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The Friary

Dunstable Friary

Author Hugh Garrod

Matthew Paris records that the Friary was established in 1259, during the reign of Henry III. Paris was hostile to the friars, saying that these men who professed a life of poverty soon acquired great wealth and grew fat from over-eating. ‘They erected an altar and without waiting for leave of anyone, performed divine service there.’ ‘Day after day, they erected their buildings and endeavoured to increase their possessions to the great detriment of’ the Priory. The king decreed on 27th October ‘that they (the canons), ministers of the King, would permit the said friars without impeachment or any difficulty on their part, to acquire in the town of Dunstaple, according to the custom of the said order, a competent area to dwell in, build houses and there and in the adjoining country procure the fruits of souls, and where as they have replied that they would willingly do this if they had the kings letter of ratification.’ He wrote later thanking the Prior for receiving the Friar Preachers.

The Priory of Dunstable, Geoffrey of Barton, protested at the coming of the Dominicans. He wrote in the annals record for 1259 that ‘the Friar Preachers by very great industry and deceit entered the vill of Dunstable against our will and through the lord king and the queen and certain magnates got their permission to stay.’ On April 9th the following year, the King sent him a letter patent ratifying the establishment of the Friary, 1264 On march 26th, Henry III gave the Friary 20 oaks fit for timber. On November 24th, he gave them 15 more oaks.

1270 8th September Walter Clifford, Archbishop of York, gave the Friary 2/- alms for food.

1274 Nicholas of Aldbury, who from the order of Friar Preachers, had come to us was a fellow canon of ours for nine years, went back to the order

1276 March 1st, Edward I gave the Friary 17/- for food while he was in Dunstable and 12/- on 29th November while he was in Bassingbourn.

1277 saw the first cordial meal between the friars and the canons of the Priory.

1282 A woman of St. Giles (Totternhoe?) was buried at the Friary. She was carried first to the Priory, where mass was celebrated. 8 candles were supplied by the Priory Sacristan. He gave 2 to the nuns (of Markyate?) 2 to the Friary but kept the rest himself when the cortege left the Priory.

1287 The Priory bought ‘ messuage’, once Robert Francis’, to forstall the ‘machinations and evil deeds’ of the Preaching Friars, lest they ‘enlarge their bounds against our will.’ This limited the Friary to cottages on their South Street boundary.

1291 The executors of Queen Eleanor gave the Friary 10/- from her alms.

The Friars had several things in their favour. Their preaching was based on the sayings of Jesus; they more obviously followed the vow of poverty; they were not the lords of the manor and therefore had no hand in collecting tithes and taxes; their financial needs were modest as they were not responsible for social care, road repairs, regulating the market and accommodating pilgrims. They were given money to pray for the souls of the departed, but not on the same scale as the Priory.

1300 Edward I gave the Friary 10/- while he was in Dunstable.

1311 Edward II was met in procession by the friars, to whom he gave 10/8d.

1328/9 23rd January, Edward III gave the 21 friars 7/-, a groat each, for food.

1332 The Dominican Provincial Chapter was held at Dunstable, on the Feast of the Assumption. Edward III gave 15/- for 3 days food.

1357 18th November, Isabel, Queen Dowager, widow of Edward II, gave cloth of gold worth 26/8d, for a vestment. Subsequently, Edward the Black Prince gave the friars several loads of beech wood, for fuel, from Ashridge Forest.

The Friary house held 20 to 32 friars at its peek. Enmity between the priory and the Friary continued. Charles Lamborn records in his book,

Dunstaplelogia, that there had been a carving in the Priory choir stalls showing a woman spinning with a sneering friar, on the ground, searching for her petticoats. This is an unfair criticism of this particular house.

The community declines as soon as Henry VIII ‘established the rupture with the See of Rome’.

1534 On 6th May, on behalf of the Friary, along with other Friaries in Kings Langley, Bedford, Ware and Hitchin, Friar John Coton ‘subscribed to the royal supremacy.’

1535 The Friary was valued at £4. 18. 8d, besides rent of 4/- paid of old to the Priory for 3 tenements. The tenth, (tithe) paid to the Crown, was 9. 10½d. The Priory, at this time, was valued at £402. At the Reformation, there were 52 Dominican houses in England.

1538 The Friary was finally dissolved and was valued at £4.18.4d

1539 8th May, Thomas Bentley, a valet of the King’s guard, received a royal lease on the site of the Friary. This included all buildings, churchyards, gardens, lands and soil within the site and 4 acres of arable land in Kensworth and Dunstable, also 3 tenements with gardens which were rented to John Calverley, widow Paynter and John Godfrey.

Exempted from the lease were ‘such buildings which the King might command to be razed’, as well as ‘buildings and land already held by Robert Lee, in his wife’s name, ie, a chamber and a house in the Friary, also a parcel of land for underwood in the great orchard, room to stack wood and a stable.’ These had been let to William Marshall by the Friary for 50 years at an annual rent for 40/-.

At his death, the lease, through his daughter, had passed to Lee, her husband. Thomas Bentley held his lease for 21 years at 44/8d, being 26/8d for the site, 4/- for the land, 5/- each for the Calverley and Godfrey tenements and 4/- for Paynter’s.

1547 28th April Sir William Herbert, gentleman of the privy chamber, petitioned to have, by way of a gift, all included in Bentley’s lease. On 10th July the following year, all was leased to him by Edward VI at 44/8d per year to be held under the ‘Honour of Ampthill’. This was a reward for loyalty but not a gift. Lyson says ‘it is supposed to have been in the field of Mrs. Fossey’s, near her house, which is situated west of the pond in the South street in Dunstable.

Revd. Palmer concludes with, ‘every trace of the house has now disappeared and the site is a matter of conjecture.’

The Victorian County History for Bedfordshire, pages 363/4, recounts an incident from 1444. Prior John Roxston and some of his canons broke into the ‘close and house’ of Thomas, of the Friary. They wounded some of the friars, throwing one into a pool of water and despoiled the gardens.

Thomas Bentley is described as a yeoman of the guard.

It says the site, know as St Mary Over, was rented in 1676 by ‘widow Rose’ for 5/-.

Dunstable With The Priory 1100-1550, by Vivienne Evans, recounts details of the Friary on pages 43-6 and 96-7. Thomas Bentley is described as ‘of the White Horse’.

Note. The sums of money in the Palmer book seem very small. However, the Retail Price Index equivalent of £1 today is £417 in 1400.

Obit Notices of Friary Preachers or Dominicans’ by Revd CF Raymund Palmer OP, 1884. One of the chapters is about the Dominican Friary in Dunstable. His sources include the Annals of Dunstable, Matthew Paris and documents from the reign of Henry III, Edward III and Henry VIII.

Dugdale Notitia Monastica vol 6.1.A

Lyson’s Magna Britannia

The Black Prince’s Register, PRO 1930