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franciscan - May 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

Greyfriars Canterbury


by Carolin Clapperton


It was to Greyfriars that the first Franciscans came to England in 1224.  Having been through many changes, Greyfriars is now a consecrated chapel where a weekly eucharist is held, a place of prayer and pilgrimage and one of much history.


Having been first a student at the International Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury and then to live and work there, Greyfriars has become a place of particular significance for me.  For me, it is a place of prayer, of solitude, a hidden treasure in the heart of Canterbury just a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the High Street.  Going to the weekday, weekly eucharist is an oasis of my week, particularly now when I am not allowed to receive communion at the daily mass at the Study Centre.  The faithful group of people who worship there regularly have made me welcome and included. It is also a place I go to during times of discernment, to be there on my own, to be aware of the presence of God and of the great wealth of history and of prayer that has built up in that place.


Greyfriars has been described by a modern writer as a charming little building ‘straddling the River Stour on two pairs of pointed arches’.  Thus it is, with the river running alongside the garden and underneath the building, but it is so much more than that given the history that it holds.


In researching for this article, I have drawn upon the work already done by Martin Taylor who is gathering material for a new booklet for Greyfriars.  In September, 1224, two years before the death of Francis, nine friars arrived in Dover and made their way to Canterbury.  They were not exactly welcomed because of their ragged state but were taken in by Christchurch priory at the Cathedral where they spent a couple of nights.  One of the original group of nine friars was Agnellus of Pisa (1194-1236).  He had founded a house in Paris five years earlier and later became the first Minister of the English Province.  There is a painting of him on the wall of the bed-and-breakfast which is next to the entrance to the present site.  From Canterbury four of the friars made their way to London and the remaining five were given a small room at the Poor Priests hospital by the Master, Alexander of Gloucester. This building is still directly opposite the existing Greyfriars on the other side of the River Stour. The hospital was rebuilt in 1373 and the building still stands today.  However, there is no trace of the first chapel or simple huts that would have been built on the piece of land that Alexander gave the first friars on Binnewith Island across the river.


I like to think that this simple chapel and the huts would have been based on the design suggested by Andre Cirino OFM in the book Franciscan Solitude which he co-edited with Joseph Raischi (The Franciscan Institute, 1995). He dedicates a whole chapter to ‘A Rule For Hermitages’ and as part of his conclusion suggests that ‘On the basis of this better understanding of the sources, it can be affirmed that the hermitages, as the first form of Franciscan establishments, received the significance of a model for the ‘settling-down’ of the original itinerant preachers.’   To quote from the Rule For Hermitages: ‘Those who wish to dwell in a religious way in hermitages may be three brothers or, at the most, four, let two of these be the ‘mother’ and have two ‘sons’ or at least one. Let the two who are mothers keep the life of Martha and the two sons keep the life of Mary; and have one enclosure in which each one may have his cell in which he may pray and sleep.’  The original enclosures would have been a hedge encircling a number of huts.  It would have been the place to go out from and come back to, a place set apart, a place of solitude.  It would be wonderful to think that Greyfriars could again become such a place of solitude.


In 1267 John Digge, Alderman, purchased land on the far side of the Stour and held it in trust for the friars.  It is not certain exactly to what purpose the existing building was put, but it is thought that it might have been the warden’s lodging or a guesthouse.  Excavations in 1919 and more recently have shown foundations of a chapel, dormitories, cloisters, refectory, Chapter house and library.  By the end of the Middle Ages, the land held on behalf of the friars covered eighteen acres.  Many of the townsfolk chose to be buried in the friary precincts and the ministry of the friars was valued at a time when the wealth of the church made such a clear division between church and people.  The later part of the fifteenth century saw the rise of the Friars Observant.  The Order received strong royal support and in 1498 Canterbury was one of the six ‘Observant’ houses in England.


Following the dissolution of the monasteries, in 1538 a local man, Thomas Splyman, bought the whole estate for £100.  In 1566, it was purchased by the Lovelace family who replaced the north and east gates with two houses which are still in place today. In 1919, Major H G James restored the house and laid out the gardens.  On his death the property passed to a Miss Sanders who sold it to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral in 1958. For many years there was a market garden in the grounds around Greyfriars, but this is no longer in use.


In 1974 there were celebrations to mark the 750th anniversary of the friars coming to Canterbury and a Canadian, Dr Burgon Bickersteth, with help from Mr Harry Jackman, repaired the house and installed lighting.  The upper room was furnished as a Chapel with a vestry attached and the lower rooms housed displays and photographs.  From 1974 to 1982 SSF brothers were living in the Chantry house of the old hospital of Saint Nicholas in Harbledown about a mile away and they had particular care of Greyfriars at that time. 


Around the same time, the Franciscan International Study Centre was established in 1974, bringing the Roman Catholic friars back to Canterbury.  In early 2000, the care of Greyfriars was passed from the Dean and Chapter to East Bridge hospital and Rev’d David Hayes who, as well as being Parish Priest for two city centre churches, is also Master of Eastbridge and now Guardian of Greyfriars.


In the recent past, David has brought together a group, including myself and Philippe Yates OFM, to look at and upgrade the display boards at Greyfriars. This has been an interesting exercise which will soon be completed.  It is good to be able to work ecumenically in this way. 


From time to time I take students down to Greyfriars on an informal basis and once a year the whole student body goes down to Greyfriars where Mass is celebrated. Occasionally the local Third Order meet at Greyfriars and quiet days are conducted there.   There are a number of ideas being explored regarding possible developments at Greyfriars and I hope that this working ecumenically, bringing our various Franciscan Orders together, can grow and develop in the future.   f


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