Greyfriars, Canterbury


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Site of former Franciscan friary, including parts of the grounds belonging to Eastbridge Hospital and St Peter's Methodist School, and part of Greyfriars Gardens.


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Site of former Franciscan friary, including parts of the grounds belonging to Eastbridge Hospital and St Peter's Methodist School, and part of Greyfriars Gardens.
Canterbury (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Franciscan friary, founded 1224 by Agnellus of Pisa, rebuilt 1267-1325, dissolved 1538.

(NB The layout of the historic centre of Canterbury is determined by the north-west/south-east axis of St Peter’s Street/High Street, and by the south-west/north-east course of the Great Stour as it flows through the city. This description follows the established practice of treating Canterbury sites as if they were aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, i.e. as if the Westgate did indeed face west rather than north-west.)

Reasons for Designation

Canterbury Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary founded in 1224, rebuilt between 1267 and 1325 and dissolved in 1538, is included on the Schedule of Ancient Monuments for the following principal reasons:

* Historical interest: this was England's earliest Franciscan house, strategically established in the country's ecclesiastical capital by members of the first Franciscan mission to these shores in 1224;

* Survival: extensive remains survive from the stone friary complex built from 1267 onwards, including the foundations of the chapel and domestic ranges, two stone bridges, the lay cemetery and one complete building, interpreted as the warden's lodging or guest hall;

* Potential: most of the site has not been built upon, and retains the potential for significant new discoveries;

* Documentation: the history of this important site is well documented in the county record office and the Cathedral archives, and has been widely published.


EARLY HISTORY The site of Greyfriars is in the south-western part of the historic centre of Canterbury, within the circuit of defensive walls built during the late C3, and close to the line of Watling Street, the main Roman road between London and the east Kent coast. The land here, between the main intra- and extra-mural arms of the Great Stour, was marshy and prone to flooding – the area is still referred to by its Saxon name of Binnewith, meaning ‘within the willows’ – and is thought to have remained largely undeveloped during the Roman and early medieval periods. By the C12, industries such as milling, tanning, fulling and dyeing had become established, taking advantage of the numerous waterways for power, transport and drainage. Crierne Mill, a corn mill belonging to Christ Church Priory (i.e. the Cathedral), stood on or near the present site and was in existence by 1179. At that time the site comprised two river islands bounded by three small river channels, of which the westernmost – known as Thuate – has now disappeared. The principal access was from Crierne Mill Lane, which continued the westward line of Beer Cart Lane/Water Lane, crossing the islands and channels via a series of fords or bridges, before turning north along what is now the line of St Peter’s Grove. When the Poor Priests’ Hospital was founded in in 1224 in what is now Stour Street, the smaller of the two islands became the hospital’s garden.

THE FRANCISCAN FRIARY The order of Friars Minor – also known as Minorites, Franciscans and Grey Friars – was founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209, and sought, like the other mendicant orders of the C13, to spiritualise the unchurched masses at the bottom of medieval society through an itinerant life of preaching and poverty. The order reached England within Francis’ own lifetime: nine friars under the leadership of Agnellus of Pisa landed at Dover on 10th September 1224, travelling thence to Canterbury where they were received by the Benedictines of Christ Church. Four then set out for London, while the remaining five were lodged with the Poor Priests. Alexander of Gloucester, the Hospital's founder and Warden, was a supporter of the friars, and before the end of the year had settled Agnellus and his brethren on a site within the hospital garden. This settlement, whose fabric probably comprised no more than a few wattle-and-mud cells and a small wooden oratory, was England’s earliest Franciscan friary, the first of about 60 Minorite houses eventually established in this country.

