The Greyfriars Chapel

The Greyfriars were the Franciscans, followers of St. Francis of Assisi. 9 Friars were sent by him in 1224 to help poor and needy people in England. They had taken vows of poverty and were only permitted to own their robes (of undyed and unbleached wool, the cheapest they could get, a wooden bowl to beg with and eat their suppers out of, and perhaps a pair of sandals. By the time they had made their way to Dover they looked so ragged and disreputable that they were arrested as obvious thieves and vagabonds. One fairly melodramatic tale recounts how, on being told he was suspected of being a thief, one of the Friars took the rope belt from his waist and held it out to his accuser saying “Well if you think I’m a thief here is a halter to hang me with” thereby demonstrating his holiness. It is more logical to conclude that the Friars were supplied with copies of the Bible (then in Latin) and asked to show that they could read it.

Four of the Friars went on to found a house in Oxford and the remainder took shelter in Alexander of Gloucester’s new Poor Priests Hospital (from 1220). There they shared the schoolroom, going out during the day to do their good deeds (or sheltering in a little store-cupboard if it were raining) and coming back in the evening to cook their simple supper over the schoolroom fire. This was usually a porridge made from spent barley grains(barley which had been used to brew beer) which are nowadays usually fed to cattle but then were considered good enough for the Friars.

Eventually in 1267 a rich merchant of Canterbury, John Digge gave the Friars the island of Binnewith (now Greyfriars Island), presumably in the expectation that they would pray for his soul and get him out of purgatory faster. We don’t know which particular sins were worrying him to the point where he felt obliged to give away an island. On this land the friars built a small, 4 building monastery of which only one building, thought to have been the water-mill and dormitory survives.

In 1533 the friars became involved in the scandal of Elizabeth Barton, the Mad (or Holy) Maid of Kent. Elizabeth claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to her in visions to give prophecies as to the future of England. These were generally appeals to remain within the Catholic Church and renounce Lutheranism and to begin with were looked on favourably by King Henry VIII. However, when the king was planning to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and to marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth prophesised that if he should do so then he would die within a year. This led to her being arrested and she supposedly confessed that her prophecies had been fabricated and that she had been pressured into making them by some of the churchmen opposed to the King’s remarriage. She was found guilty by Act of Attainder and hanged at Tyburn on 20th April 1534 along with some of her supporters, including two of the Canterbury Greyfriars. The rest of the brothers were held under house arrest at the Greyfriars until the house was dissolved some 4 years later. Elizabeth Barton is still revered by the Anglican Catholic Church in Canterbury.

At the dissolution the Greyfriars came into the hands of Thomas Spilman (who was in charge of disposing of the smaller monasteries in Canterbury) who had it converted into a house. It later passed into the hands of the Lovelace family, the most famous member of which was Richard Lovelace, the Cavalier poet (“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage”). After the English Civil war the Lovelaces’ had lost much of their land and property and most of the Greyfriars fell into disrepair and was demolished, leaving only the one building over the mill-stream. This has recently been acquired by the Anglican Franciscan order, who hold a service there each Wednesday at 12:30pm. However, at some point in history the Franciscans have changed the colour of their robes and now wear brown instead of grey.

The Eastbridge Hospital

Canterbury became a very popular pilgrimage destination after the murder of Thomas Becket on 29/12/1170. To cater for them a number of hospitals were set up where pilgrims were shown hospitality, being offered a meal and place to sleep free of charge. The word hospital derives from the Latin word Hospitale meaning hospitable. Our modern usage derives from the fact that sick or injured pilgrims would not be forced to leave but would be nursed back to health.

The Eastbridge Hospital was founded c1190AD by Edward FitzOdbald and its first master was Ralph, the nephew of Thomas Becket. It had to be refounded in 1342 by Archbishop Stratford after it fell into decay. The master of the Hospital was also responsible for the upkeep of the King’s Bridge and charged a toll on passers bye to help with the costs of this. This continued until 1769 when the bridge was widened and the City Council took over responsibility for its maintenance. It is said that the hospital was very damp and suffered from regular flooding largely due to the King’s Mill just downstream.

