by Joseph Earp
In the year 1224 the Franciscans, – the last monastic order to come to this Country from France, – arrived in England. The Franciscans are among the few orders who, alongside their conventional brethren, have monks known as Friars. Today we might consider Friars as being a sort of ‘out-reach worker’ administering their faith amongst the local community rather than being confined to their Priory. Franciscan Friars were known as ‘Grey Friars’ after the colour of the habit. Nottingham seems to have been one of the first places in England to have a Franciscan Friary, which is mentioned in documents of 1230.
The Friars came to Nottingham soon after their arrival in England and immediately appealed for land to build their home. They would have found that there was no open space large enough within the town walls to accommodate their needs and so they were given, – possible by King Henry III, – marginal land to the east of the town along the banks of the River Leen, – Broad Marsh. Here they quickly established their Friary, which naturally enough became known as ‘Greyfriars Friary’. Perhaps the first thing they did was to erect the massive stone ‘Preaching Cross’ we know to have existed on the site. The precinct of the Friary extended between the road Broadmarsh, (now gone) to the north and Canal Street to the south and included all of the land now occupied by the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. The first buildings on the site were of wood. Records show that between 1230 and 1261, the King donated to the Friars, vast amounts of oak timber, a valuable building resource, from the Royal Forest of Sherwood. In 1256, beginning with a new church, work started on rebuilding the Friary in stone. Once again Henry fulfilled his religious obligation by granting the Friars permission to use stone from his quarry in Nottingham. The church was not completed until 1303 the year in which it and the surrounding churchyard were consecrated. It took another seven years to complete the additional side-chapels which were consecrated in 1310. The new church would have served both the Friars and the community (as a parish church) and whilst in use was considered one of the finest in Nottingham.
The Greyfriars had its beginnings with the help of King Henry III and it is somewhat ironic that it met its end 300 years later at the hands of another Henry, King Henry VIII. Like every other monastic site in the Country, was ‘dissolved’ (closed) with Henry’s ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. Greyfriers was surrendered to the authorities by its Warden (Prior) Thomas Basford and seven other Friars on the 5th February 1539. It is interesting to note that the last Warden was, judging by his name, a Nottingham man. Basford, once a rural village, is a suburb of the City.
We do not know what happened to the site in the nine years following the Dissolution, for it is not until 1548 that we get another mention of Greyfriars in the records. It was in this year that the Friary and all its estates were granted to Thomas Heneage. By 1611 we find that the site had passed into the hands of Nottingham’s Corporation. In that year the Corporation demolished the Friary’s boundary wall and removed the foundations of the Cross. From this time on the name Greyfriars disappears from the pages of history only to appear briefly as Grey Friar Gate as a street name. But that too has now gone, swallowed up by the shopping centre along with the memories of the Franciscan Grey Friars who for 300 year made the Broad Marsh their home.