In 1267 there came a further grant of land by John Digge, a wealthy citizen and Alderman of Canterbury, who gave several acres on the larger western island for the building of a permanent friary complex. An extensive group of stone buildings was erected here, including accommodation for some 35 brothers and a substantial church, the latter consecrated in 1325. Further grants of land, chiefly in 1279 (when a section of Crierne Mill Lane was enclosed) and 1336, eventually gave the friars an estate of some 18 acres: its western part, used mainly for cultivation, was bounded by a ditch on what is now the line of Black Griffin Lane. On each of these occasions the land was held in trust by the citizenry, since the friars’ own rule forbade them to hold property directly. The friars played an important role in the life of the city: their preaching was very popular both with the laity - who attended the friary church in large numbers, and often sought burial in the lay cemetery alongside - and with the monastic orders, and they also maintained an extensive library, some volumes from which are now in the British Library and the Bodleian.

THE DISSOLUTION AND AFTER In 1498 the Canterbury house was confirmed as part of the Observant Friars, a reformed branch of the order introduced to England in the previous decade. Under Henry VIII, however, it suffered the fate of England’s other religious houses. In 1534 several brothers were imprisoned, and two – plus the Warden, Richard Risby - were executed for refusing the terms of the Act of Supremacy and lending support to the anti-Reformation mystic Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’. In December 1538 the Bishop of Dover, Richard Ingworth, received in the King’s name the surrender of all the Canterbury friaries with their lands and property. The remaining friars, having promised ‘not to follow hensforth the supersticious tradicions of ony foryncicall potentate or peere’, were given five shillings apiece and dispersed.

In 1539 the land was acquired by Thomas Spilman, receiver of the local Court of Augmentations. He sold it five years later to Thomas Rolf, and in 1566 it passed into the Lovelace family, who built a substantial house on the site of the friary, probably incorporating some of the medieval buildings. The (surviving) high brick wall to the north, which incorporates re-used medieval fabric, was presumably built to enclose the formal gardens shown in John Speed’s map of 1611. At some point during this period, Greyfriars Passage was narrowed to its present width, and the Thuate channel gradually silted up, disappearing altogether by the late C19. The estate passed through various hands during the C18 and C19, before being split up into a series of garden plots in the late 1800s; Assisi Cottage was built as a gardener’s lodging during this period, and part of the land was still in use as a plant nursery until 1996.

EXCAVATIONS Greyfriars became a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1916, although the initial scheduling only covered the smaller island, where the original Franciscan house was established in 1224. The land was acquired in 1919 by Major HG James, the first president of the Canterbury Archaeological Society and a one-time mayor of the city. James carried out the first excavations here and uncovered the foundations of the post-1276 friary church; he also paid for the restoration of the one surviving building, which had been used as a lock-up and later divided into tenements, by the architect RH Goodsall. The next major excavations came in 1972-3, when the Canterbury Archaeological Society uncovered the foundations of the south-west corner of the quadrangle, along with what may have been a detached bell-tower. Prompted by these discoveries, the scheduling was extended in 1976 to include the late-C13/early-C14 friary complex.

Further excavations in 1988, associated with the re-opening of the ancient route across the site from Water Lane, exposed parts of the medieval river walls as well as the foundations of a post-medieval building on the island. Excavations in the school playground in 1990 revealed the site of the lay cemetery as well as part of a medieval stone bridge over the Thuate channel. In 1993-4 the stabilisation of the surviving C15/C16 garden gateway uncovered the south-eastern foundations of the church. A series of investigations in 2000 by Time Team confirmed the alignments of the west and south ranges and revealed the tiled flooring of the cloister walk and the foundations of the associated arcade. Re-landscaping in 2003 exposed the remains of what appears to have been a Lady chapel on the north side of the friars' chancel, along with a fireplace associated with the Lovelace mansion.


Franciscan friary, founded 1224 by Agnellus of Pisa, rebuilt 1267-1325, dissolved 1538.

