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Archive: Archive The good friars of Coventry; Chris Upton explores the medieval world of a Christian sect who took monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but who also wished to make a local contribution to society.

Byline: Chris Upton

In the Middle Ages Christianity was never a single-track profession. Should you wish to devote yourself to the Lord there were a number of different career options to consider, and only the vow of celibacy covered every available option.

In the secular church there was the priesthood and, if you were well-educated and well-connected, a ladder led upwards towards canon, dean and bishop. But even at the lowest level the parish priest was a vital part of society, conducting baptisms with one hand and last rites with the other.

The monastery or nunnery offered another path, what amounted to retirement from the world and all its evils, and it's no coincidence that the great monastic foundations in the Midlands were always at arm's length from town and city. The medieval monks and nuns were hermits who just happened to choose to pool their spiritual resources.

But there was also a middle way, a group that followed the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but who also wished to make a local contribution to society. They were known as friars. Unlike the monks, the friars chose to establish their communities in towns, preaching to the people, hearing confession and accepting whatever gifts and charitable donations came their way.

The vow of poverty applied to the individual alone; it certainly did not apply to the friaries themselves, many of which became very wealthy indeed. Given all this, it's no wonder that the parish clergy resented them intensely for muscling in on their patch.

What is surprising to the modern observer is how extraordinary corporate medieval religion could be. There were four separate orders of friars, following different rules, and each wearing distinctively different habits.

The Franciscans, for example, who followed the mission statement of St Francis, were known as Grey Friars because of the colour of their robes. The Dominicans wore black and the Carmelites white. Most of England's towns had at least one friary parachuted into it, and the larger ones could expect a visit from all four.

Rarely, however, does much survive of the friars' occupation. Henry VIII's Dissolution of 1539 swept them clean away, leaving little more than a street name or a park behind.

Given Coventry's history of bombing and bulldozing we would not expect much evidence to survive of friaries here. But a short walk across the city centre reveals a surprising amount.

The octagonal tower and spire of Christ Church once rose above the church of the Franciscans, and survived the demolition of the rest of Greyfriars. Five minutes walk from here (unfortunately across the ring road) and something even more substantial stands out.

The well-worn sandstone building beside the ring road is what remains of Coventry's Whitefriars. Here the Carmelites set down in 1342, after a substantial gift of meadowland by their patron, Sir John Poultney. Once established in the city the Carmelite friars were the grateful recipients of many donations of land (including one by Edward III) and money to expand their operation. What remains today is only a small part of the whole friary. The fact that what we can see now is merely part of the cloister and the friars' dormitory gives some idea of how large the complex must have been.

The church itself (one of the longest friary churches in England), along with the library, offices and the other three sides of the cloister, have long since gone. The church was the Carmelites' public face, where Coventrians would have flocked to hear high quality preaching, and the building was richly decorated with patterned tiles, painted glass and stonework painted in red, blue and gold. It was a little glimpse of heaven within Coventry city walls.

The Reformation put an end to all this, of course, but for the White Friars it was probably the last blow in a long decline. Their heyday was back in the 14th century and by 1539 there were only 14 friars left and the sum total of their income in rents and offerings amounted to less than pounds 8 a year.

Hardly worth dissolving, you might think. Except that there was much profit to be made from property and rubble, and speculators were only too ready to make money for the Crown and themselves in finding prospective clients.

The church was sold to the Corporation, who later pulled it down, while the domestic range found its way into the hands of one John Hales, MP for Preston and a local property shark. For pounds 83 Hales got himself an impressive set of buildings and the basis for a fine private house.

Admittedly this involved considerable demolition and renovation, but the result was impressive enough to host a visit from Queen Elizabeth 30 years later.

But even this conversion does not explain why we still have so much of Whitefriars today. After John Hales' death the house remained in the family for a further 150 years, until it was sold to pay off debts. A couple of deeds later and it was in the hands of a clergyman, Mr Smith of Apsley in Bedfordshire, and in 1801 he finally sold it to the Guardians of the Poor of Coventry. Almost three centuries after the friars moved out, their old home was to become the city's new workhouse. What remained of the cloister became the paupers' dining hall and they, like their medieval predecessors, slept upstairs in the dormitory.

We do not know how well the Carmelite friars served the poor of Coventry, but at least (and at last) their friary did.


Left: John Hales, who turned the Carmelite friary of Whitefriars in Coventry into his home Hales Place Above: A view of Whitefriars, Coventry, after it had become Hales Place, the home of John Hales, in the 16th century Right: A 19th century illustration of a Carmelite friar with the white cloak that earned their nickname the 'White Friars'
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 6, 2002
Previous Article:Book Views: Seeing the Wires. By Patrick Thompson, (HarperCollins pounds 6.99).
Next Article:Archive: Heritage under the arches; By Ross Reyburn.

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