16 September 2023

Friars Entry and
Gloucester Green are
reminders of monastic
life in mediaeval Oxford

Friars’ Entry … the only direct route from Gloucester Green into the centre of Oxford until Beaumont Street was laid out in 1822 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

As I make my way regularly from Gloucester Green bus station along Friars’ Entry to the centre of Oxford, the name of Friars’ Entry and the area around Gloucester Green and Gloucester Street remind me each time of the mediaeval Carmelite Friary in Oxford and of mediaeval Gloucester College, founded by the Benedictine monks of Gloucester Abbey.

The first building of significance in this part of Oxford was Beaumont Palace, at the end of Beaumont Street. It was built as a royal residence ca 1130 for Henry I to use as a stopping point on his visits to the royal hunting-grounds at Woodstock.

Beaumont Palace was the birthplace of two kings: Richard the Lion-Heart and King John. The palace was a royal residence until 1275, but nothing remains of the building, although some of its stones are said to have been used to build Saint John’s College.

People were living near Beaumont Palace in the 12th and 13th centuries, and George Street was first recorded as Irishman’s Street in 1251. But it was abandoned after the Black Death killed about a quarter of Oxford’s population in 1348, and fell into a derelict state.

Nicholas de Meules or de Molis, formerly custodian of Oxford Castle, granted the Carmelite friars a place near the hospital in Stockwell Street, in the parish of Saint George, in 1256. The provincial prior sent a friar John of Rochester to take possession of the site and make arrangements for the new friary. Nicholas de Stockwell, sometime mayor of Oxford, gave the Carmelites an adjacent plot towards the highway.

The Bishop of Lincoln and the Abbot of Osney permitted the Carmelites to build an oratory. In return, the friars agreed not to admit the parishioners of the abbey and to any sacraments without his consent. However, the Carmelites did not refrain from hearing confessions, and paid no attention to Archbishop Peckham when he prohibited them from doing this in 1280.

The Carmelites continued to expand their property holdings in the area, and built their church and houses with gifts of oaks from Henry III and Edward I.

At the junction of Gloucester Green, Gloucester Street and Friars Entry, looking towards Beaumont Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Benedictine monks of Saint Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester (now Gloucester Cathedral), founded Gloucester College in Oxford in 1283 on land claimed by the Carmelites. That year, the Carmelite friary was attacked, its doors were broken down and the friars, beaten were wounded and ill-treated crimes. The two events may have been connected.

The Chapter of the Carmelite Province in England met in Oxford in 1264 and 1289. Although the early history of the Carmelite school in Oxford is obscure, Peter de Swaynton is said to have been the first Carmelite to receive the doctor’s degree at Oxford, and perhaps John Chelmeston, William of Littlington and William de Paul or Pagham studied there too before the end of the 13th century.

A meeting of the general chapter of the order in London in 1312 passed many statutes referring to the stadium at Oxford. At the king’s request, the canons of Osney, as patrons of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalen, gave the Carmelites permission to celebrate divine service and the right of free burial in 1312.

When Edward II was put to flight at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, he invoked the Virgin Mary and vowed to found a monastery for the poor Carmelites if he escaped in safety. In fulfilment of his vow, he granted Beaumont Palace to the Carmelites of Oxford. The gift was confirmed by Pope John XXII and by Parliament in 1318. The king also gave a further grant a land at Stockwell Street.

Edward III confirmed the friars in their possession of the royal palace in 1327. However, the neighbourhood was not suitable for a religious house. The mayor and bailiffs of Oxford and other officials were commanded in 1328 to remove harlots and other women of bad character from the neighbourhood of the house of the Carmelite Friars, and to prevent houses being let to such women. It was said the friars were hindered in performing divine service by the clamour, night and day, caused by the men visiting the prostitutes and brothels.

The students of Robert of Walsingham, master of the Whitefriars, included John Baconthorpe, ‘the resolute doctor’ and ‘prince of the Averroists,’ who became the doctor of the Carmelite order as Thomas Aquinas was the doctor of the Dominicans and Duns Scotus of the Franciscans.

Baconthorpe studied in Paris and returned to Oxford, where he influenced Richard FitzRalph (1300-1360) of Dundalk, later Vice-Chancellor of Oxford (1333-1336), Dean of Lichfield (1335-1346) and Archbishop of Armagh (1346-1360). Baconthorpe was the Carmelite provincial prior in 1329-1333, and died in 1346.

The name of Friars’ Entry keeps alive the memory of the presence of the Carmelites in mediaeval Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

It was decreed in 1336 that no friar of the English province should be sent to Oxford or Cambridge unless six brethren, some of whom must be priors, testified from personal knowledge to his good character. In the late 14th century the province was divided into four ‘distinctions’ or sections, based at London, York, Norwich, and Oxford. To avoid local rivalries, it was arranged a friar should be chosen from each of these sections in turn to proceed to the degrees of bachelor and master in theology.

John de Norton, a Carmelite, was summoned before the chancellor’s court in 1360 for breaches of the peace, and when he refused to appear he was punished. With the support of his order, he appealed to the Pope. Edward III then came to the help of the university and ordered the provincial prior to stop all appeals against the chancellor’s jurisdiction.