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS The scheduled monument includes the core precincts of Canterbury’s Franciscan friary, first established in 1224 and rebuilt between 1267 and 1325. The eastern part of the site, which forms a small river island, was the location of the first friary of 1224; its buildings were probably lightweight timber structures, and no evidence of them has been found to date (2014). The larger western part – encircled during the medieval period by a (now vanished) river channel known as Thuate – includes the site of the stone friary buildings erected between 1267 and 1325. The main elements still visible above ground comprise: the surviving C13 building spanning the river, variously interpreted as a guest house or warden’s lodging; the remnants of the friary church incorporated into the eastern boundary of Greyfriars Passage; and part of a stone bridge across the main river channel, along with the stone revetments upstream of it. Excavations have partially revealed the foundations of the friary church and domestic buildings, as well as a second bridge (carrying Greyfriars Passage across the Thuate channel) and the location of the friary’s lay cemetery.

THE SITE The Greyfriars site is within the historic centre of Canterbury, south of St Peter’s Street/High Street and east of St Peter’s Grove, in a low-lying riverside area known since Saxon times as Binnewith. The Great Stour divides into several channels as it flows through the city, and both parts of the scheduled site were originally islands. The smaller eastern part – the site of the first friary of 1224 – is still an island, teardrop-shaped and about an acre in extent, bisected by a walled pathway linked to modern footbridges at Water Lane and Greyfriars Gardens. The part of the island to the north of this pathway is a public garden belonging to the Eastbridge Hospital, accessed from Stour Street via a second pair of modern bridges at the island’s downstream tip. The privately-owned land to the south is overgrown, and contains three prefabricated structures of the WWII period (see Exclusions, below).

The larger western part of the site, where the post-1267 friary buildings stood, comprises about 2.25 acres, bounded by the river to the east and by the former course of the Thuate channel to the west. Its southern tip forms part of the City Council-owned Greyfriars Gardens, the rest being divided between the playground of St Peter’s Methodist School to the west and the Eastbridge Hospital gardens on the east. The dividing line is a narrow disused lane known as Greyfriars Passage, which bisects the site diagonally, and which originally gave access to the friary’s north gate in St Peter’s Street.

(The friary’s outer precinct, which extended as far as Black Griffin Lane to the west, was used for cultivation and has since been built upon; its archaeological potential is low and it is not included in the scheduled area.)

STRUCTURES The core of the friary complex, built from 1267 onwards, is believed to have formed an irregular three-sided quadrangle, open to the river on the eastern side where the so-called warden’s lodging still stands. On the north side was the church, consecrated in 1325, its nave and chancel divided (as was common in English Franciscan sites) by a ‘walking place’ aligned with Greyfriars Passage. The listed flint and stone wall on the east side of the passage incorporates the lower parts (moulded stone jambs with attached shafts) of the C13 triple archway between the walking-place and the chancel, although it is not clear whether these are in situ. The foundations of the chancel have been revealed in excavations, as have those of an attached structure to the north, believed to be a Lady Chapel, and of a detached structure interpreted as a bell-tower. Franciscan friaries typically also comprised a refectory, dormitory, chapter house, study, library and infirmary, but the precise arrangement of the domestic ranges at Canterbury is uncertain; both west and south ranges are believed to have been extended outside the quadrangle at some point after 1275.

The surviving building is aligned with the river channel that runs beneath it, and may occupy the site of the earlier Crierne Mill. It is a two-storey building of flint with stone dressings and much inserted brickwork, under a tiled roof whose steeper southern section was believed by Goodsall (who dismantled and reconstructed it during the 1919 restoration) to represent the original pitch. The end walls are reinforced by sloping angle buttresses, partly restored, and span the water on double pointed arches with a central circular pier sunk into the river-bed. There are tall lancets in the gable-ends, and tall square-headed first-floor windows in the east elevation, the latter restored on surviving evidence by Goodsall, who also took down a later extension on the western side. The interiors (which Goodsall also restored, adding the present stair and removing inserted partitions and floors) are divided on both levels between a larger room at the northern end and a smaller one to the south. The upper storey - which Goodsall thought was originally accessed via an external stair - is open to the roof, and divided by a timber and plaster screen wall formed of tall close-set studs with a moulded central post.

