Carmelite Friary, (Whitefriars)


The members of the Order of the Friars of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or the Carmelites, were also known as White Friars, because of the white mantles and cowls they wore over their habits (actually cream). They were one of the four main orders of mendicants or friars; the others being the Dominicans (Black Friars), the Franciscans (Grey Friars) and the Austin Friars. They were not monks, such as the Benedictines or Cistercians. Unlike monks, who often settled in more remote areas, they lived and worked in towns, where they concentrated on preaching and hearing confessions. They were very learned and, for many, part of their training was to study at Oxford or Cambridge. They were poor at first; their income came from begging for alms in towns and from legacies and not from vast agricultural estates, such as the monks possessed. They became very popular and had frequent skirmishes with the ordinary clergy, whose congregations they were taking. 

The Carmelites seem to have begun as a group of hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine in the 12th century. As they migrated they were living by a formal Rule by about 1210 and, when they first came to Britain in the 1240s, they were still seeking what, were then, remote areas to settle in, such as Alnwick in Northumberland, Aylesford in Kent and Burnham Norton in Norfolk. They were reformed on the Dominican model by their English General of the Order, St. Simon Stock, in the 1260s and gave up their hermit life and began to work in towns. 

The Carmelites came to Great Yarmouth in about 1278. Their precinct appears to have been quite large, and although we know where it was, and White Friars’ House is on the site, we do not know the exact location of the church and the conventual buildings. Palmer indicates that the site stretched from the Quay to the Market Place. It is unlikely to have stretched as far as the Market Place as shown on Danby Palmer’s plan, but did stretch further to the south.

The friars soon became rich and popular. One method of fund-raising that they employed was to set up a fraternity, whereby for a sum, the wealthy could take on some aspects of the Carmelites’ Rule, and would ultimately be interred in their church. We know that the Franchise of Sepulchre, as it was known, was purchased in c1309 by Nicholas Castle; in 1330 by Dame Maud Huntingdon; and in 1382 by Sir John de Montague. We assume they were buried there. 

Others left gifts and legacies to the friars. In 1363, Roger Stodeye, an apothecary, left four marks of silver to celebrate an annual mass for his soul and that of his wife. In 1394, Peronilla de Beverley left the friars 20 shillings to pray for her soul. In 1349, William Hutte gave two coverlets and a silver cup. The friars were apparently quite belligerent. In 1309, Friar Thomas Bamert, Friar Alan Paston and Friar John de Martham were pardoned by William de Gaysele for every trespass committed by them upon his person

John Tylney, who was elected Prior in 1435, 1437 and 1455, was said to have adopted a new style of preaching. This may have foreshadowed some of the changes that came later in the Reformation; friars were quite advanced in their thinking. Tylney later filled the Divinity Chair at Cambridge, where he was known as John of Yarmouth. One of the friars later became Bishop of Upsala in Sweden and is buried in Finland. 

The friary burnt down in 1509, thus saving, as Manship wrote, some demolition work later when the monasteries were dissolved. It does not appear to have been rebuilt, which does indicate that by the early 16th century, the friary was in decline, as many of them were, and therefore does not appear to have had to be formally dissolved. The site was granted to Thomas Denton and Robert Nottingham in 1544, and in 1567, they obtained a licence from the Crown to divide and sell the land. 

Although it was burnt down, some walls may have been left standing and were incorporated in buildings on the site. No 20 Broad Row has a late 15th century groined cellar which was almost certainly part of the friary. The rear wall of No 26, accessible from White Friars Court, is of early 16th century brick and flint, and to the west of the court is a round arch in brick. Certainly building materials from the friary have been reused in buildings on the site.