The Greyfriars

  • 1 Feb 2019
  • Worcester People and Places
  • Back

The Greyfriars in Friar Street is the finest half-timbered building in the City. The building was only part of the Friary which took in all the ground occupied by the present building and that of Laslett's.

The Greyfrairs was an order of mendicant preachers founded by St Francis of Assisi. They came to Britain about 1224, and were not welcomed by the religious orders already in possession, but by their zeal and merit established themselves in this country. A few years after their arrival they were given land on the east side of the City by William de Beauchamp, Lord of Elmley Castle, Hereditary Sheriff of the County, and Castellan of Worcester. The Worcester Friary became very important, exercising authority over others in the West Midlands, this being one of seven districts into which the Franciscans mapped England. During the three centuries of prosperity the Order deviated from the high standards of self-denial prescribed by St. Francis. Contrary to his rules, Friars accepted houses and lands, and the simple life lost its attraction. An old balad told: 

                                     'No Baron, no Squire, or Knight of the Shire Lives half so well as a Holy Friar' 

Their breaches of discipline brought about downfall. Henry VIII seized their houses as he did monasteries. At the Dissolution in 1539, the Greyfriars, as well as the Black Friars in Broad Street, was brought from the Crown by the Municipal Corporation of Worcester. For three centuries the whole of the Greyfriars was preserved, though it was sometimes put to strange use. The entire fabric remained intact, even the stained glass which filled the windows of the great hall and bore the arms of gentry who had been benefactors of the Friars.

In the late 18th century, the Corporation decided to use the Greyfriars as a prison, and in 1796, Valentine Green described it as follows: 'Those apartments which once held the religieux to their devotions, now hold the debtor and the criminal to their recollection and repentance... The refectory is a spacious and handsome room. The wainscoting, which is in Irish oak, is ornamented above with carvings in which the instruments of the Passion are represented, inscribed BV and on some IHS whilst others have the Plumes of Feathers.... This building is the most entire remains of an ancient religious house of any in the City; not a room has been changed.

The Friary extended from Friar Street eastwards to the City Walls, its church dedicated to St. Laurence, standing outside the walls at the bottom of St. Laurence's Lane,, which later became Union Street. Sadly in 1822, the Corporation decided to build a new prison on the site. The beautiful half-timbered Friary, with its church, garden and orchard abuting upon the City wall could so easily have been preserved, but to save a few hundred pounds, an in-repairable loss was inflicted upon the City. 

The present Greyfriars appears to have been the Guest House of the Friary. In 1603, the Worcester Corporation granted a lease of the property for 400 years, and for many years it was the home of the Street family, one which, George Street, a staunch Royalist, was removed from the City Chamber when the Earl of Essex entered Worcester in 1642. In 1643 he died, at the early age of 49, being followed by his widow in 1644. It was Stated on their tomb in St Andrews Church, that 'she could not bear to be left behind' but as the plague was rampant in Worcester in that year, she probably had little choice.

Their son, Sir Thomas Street, was a barrister, and filled many important offices. He was Town Clerk and Recorder of Worcester, and of Droitwich, and M.P. for Worcester City in five Parliaments between 1659 and 1681. In 1659 the Puritans tried to turn him out of Parliament, on the grounds that he had borne arms for the King and that he had used profane language, but the Committee of Privilages had to admit that he had not fought against Parliament, and that he had used no stronger language than, 'by my faith and trothe'. Sir Thomas rose to high rank in the his profession and became a figure of national importance, when he alone of twelve judges pronounced against the right of James II to grant Dispensation from the Test Act. At the beginning of his career he clashed with the Puritans, and at the close, the Whigs were his enemies. Street's public career ended with the coming of William III, who would not grant him an interview.

By 1698, the lease of Greyfriars had been sold to the Maris family, who lived there for over 100 years, and then in 1724, it was let to Daniel George, a baker and malster, who turned the top of the house, immediately under the rafters, into a tiled withering floor, the tiles being cemented d own to the boards. (Withering is part of the process of preparing the barley for malting). It was the George family who divided the Friary into four tenements, and built the row of ten cottages in the garden, eastward to the City Wall; the road through the Friary gateway became known as George's Yard. About 1870, Henry Schaffer, a German refugee from the 1848 Revolution, further mutilated the building by converting the hall into shops despite sharp local criticism, especially from John Noake, the local historian.

It was the beginning of the process whereby the Friary became one of the worst of the City's slum properties. The roof was in a terrible state of dilapidation, with rain coming through to the rooms below. Part of the building had become a greengrocers, and the back rooms were filled with the vegetable debris of years. Part of the timber framing, that part of the building known now as Thompson's Trust, actually fell into the street. It remained in that state until the 1940-50s, when the property was purchased by MR.W.J.Thompson, and restored by Mr. J. Matley Moore.

Thankfully now the house is in a splendid condition under the control of the National Trust, and well worth a visit.