A number of important features survive beyond this central cluster. The most visible is the bridge of 1309, which gave direct access to the priory site from Stour Street. The smaller western arch of this bridge, comprising two courses of ragstone blocks, still survives, the eastern arch – of wider span to allow the passage of boats – having been rebuilt in brick in the C18. The revetment walls upstream from this bridge have lower courses formed of large ashlar blocks, also presumably from the friary period. The remains of a second bridge (a single stone arch and a parapet of ashlar blocks) survive where Greyfriars Passage crossed the Thuate channel en route to the friary’s north gate; a map of c.1640 suggests that a stone archway stood at the southern end of this bridge, marking the entrance to the precinct. Beneath the school playground to the west, excavations in 1990 uncovered a number of burials belonging to the friary’s lay cemetery.

The listed C16 brick garden wall that forms the principal remnant of the Lovelace property is excluded from the scheduling (see Exclusions, below). It nevertheless incorporates a considerable amount of medieval fabric, including much recycled stonework and two re-set C15 archways: one (now blocked) at the corner north of Assisi Cottage, and another, much more elaborate one in a detached return section at the southern end next to the warden’s lodging.

EXCLUSIONS The listed C16 brick wall and re-set C15 archway are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included. All other later walls (including the unlisted part of the east wall to Greyfriars Passage), fences, paths, benches, paving, modern footbridges, rubbish bins, lamp posts, signs, tree cages, the school playground and car park surfaces and their makeup, the school buildings, Assisi Cottage, the glasshouse at the northern end of the site and the prefabricated structures in the southern part of the island are all excluded from the scheduling, though the ground beneath them is included.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
KE 2
Legacy System:


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Kent: Volume II, (1926), 193-4
Cotton, C, Goodsall, R H, The Grey Friars of Canterbury, 1224 to 1538, (1924)
Knowles, D, Hadcock, R. N, Medieval Religious Houses in England and Wales, (1971), 190
O'Sullivan, Deirdre, In the Company of Preachers, (2013), 90-94
Urry, W, Canterbury under the Angevin Kings, (1967)
Bennett, P, Austin, R, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 1994-1995' in Greyfriars Gate, (1996), 3-7
Bennett, P, Ouditt, S, 'Archaeologia Cantiana' in St Peter's Methodist School, , Vol. CVIII, (1990), 207-12
Cherry, J, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Medieval Britain in 1973, , Vol. XVIII, (1974), 191
Cherry, J, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Medieval Britain in 1972, , Vol. XVII, (1973), 155
Cook, R, 'Archaeologia Cantiana' in Report of the council for the year 1919, , Vol. XXXV, (1921), xxxi-xxxiii
Little, A, 'Archaeologia Cantiana' in The Grey Friars of Canterbury, , Vol. XXXIV, (1920), 79-85
Millard, L, 'Canterbury Archaeological Society 52nd Annual Report' in Greyfriars, Canterbury, (1972), 19-20
Millard, L, 'Archaeologia Cantiana' in Excavation of Greyfriars, Canterbury, , Vol. LXXXVIII, (1973), 214
Millard, L, 'Archaeological Society 53nd Annual Report' in Greyfriars, (1973), 12-13
Millard, L, 'Canterbury Archaeological Society 54th Annual Report' in Greyfriars site, Canterbury, (1974), 11
Ouditt, S, Bennett, P, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 1989-1990' in St Peter's Methodist School, (1991), 9-11
Pratt, S, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 1999-2000' in St Peter's Grove and St Peter's Methodist Primary School, (2002), 8-9
Pratt, S, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 2002-2003' in Greyfriars, (2004), 9
Ward, A, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 1995-1996' in Greyfriars Bridge, (1997), 14
Ward, S, 'Canterbury’s Archaeology 1997-1998' in Greyfriars Gardens, (2002), 4-5


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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