The mendicant friars were accused of stirring up the Peasant Revolt in 1381, and the prior of the Oxford Carmelites joined with the heads of the other mendicant convents in Oxford in an appeal for protection to John of Gaunt.

The Carmelites in Oxford had a prominent part in opposing John Wycliffe and his followers. Peter Stokes was commissioned to publish the condemnation of Wycliffe’s doctrine at Oxford in 1382. Stephen Patrington, who became provincial prior in 1399, was a commissary at Oxford against the Lollards in 1414. Thomas Netter of Walden, who was engaged in controversies with the Lollards, was confessor to both Henry V and Henry VI, and succeeded as provincial prior in 1417.

Walter Hunt is said to have been one of the chief exponents of the Latin view in the negotiations with the Greek Church at the Council of Florence in 1439. He returned to Oxford and there he spent the remaining 40 years of his life.

Henry VI would stay in the Carmelite house at Oxford ‘as in his own palace.’ The future Cardinal Reginald Pole, a member of the royal family, lodged at the White Friars when he was a student at Oxford.

On the eve of the dissolution of the monastic houses, however, the moral, intellectual and material condition of the White Friars came under public scrutiny. A Carmelite friar was jailed for ‘incontinence’ in 1502. A girl of 13 disguised as a boy was found at the White Friars in 1533 ‘in the cubicle of one Browne scholar,’ perhaps a secular student having rooms in the friary. The long-standing hostility between the White Friars and the Benedictine monks of Gloucester College broke out 1534-1535, and both were bound over to keep the peace.

The 24 Carmelite friars whose names are in the university register from 1505 to 1538 include three who were DDs of Cambridge and who requested incorporation at Oxford. The friar who last who proceeded to a degree was John Hurlyston, BD, of Cologne, who applied for the degree of DD in 1534. After that, no Carmelite appears in the university register.

When John London visited the Oxford friaries in 1538, he reported that the Carmelite and Augustinian friars were living in such poverty that ‘if they do not forsake their houses, their houses will forsake them.’

The White Friars’ house was in ruins, they were selling off property and sources of income, the elms that grew about their house, almost all the jewels and plate, and copes and vestments. They petitioned Thomas Cromwell for permission to change their habits and to surrender their house ‘in consideration of their poverty, which compels them to sell their jewels, plate, and wood; and will, if they continue, compel them to sell the stones and slates of their house.’ The plate sent to London included three chalices, a silver ship, two silver cruets, a silver-gilt pax, and a silver-gilt censer. There was little or no lead.

Worcester College was built on the site of Gloucester College and Gloucester Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Edmund Powell of Sandford, Oxfordshire, was granted the site of the White Friars in 1541. It included the house itself, tenements and gardens, a stable, a timber yard, 3½ acres of land called Gloucester College Close, and a passageway called the Entry that led from Saint Mary Magdalen Church to the friary.

The greater part of the buildings was pulled down by Powell and his children, and much of the stone was carried to Saint Frideswide’s in 1546. The refectory remained standing until 1596, and was used as a poor-house for the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen. It was then demolished and the materials were used to enlarge the library of Saint John’s College.

As for Gloucester College, the Benedictine house in Oxford, after the dissolution it became Gloucester Hall, an academic hall and annexe of St John’s College. It was re-founded as Worcester College by Sir Thomas Cookes in 1714. Gloucester Green, which was opposite the old college, and the Gloucester House building within Worcester College preserve the name of Gloucester College.

Because Friars’ Entry was once the most direct route to Worcester College, it contributed to the idea that the college was ‘out of Oxford.’ Until modern times, the footway was lined with houses, and solemn processions ran the risk of ‘stumbling over buckets, knocking over children, catching the rinsings of basins, and ducking under linen-lines.’

the White Rabbit on the corner of Friars’ Entry and Gloucester Street … a reminder of the White Rabbit in the stories of Alice and of the White Friars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The name of Friars’ Entry has survived through the centuries and keeps alive the memory of the presence of the Carmelites in mediaeval Oxford. Perhaps the name of the White Rabbit on the corner of Friars’ Entry and Gloucester Street is a play not only on the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s stories of Alice but also on the name of the White Friars.

Gloucester Green was laid out as a bowling green in 1631, and later became a public square. A plaque on a modern building facing onto Gloucester Green is ‘to the memory of Private Biggs and Private Piggen, executed like their Leveller colleagues at Burford by forces loyal to Cromwell. They were shot near this place for their part in the second mutiny of the Oxford garrison on 18th September 1649.’

Gloucester Green became the site of the City Gaol in 1786. Although Friars’ Entry was still a mere footway, it remained the only direct route from Gloucester Green into the city centre until Beaumont Street was laid out in 1822. Beaumont Street provided a grander approach to Worcester College and a new site for the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest public museum in Britain, which was founded in Broad Street in 1683.

Gloucester Green was the location for Oxford’s cattle market from 1835 until 1932 before the area was converted into a bus station. More recently, there were proposals to build a multi-storey car park there. But, with public support, the council chose instead to create today’s exuberant market place, opened in 1990. I have enjoyed the food market there on Wednesdays and the antiques market on Thursdays.

Gloucester Green now has colourful food and antiques markets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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