Advent of the Black Friars

The car park on Friars' Way, the site of Friar's Gardens.
The car park on Friars' Way, the site of Friar's Gardens.

by Dr Jack Binns

A century ago GK Chesterton pointed out that in England the received views of Saints Dominic and Francis were totally different. “Dominic is still conceived as an Inquisitor”, he wrote, “devising thumb-screws; while Francis is accepted as a humanitarian, deploring mouse-traps.” Whereas Dominic was then associated only with torture, trials and execution of heretics, Francis would not have hurt even a fly. Yet, in fact, the differences between these saintly founders of two mendicant orders of friars were those of time, place and circumstance, rather than of outlook, values or purposes.

St Dominic (1170-1221) was the son of a Spanish noble family who, like Francis, deliberately disposed of all his possessions and chose the life of a poor, wandering missionary. In 1217 the pope called his followers a new Order of Preachers, but they were better known as Black Friars because of the black hood they wore with their white robes.

Dominic spent the last years of his life preaching and travelling constantly, always on foot, throughout Spain, France and Italy. What little success he had to convert the heretic Cathars, who condemned marriage and practised vegetarianism and suicide, was achieved by intellectual persuasion and ascetic example, not by fear of violence.

The Friars Preachers are first recorded in Scarborough in 1252, when they were said to hold a house and messuage in the town and were granted freedom from borough tolls. Their first site was granted by Sir Adam Sage, but it cannot be determined where it was exactly. At the outset they were probably content to make do with existing buildings.

However, in 1283, they asked King Edward I for permission to demolish the decayed wall of the old borough and re-use the stone to build their own church. In reply to this Dominican petition, “twelve honest men of the borough” alleged that this old wall had twice saved the town from invaders, once in the time of King John and more recently in the days of Henry III “of happy memory”.

Far from allowing the friars to take down this dilapidated town defence, the burgess jurors recommended its repair and a second wall raised around the new borough which had only a ditch. So the Black Friars petition was denied and with it also their request to tap the springs at “Gildhuscliff” in Falsgrave on the grounds that they had already been awarded to the Friars Minor and the borough.

Though the resident Cistercians continued to object to their presence in Scarborough, the Dominicans soon enjoyed the support of a growing number of townspeople and rich benefactors. During the 1290s, Isabel de Beaumont, widow of a former governor of the castle, paid for the construction of the Black Friars’ church, cloister and dormitory and thereby merited a burial place for herself next to the high altar.

A tomb before the high altar in the church of the Dominicans was clearly a much desired yet expensive privilege. In 1438 it cost widow Maud 100 marks and many pieces of valuable silver to cover the church roof with lead. She also bequeathed five marks a year for a brother to pray for her soul for five years and her best horse with saddle.

The church of Scarborough’s Black Friars seems to have been specially revered, not just for burials and masses for the dead. On May 19, 1312, “in the presence of the Body of Christ, with their hands upon the Gospels”, the earls Pembroke and Warren and Lord Henry Percy swore solemnly that they would protect the life of Piers Gaveston, the earl of Cornwall, after he had surrendered to their custody. These oaths were taken at the high altar of the Blackfriars and accepted by Gaveston as honourable and binding. But a month later, King Edward II’s lover was murdered and decapitated by hired assassins on Blacklow Hill near Warwick. Though it was no consolation, a Dominican brother skilfully sewed Gaveston’s head back on to his corpse and the Friars Preachers at Oxford gave him a temporary grave.

Though many individual grants of land plots given to Scarborough’s Dominicans are on record, we have to wait until 1539, when the priory was dissolved, to find a description of all of their properties. By that time much of their land had been rented out to local townspeople and was said to be gardens and orchards, but the dissolution document divided the main block into four adjacent parts.

At the northern end, enclosed by walls on three sides, west, north and east, were 1¾ acres of gardens. Today, this square of land, bound by Granby Place, North Terrrace, Auborough Street and Friars’ Way, covers the same area. So Friars’ Gardens are well named.

A second area, 75 yards by 57 yards, matches the block between the east side of Queen Street and the west side of Cross Street from Friars’ Way south to the lowest point of Queen Street where the Damyot once ran across and now underneath it.

The third and fourth plots together continue southwards for 74 yards which would have taken them precisely to the corner of Queen and Market Streets, the main entrance of Boyes’ store.

So the medieval name of Queen Street, Blackfriargate, and current and past names such as Friars’ Gardens, Friars’ Way, Friars’ Entry and Friars’ Court are and were all appropriate and historical. After the Castle Hotel was gutted by fire in 1986 its replacement in 1997, Blackfriars’ Court, revived a much older description.

Finally, when properties on the west side of Cross Street were cleared and replaced by new Council houses between 1933 and 1936, a remarkable discovery was made.

Below ground level, but set back from the modern road pavement, were huge medieval walls of squared, dressed stone. By accident, rather than by archaeological excavation, the eastern precinct walls of the Dominican priory had been unearthed. Prudently, the old massive walls were left in place as foundations for the new houses.