After the pilgrimages were closed down by King Henry VIII the hospital was established as a home for ten elderly people of Canterbury who have become known as the in-brothers and in-sisters of the Hospital. This occurred under Archbishop Whitgift in 1586. It also housed a school where 20 young boys of the city would be taught to read and write, this having been established by Archbishop Parker. The school only closed in the 1879. The Hospital was also responsible for looking after wounded or sick soldiers coming through the city and it is thought that the last incident of this happening was in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo.

The refectory contains a 13th century mural showing Christ surrounded by the four evangelists. A restored copy of this can be seen in the chapel. The Norman undercroft is where the pilgrims would bed down for the night.


The Black or Dominican Friars came to England in 1221 when they are recorded as having preached before King Henry III for about 3 hours (he was 14 at the time!).In 1237 he granted them the land on which the Blackfriars now stands, £500 towards the cost and the right to take timber from the Royal forest of Blean (Henry seems to have liked the order, he was just as generous towards their house in Gloucester). This is thought to have been their first house in England and was largely built of local flint, limestone and Caen stone. The friary was extensive and had around 11 buildings at its height, including a watermill (behind the guesthouse) and a large church (south of the refectory and stretching away from the river). It owned all the land between it and the High Street. The Blackfriars got their nickname from the black capes or kappas which were worn over their white robes. They were often associated with the Inquisition and were famous as heretic hunters.

Only the refectory, now part of the art department of the King’s School, and the guesthouse, now privately owned and available to hire for functions and as a community hall, are still standing, the rest of the buildings having been gradually demolished within 100 years of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 when King Henry VIII seized and sold off the Blackfriars.

The refectory was let out as a weaving factory and became the place where the Huguenot and Walloon weavers (locally known as the Strangers from the French term l’etranger) sold their cloth wholesale (they were forbidden to sell cloth retail to prevent competition with local merchants). It was also an Anabaptist chapel from the 1640s until 1912. It was later used by the 1st Church of Christian Scientists before they moved to their current location in Beer Cart Lane. The building is known to have been flooded often because of its location next to the river.

Abbots Mill

A mill has stood on this spot for over 700 years, since St.Augustine’s Monastery was forced to surrender the lease on the King’s Mill to King Henry II in 1174. At the dissolution of the monasteries the mill fell into the hands of King Henry VIII who sold it to the city Council. The last watermill here was built in 1792 by architect John Smeaton (1724-1792), better known for having designed the 3rd Eddystone lighthouse off Plymouth, at a cost of £8000. It was then owned by Alderman James Simmons who also owned the King’s Mill upstream. Not requiring both as watermills the King’s mill was converted into Simmons’s house. The mill was massive, being some 30m (100ʹ) tall, 6 stories high and the 2nd biggest building in Canterbury, after the Cathedral. It was later bought by the famous Canterbury artist, Thomas Sidney Cooper.

On October 17th 1933 a young lad working at the mill went to the hayloft and the top and found it full of smoke. By the time he had dashed down to the bottom and roused the mill workers from their breakfasts in their houses along Mill Lane the fire had taken too great a hold and the workers were driven back by the intense smoke and flames. Fire engines were summoned from Canterbury, Herne Bay and Bridge but were unable to save the mill. However, they did save the Millers Arms Pub across the road which had opened in 1826 to serve beer to the thirsty mill workers. No lives were lost in the fire and even all of the cats and dogs living at the mill were rescued (they were kept to keep down the numbers of mice and rats). The then owner, Mr Denne, announced to the local paper next day that he would ensure that all the workers would be employed in one of his other mills in Canterbury and East Kent, which in the height of the Great Depression must have been a great relief to them.

All that is now left of the mill are 2 metal pillars which supported one of the 16ʹ (5m) diameter water wheels and the axle of one of them. Pictures of the mill and the fire can be seen inside the Millers Arms Pub.

The sluice gates were built in 1829 for the mill and are now used for flood control. When the river is high one or more of the 12 upper or 6 lower gates will be opened by either the Environment Agency or the City Council in order to control the water level. If one of the lower gates is open we do not try to operate!