The Benedictine cathedral priory of the Most Holy Trinity in Norwich was founded by Bishop Herbert de Losinga in 1096. Together with the Benedictine nunnery at Carrow, founded in 1146, the monks and nuns were the main figures in the religious life of the city and people of Norwich. Then, in the early years of the thirteenth century, the city became home to the first of the orders of mendicant friars that were to bring about great changes in both the landscape and the life of the city. These orders, whose members lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, were formed to combat the problems encountered by the church throughout Europe. Eventually Norwich had houses of all four major orders of friars, in common with all the major towns and cities throughout the country.
In 1226 the Franciscans, usually know as Greyfriars from the colour of their habits, founded by St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) arrived in Norwich and set up a house in the area north of Conesford , in the area bounded by the present St Faith‘s Lane and Rose Lane. In the same year the Friars Preachers, known as the Dominicans or Blackfriars, arrived in Norwich and, at first, settled ‘over the water‘, in the area of the present Golden Dog Lane. They subsequently moved to occupy the site of the present St Andrew‘s and Blackfriars‘ Halls. Founded by St Dominic, who was born about 1170 in Spain, their original mission was to combat the Cathar heresy, prevalent in the Languedoc region of France. The next order of friars to arrive in Norwich were the Carmelites, or Whitefriars, who settled in the parish of St James in 1256, close to the former Jarrold printing works, on land given by a rich merchant, Philip Cowgate. The last friars to come to Norwich were the Augustinian or Austin Friars. They arrived in 1288-89 and set up their priory in King Street, south of the Franciscans‘ house, on a riverside site at St Anne‘s Staithe, next to the present Dragon Hall. The Whitefriars and the Austin Friars did not trace their origins to a particular founder, but were amalgamations of small, earlier communities of hermits living, in the case of the Whitefriars, on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land and, in the case of the Austin Friars, groups of hermits living in northern Italy.
And so, by the end of the thirteenth century, the mendicant friars and their buildings had become an integral part of daily life in the city of Norwich. Unlike the monks of the cathedral priory, the friars were not confined to their cloister. They went about the streets of the city preaching and teaching the Christian faith, as well as begging for alms for their livelihood. As well as teaching the local people the friars also had schools for educating their own members, preparing them for ordination to the priesthood. Many of the friars attended the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, whilst some studied at universities on mainland Europe. Their schools in Norwich were of a very high standard and attracted scholars from other parts of the country and Europe. A future pope, Alexander V, himself a Franciscan, attended the Norwich Greyfriars‘ school before going on to Oxford. The friaries had extensive libraries, and many of the Norwich friars became authors of international repute.
The friars and their buildings were a significant part of the everyday life of the people of Norwich and its citizens. Their churches, large, spacious, and specially designed for preaching, became home to some of the craft guilds and religious societies that existed in medieval Norwich. Some of the anchorites, or hermits, of whom Norwich had many, had their hermitages built in the grounds of the friaries, often against the wall of the church. They frequently acted as ‘bridges‘ between the friars and the lay people. The considerable number of bequests made by local people to the friars and their convents demonstrate their popularity, with many people leaving equal amounts of money to all four friaries. Contemporary wills also show that laypeople, as well as some of the local parish clergy, asked to be buried in the friars‘ churches or churchyards.
At the Greyfriars‘, with the dissolution of religious houses throughout the country, the friars of Norwich left their convents. Some became clergy in the new, reformed Church of England, others became laymen. The buildings of the Greyfriars and the Austin Friars have disappeared. Of the Whitefriars‘ convent only an arch and an undercroft remain on the site. The buildings of these friaries passed through a number of hands after their dissolution before being demolished. Only the friary of the Blackfriars has survived. It was purchased by the city corporation in 1540, for the sum £81, although the city did have to pay to the king a further £152 for lead from the church roof! The nave of the church was turned into an assembly hall, now known as St Andrew‘s Hall. The chancel, or friars‘ choir, known today as Blackfriars‘ Hall, became the municipal chapel.
The history of the Friars in Medieval Norwich can be explored further, in much greater detail, in ‘Medieval Norwich‘ edited by Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson and published in 2004. There is also a shorter account of the friaries of Norwich in ‘Piety and Learning - The Friars in Medieval Norwich‘ by Terry Adkin, a copy of which is in the Norfolk Studies Section at the Norwich Millennium Library. A wider view of the church in contemporary Norwich can be found in ‘The Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370 - 1532‘ by Norman Tanner, published in 1984.