The Grey Friars in Reading 1233 – 1538


Summary of a talk given in Greyfriars Church by Malcolm Summers after the Friends of Reading Abbey AGM on 26 October 2019


In 1233 some Franciscan friars – known as Grey Friars from the colour of their habits – arrived at Reading Abbey to ask the abbot, as Lord of the Manor of Reading, for a gift of some land to establish a friary. They had with them letters from both Pope Gregory IX and King Henry III which instructed the abbot to look favourably upon the friars’ mission. The abbot, Adam de Lathbury, reluctantly acquiesced and, with some stringent conditions, allowed them some land outside the town, in the low lying lands by the road to Caversham bridge.

The friars lost no time in creating their House, as the friary was called. It was most likely just to the north of the present Greyfriars church, covering the area bounded by Caversham Road, Vachel Road, Greyfriars Road and Tudor Road. This had the advantage of having the Portman Brook running alongside, which they diverted to water an area called Friery Mead on old maps.

The land was what we would now call a greenfield site, with the recurrent problem of flooding by the Brook and the Thames. However, the friars got on with their building, greatly helped by frequent gifts from the king. Henry III provided them with wood for their building materials and for their fires, money to buy material for their habits and even instructed the sheriff of Berkshire to assist them in their buildings.

This first friary definitely consisted of a church (wainscoted and with at least one splendidly painted altar), a dormitory, chapter house, refectory, infirmary, and privy chamber as these are all mentioned in royal records. Both the chapel and the dormitory had to have a second storey added, most probably to allow them to continue being of use when the land flooded.

The friary was built to house 12 friars and a Warden, which was the minimum size of friary allowed by the order. It may have had more accommodation than this, especially as hospitality for visitors was important to the friars.

After 50 years of coping with the flooding, the friars asked for the help of their Order to improve their lot. The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, was not only a Franciscan himself, but also had the role of the Preserver of Privileges of the Friars Minor in the Province of England. Through his intervention, the abbey granted a further plot of land in May 1285, adjoining the previous area to the south. Importantly this was uphill from the first friary, and it was on top of this hill that the friars built their new church, in stone and flint, which has come down to us as Greyfriars Church today.

The new church was made of three parts. The building that remains was the nave of the friary church. To the east there was the quire, the friars’ private chapel. Between the nave and the quire was a walkway, with a bell tower over. This walkway led from New Street (now called Friar Street) to the cloister of the friary, with doors into both the nave and the quire.

The remains of the friary church can be seen today in several parts of the church. The west wall with the Decorated Gothic west window, the north and south walls with their windows, the interior arches and much of the stone of the four most westerly columns, are all original late 13th/early 14th century.

Although the friars built their other buildings – dormitory, refectory, chapter house, etc – in stone near this new church, there is no remaining evidence of their sizes and locations, as the Victorian housing spread over the friary land and obliterated all evidence.

While the mission of the monks of the abbey was to praise God through their daily services and in their scholastic and other work, all based in the abbey, the friars lived among the people of the town. In addition to the daily need to beg, since they were mendicants without money or possessions, they also proclaimed the gospel of Christ on the streets and sought to bring comfort to those who were poor or ill.

The 305 year history of the friary is not well attested by records and documents. It is certain that at times learned and famous men resided there, but this was very much the exception not the rule. Not many Wardens and friars are known, as most records from Franciscan Houses have been lost. In all, just 5 Wardens and about 20 friars can be named. The documents that do mention the friary include about 20 wills that are extant where generally the testator left money to the friary, one 15th century document written by a Warden to a local benefactor, some correspondence between a Warden and a nobleman who owed money for the masses being sung for his relatives, and documents from the time that the friary was closed down, by order of King Henry VIII.

The friary ended its life on 13 September 1538, an early casualty of the Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, being those whose annual revenues was less than £200. Everything of value, such as it was at the Reading friary, became the property of the king, Henry VIII, including the land upon which the friary stood. The nave of the church has survived because the Mayor, Richard Turner, asked that it be given the town for use as its guild hall, to replace the one dating from 1420, located on an island in the Kennet at the end of George Lane now called Yield Hall Place. The friary nave survived its subsequent chequered history, mostly as a prison, until its restoration as a church in 1863.

Greyfriars Church

Photo: Dianne Sykes