The Priory

‘Our Lady of Doncaster’ and the Carmelite Priory (1346-1538)

In the 13th century a new religious movement reached England. The Friars, who resisted the traditions of existing enclosed orders of monks, and had much more contact with ordinary people and intellectual life. They ‘set up shop’ in towns to preach to the people and survived by receiving ‘alms’ to live a simple life.The two main orders of Friars were the Fransiscans (followers of St Francis of Assisi, in Italy) and the Dominicans (following the Spaniard, St Dominic). There were male orders (monks) and female orders (nuns). The Fransiscan nuns were called ‘poor clares’. Similar orders of Friars were the Carmelites and Augustinians.

The Carmelite Friars came to Doncaster in 1346 and in 1350 moved to a site between the High Street and St Sepulchre Gate made available by Richard le Ewere of Doncaster and John Nightbrother of Eyan with patronage by King Richard II and possibly his brother, John of Gaunt. On the six acre site, now in part occupied by the 1740’s Mansion House, they created a Priory with a church in honour of St Mary, living accomodation, and an early shrine to ‘Our Lady of Doncaster’. The entrance gate was opposite Scot Lane.

The Carmelite Priory was a place of importance on the Great North Road. Passing Royals and pilgrims paid their devotions to ‘Our Lady’ and lodged with the Whitefriars on the High Street. Here are some of them:

  • Henry V in 1399
  • Edward IV in 1470
  • Henry VII in the late 1480’s (jouneying north from Nottingham to hear mass before the Lady shrine)
  • Henry VII’s daughter Margaret on en-route to Scotland to become James IV’s Queen.

Given the Priory’s dissolution in 1538 no doubt Henry VIII viewed his acquisition while passing through Doncaster to York in 1541 – or at least the prospect of proceeds by sale of land and stone to local gentry. The statue of ‘Our Lady’ had already been removed by the Archbishop Lee of York and may have found its way to be burnt in London with other Our Lady images.

Bishop Latimer writing to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chancellor, with reference to the Our Lady of Worcester, says – ” She has been the Devils instrument, i fear, to bring many to eternal fire, now she herself with her older sister of Walsingham, her younger sister of Ipswich, and their two sisters of Doncaster and Penrhys, will make a jolly muster in Smithfield. They would not be all day in burning”.

Bishop Latimer was himself to burn at the stake along with Bishops Ridley and Cranmer outside Balliol College in Oxford by edict of a new catholic Queen Mary in the 1550’s – a brief period of catholic resurgence. Perhaps Doncaster’s ‘Our Lady’ statue still exists in some catholic family Priest’s hole? But probably not!

At the Carmelite Priory, ‘Our Lady’ was surrounded by lit candles and tapers and occasionally devotional gifts. Anthony Lord Rivers penitent’s hair shirt after his execution at Pontefract at the end of Edward IV’s reign in 1483, Constance Bigod of Settington’s silver and gilt work girdle (1449), Katherine Hasting’s ‘Tawny Gown’ (1506), “my best bedes” from Alice West of Ripon and John Twisilton’s silver gilt crown. Presumably the bed linen and gown were utilised for vestments.

The Priors were paid by various nobility and gentry to light candles on their behalf at a set number of daily or monthly mass celebrations.

My Lord useth and accustomyth to paye yorly for the fyndyne of a light of wax to birre befor our ladye in the Whitfrers of my lordis foundation at mastyme dailey”

Just prior to the Henrician dissolution in 1524, William Nicholson of Townsburgh, near Doncaster was fording the Don in an oxcart conveying the Leche family and their household goods. A flood overturned the cart but miraculously all were saved. The Leche wife was swept downstream and they all prayed to Our Lady for her safety – she survived. Hence, a celebration to the miracle at the Priory on St Mary Magdalene’s day attended by 300 souls.

Dissolution

Within 15 years ‘Our Lady’ was gone with no more miracles apparently possible. On November 13th 1538 Prior Stubbis and seven other priors handed over the Priory to the King’s Commissioners, Hugh Wirrel and Teshe. The property inventory did not include ‘Our Lady’ as she had already been removed by Archbishop Lee of York. Given that Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion of 1536, had briefly resided with the Greyfriars in Marshgate, the Carmelites no doubt felt any protest at their dissolution ill advised. The Whitefriars had provided lodgings for the Duke of Norfolk’s Royalists despite Prior Cook being a rebel supporter and hence removed in 1537.

Today a new ‘Our Lady’ shrine, cut from Roche Abbey stone, exists at Doncaster’s Roman Catholic St Peter in Chains church in a Shrine Chapel on the north side.

Nothing remains of the original priory and shrine bar the street names and a Pilgrim’s Token (Badge) an inch square, now to be found at Lynn museum, Kings Lynn, in Norfolk. The Carmelite Priory at dissolution provided Henry’s Exchequer with 11½ lb of plate (silver), land rental for the site, buildings, gardens and orchards of £10 per year, and £23 for the sale of certain buildings. Its marble tomb of Margaret, Countess of Westmoreland, was transferred to St George’s Parish church.

Prior Laurence Cook of the Carmelites was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1538 to 1540 for his support of Robert Aske in 1536. You can still see the name he carved in the first floor of the Beauchamp Tower: “Doctor Cook”.

The Franciscan ‘Greyfriars’ on a 6½ acre Marshgate site, were dissolved at the same time when its Warden, Thomas Kirkham, six friars and three novices were given £3 to divide between them in recompense. The buildings produced 46 tons of lead, four bells and three lb’s of plate. The main building sold for £11 plus future sale of the 6½ acre site including four fishponds.

At the dissolution the Crown also confiscated chantry chapel endowments, land, cottage and inn, and sold these including St Mary Magdalene church in the market place to local gentry. The latter site, purchased by Alderman Thomas Symkinson, was gifted to Doncaster Corporation in 1557 for use as council, court and grammar school premises.

Written by Tony Storey – Freeman of Doncaster.