Nick Dore; Heritage Lincolnshire Research Volunteer