Carmelites – the White Friars

York was one of six Yorkshire towns where the White Friars founded priories.
York was one of six Yorkshire towns where the White Friars founded priories.

by Dr Jack Binns

The Franciscans were the Grey Friars, the Dominicans, the Black Friars, and the Carmelites were the White Friars. But whereas the first two were named after their saintly founders, the origins and early history of the third mendicant order of friars are confused and controversial.

According to one disputed belief, the Carmelites began in the time of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, about 500BC. If this is true, then the White Friars would be the only religious order to have a pre-Christian past!

Much more credible is the assumption that the Carmelites started out as a group of Christian hermits and crusaders who had found refuge on Mount Carmel in northern Palestine after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. Then, when the whole Latin kingdom collapsed following the failure of the Third Crusade, some of these survivors migrated westwards across the Mediterranean. Those Christians who stayed behind were annihilated by the Saracens.

The White Friars first arrived in England in 1242. During the next century they founded priories all over the British isles, six of them in the Yorkshire towns of York, Hull, Pontefract, Doncaster, Northallerton and Scarborough, the last in 1319.

Of the three kinds of friars who settled in Scarborough, the Carmelites were by far the poorest and most austere. Their regime would have tested to the limit the physical and mental health of the hardiest. They slept in tiny individual cells, not in communal dormitories, rising at four in the morning in summer and at five during the winter. In his cell each brother had a coffin, his straw-lined bed. Every morning he was required to dig a shovel-full of earth for his grave. To some offices of their daily prayers they crawled on their knees. Their rule of silence lasted from evensong or Vespers, the sixth office of the day, until Tierce, the third of the following morning. They were forbidden to eat meat and took only two meals every 24 hours. They observed long periods of fasting, particularly during Advent before Christmas and the forty days of Lent before Easter.

Scarborough’s Carmelites were certainly the town’s poorest brothers, lacking the rich benefactors who bequeathed money and property to their Franciscan and Dominican rivals. Indeed, the White Friars seem to have had a hard time in a hostile environment. One of them was so badly assaulted by three local priests “so that he despaired of his life”. A carpenter, hired by the prior, failed to honour his promise and their fee to build a house for the brethren. And a later prior complained that John Settrington had dumped so much “manure and other filth so near to the walls of the prior’s house...that the walls became rotten”.

One custom which the Cistercians particularly disliked but failed to extinguish was that practised by all three orders of friars in the town. When anyone was about to be buried in one of the friary churches or cemeteries, the brothers announced the forthcoming event by “traversing the town with a hand-bell”, summoning the people to pray “for the soul of Edward II [1307-27], chief founder of the Carmelite friars” in Scarborough and for the souls of all the other founders and benefactors of the other priories. It was a custom that survived until the Reformation.

However punishing its regime and austere its rules, the House of the Order of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel in Scarborough did for a time have one of the most distinguished and respected priors in England. As a young Carmelite, first as “poet-laureate and public orator” at Oxford University, Robert Baston was appointed by Kind Edward I to be his official scribe and secretary. As such he accompanied the English army when it invaded Scotland in 1304 and wrote an eye-witness account of the victory at Stirling castle.

Ten years later, now employed in the same office by Edward II, Baston witnessed and in remarkably objective terms described the rout of the English at Bannockburn. Almost certainly, it was he who persuaded Edward to found the Carmelite house at Scarborough and when he died he was its prior.

So where were Scarborough’s White Friars? According to the dissolution description of 1539, the Carmelites are said there to have had two small blocks of land, one of three and a half roods, the other of two roods, or half an acre. The larger area was adjacent to the wall of the Dominicans. Three and a half roods measure 4,235 square yards and today the area bounded by Boyes’ store, St Helen’s Square, Newborough and Queen Street, including Market Street, altogether covers 4,500 square yards.

Market Street is comparatively new: it did not exist when the first Ordnance Survey of the town was published in 1852. It came about after 1854 when the Public Market Act of that year authorised the clearance of the Shambles and the construction on that site of the Market Hall. Subsequently, a new thoroughfare, linking lower Queen Street with St Helen’s Square, gave direct access to the new indoor market and was called Market Street.

In his History of Scarbrough (sic) published in 1882, Joseph Brogden Baker recalled that when workmen were digging out foundations for new buildings in Market Street in 1864 they unearthed about 30 human skeletons, all without coffins. It was the rule of the White Friars only to sleep in coffins and to be buried in their own hand-dug graves.