The Sack Friars 1262 - 1342

Towards the end of the eleventh century, a growing number of monks felt compelled to abandon the increasingly opulent monastic lifestyle and return to Christ’s ideals, owning nothing and sharing everything. Several new mendicant orders were founded, the friars (brothers) all adopting a lifestyle of poverty, service and evangelism. 

Rather than living in grand, isolated abbeys, mendicants spread the gospel in towns and cities. They were active in community life - teaching, ministering to the sick, poor and destitute, and hearing confession in homes and streets. Unlike monks, friars were not bound by a votum stabilatus (vow of permanency) to any one place and travelled widely, often internationally. In contrast to generally ill-educated parish priests, many friars were impressive orators and townspeople flocked to hear them preach, identifying with the friars’ poverty, which generally mirrored their own lot in life.

Four main orders grew and developed - the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Carmelites, all of whom eventually established friaries in the important and bustling medieval town of Stamford. Many smaller orders also arose and the Sack Friars arrived in Stamford between 1272 and 1274, choosing a base immediately outside St Peter’s Gate, close to the castle, the mill and one of the town's potteries and immediately opposite what is now Rutland Terrace.

 

 

Each order had its own terminus or territory on which it was allowed to preach and beg and in the Sack Friars' case it probably included the hamlet of Bradcroft and the land that now forms the Waterfurlong Gardens.

The friars’ survival depended on the goodwill of their listeners and this gave rise to the term ‘mendicant’, derived from the Latin mendicare, meaning ‘to beg’. 

All mendicants adopted the maxim SIBI SOLI VIVERE SED ET ALIIS PROFICERE (do not live for oneself, live only for others).

Who Were The Sack Friars?

The Order of the Penitence of Jesus Christ was commonly known as The Sack Friars (Fratres de Sacco) because of the brothers’ coarse, blue sackcloth robes. Even by mendicant standards the order’s lifestyle was austere, the friars going barefoot or wearing wooden sandals, eating no meat and drinking only water. 

sack friar

The order had been established in Provence by two lay penitents, who managed to obtain papal endorsement from Innocent IV in 1251. It quickly spread across Europe and in 1257 the chronicler Matthew Paris reported the order’s arrival in England 'A certain new and unknown order of friars has appeared in London'. Initially settling outside Aldersgate, the friars began attracting royal patronage and in 1272 Henry III bequeathed them 100 marks in order to buy property and expand throughout the kingdom. As well as Stamford, priories were established in Oxford, Cambridge, Leicester, Northampton, Lincoln and Canterbury, while an endowment by Richard, Earl of Cornwall (son of King John) enabled the Order to set up a small headquarters at Ashridge Abbey in Hertfordshire. 

The priory at Ashridge was intended to accommodate a rector and twenty brothers. Richard of Cornwall’s gift of a phial of the Sacred Blood of Jesus Christ, acquired whilst travelling in Germany, attracted many thousands of pilgrims at a time when holy relics were believed to hold immense power. 

Suppression of the Order

By 1273 the order had 122 houses across Europe but its days were numbered. The huge popularity of begging friars and proliferation of new orders was beginning to threaten the established church, with donations from wealthy benefactors being distributed as alms to the poor rather than glorifying God through the building and furnishing of lavish churches and monasteries.

The following year at the Council of Lyons, Pope Gregory X suppressed all mendicant orders, with the exception of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Augustinians. At that point the Augustinians (or Austin Friars) did not have a presence in Stamford. 

The Sack Friars were by far the largest and most widespread of the mendicant orders dissolved. Ironically, their piety, humility and otherworldiness was probably the source of their downfall – it was these very qualities that brought them so much royal and noble largesse. Unlike the four spared orders, the Sack Friars did nothing to fight for their own survival. In a circular letter, their Prior General informed his communities 'Rome has spoken' and Rome had to be obeyed, whatever the cost; the friars were expected to react with compliance, not protest. Some clung onto the hope that the Pope’s decision would be 

reversed, but this never happened. Nevertheless, the fact it took nearly 30 years for any of the order’s English houses to be fully disbanded gives an insight into public dismay at the Sack Friars’ dissolution.  

What Happened to the Stamford Sack Friars?

Once the dissolution began, some communities of Sack Friars switched across to other orders en masse, normally to the Augustinians or the Dominicans. In other cases, Sack Friars made use of the concession to continue living in their current friary until the last occupant died. Sometimes the remaining friars in a geographical region amalgamated into a single house. We know Leicester was the first English Sack Friary to close and that it did so in 1300 and we also know that same year Edward I granted a pittance (small daily allowance) to sustain four friars in the Stamford house. This was their only means of support as they were were no longer permitted to preach or beg. 

We do not know when the last Sack Friar left Stamford. In 1326 their friary was occupied by one John de Harrington, who seems to have lived there in some style as a royal servant and on John's death the property passed to his son, Baldwin. 

 

It has been speculated that the order was in some way connected with the Cathars of Southern France and that this was another reason for its dissolution. Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, and father-in-law of the Sack Priors’ most generous English benefactor, Richard, Earl of Cornwall (who also held properties in Stamford), was certainly a high-profile Cathar sympathiser and wall 

paintings (now lost) in Ashridge 

Priory are alleged to have depicted 

Albigensian heresies.  

The Stamford Friaries

The Franciscans or Grey Friars were the first mendicant order to arrive in Stamford, settling in 1230 on land at the east end of St Paul’s Street. Their friary housed up to 46 brothers and was the most magnificent of the new establishments. Contradicting St Francis’s austere principles, Stamford’s Greyfriars even hosted passing royalty.

 

The Dominicans or Black Friars came next, building on a site just outside St George’s Gate. They were followed by the Carmelites or White Friars, who established themselves on land between St Paul’s Street and St Leonard’s Street. The Sack Friars were the last of the four to arrive and the only order to settle on the opposite side of town.

 

This wealth of priories was testament to Stamford’s size and status; important towns like Chester and Southampton were much less favoured. 

  

Seal of Richard,

Earl of Cornwall

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Acknowledgements to Frances Andrews for information in her book The Other Friars: The Carmelite, Augustinian, Sack and Pied Friars in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, 2015

 

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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