A HISTORY OF WARRINGTON IN 10 1/2 OBJECTS: THE FRIARY MANUSCRIPT
Hello and welcome to Episode 6 of a History of Warrington in 10.5 Objects. My name is Craig Sherwood and I’m the Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
One of the questions we’re frequently asked in the museum – other than where are the toilets – is how did such-and-such a pub in Warrington get its name. It’s often a fairly straightforward answer – a pub called the Barley Mow is named after a house where barley was stacked for brewing, the Ring of Bells is so named because it’s near to the church and likely where the bell ringers departed for some lubrication after an intense session of campanology. One pub that we rarely get asked about is one of the most modern pubs in town, the Friar Penketh. This is because the clue is quite literally in the name, there was a Friar he was called Penketh … end of. But who actually was Friar Penketh and what did he do?
Well, the truth is that Friar Penketh is probably Warrington’s first international celebrity – during his lifetime he was more well-known than Kerry Katona, more controversial than Rebecca Brookes and a better singer than Rick Astley (I can’t actually back that last claim up in any way).
Thomas remains a difficult figure to pin down and even the location of the friary where he once lived was lost for a century. His story is one of those historical stories where truth is difficult to separate from fiction. If you want to see what I mean try playing a drinking game while listening to this episode and downing a drink every time I say some variation of the phrase “some historians argue”, “most accounts agree” or “whatever the truth of the matter”. You might want to arrange to take the following day off work.
You might also want to prepare yourself for a joke about monks that’s so bad that I apologise for it in advance and indeed, immediately afterwards.
But I happen to think that Friar Penketh’s story is an interesting one, full of philosophers and kings and one where reputations are won and then lost. It’s a story we’re spinning out from the first document to be featured in this series, the so-called Friary Manscript.
Object number 6, an illuminated medieval manuscript on vellum, written in the year 1483 in Warrington.
Looking at the manuscript in front of me you can see by the way it’s laid out that it’s a letter, only 10 lines long, written in brown ink in large gothic handwriting. It feels a little like a medieval application form because the names of the recipients, Sir Richard Langton and his wife Isabelle, have been filled in later in spaces that were left blank by the scribe. The initial letter, a large illuminated F, is in pink and has been filled with lush acanthus leaves in blue and green and pink, picked out in white and yellow on a ground of burnished gold.
The particular letter is a type of manuscript known as a letter of confraternity. Anxiety about the afterlife reached its peak in the Middle Ages with many people concerned about the amount of time that they would need to spend in purgatory – sort of a celestial waiting room – before their eventual arrival in heaven. Then, as now, wherever there’s anxiety there’s a business opportunity and so this led the Church to create something called indulgences. These were effectively pardons issued by the church that reduced the time a soul spent in purgatory. Indulgences could be earned through acts of faith or through a pilgrimage but for many wealthy people this was just too much hard work .. and so you could obtain a shortcut by buying them via donations to the Church. One common form of indulgence was a letter of confraternity which for a small fee made the recipients honorary member of a religious order. This meant that they were able to enjoy the same benefits as a monk or friar when they died including full burial rites and a VIP fast track to heaven.
This particular letter was signed in Warrington – or as the letter puts it ‘Weryngtonie’ – by a Friar Katrall but it is the name at the top of the document that concerns us, namely the head of the Friar Katrall’s order – one Thomas Penketh.
Penketh is now a suburb to the west of Warrington but during the Middle Ages it was a village held by the Penketh family on behalf of the lords of Warrington, the Botelors who we covered briefly in our last episode.
Thomas Penketh was born into the family sometime around 1437. As a younger son of minor gentry who only really needed an heir and a spare he was pretty much surplus to requirements and was expected to enter the priesthood. Thomas’ uncle had taken holy orders and had become vicar of the nearby town of Sandbach. Thomas’ brother, Bartholomew, became rector of Gretworth in Northamptonshire. Thomas took a somewhat different path, however, and he became a Friar of the Austin House at Warrington, which later known simply as Warrington Friary.
Now because they are so often confused it may be worthwhile saying a word or two here about the difference between a monk and a friar. The most obvious difference is, of course, that you can’t cook chips in a monk.
I’m so, so sorry – that’s the joke I warned you about, so you’re past it now.
The word “monk” comes from the Greek word for hermit and monks chose to serve God by living a life of contemplation away from society in a self-sufficient isolated community. They took vows of obedience, chastity and poverty but were allowed to own property in common – including land and buildings. This would eventually bring them into conflict with the monarchy but more on that later.
The word “friar”, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word for brother. Friars also took vows of chastity, obedience and poverty but unlike monks they were encouraged to leave their friaries and work amongst the common people, preaching and collecting money to be redistributed to the poor, sick and needy.
There were several orders of Friars – the most famous is probably the Franciscans, but others include the Dominicans and the Camelites. Warrington Friary was founded by an order known as the Augustinians or Austin Friars, so-called because they followed a set of rules written by the awesomely named Saint Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century.
The Austin friars had founded Warrington Friary sometime between 1261 and 1292. It was largely funded by William le Botelor, the lord of Warrington, almost certainly as an act of piety as he was later buried in the Friary’s church. Thomas’ family the Penkeths may also have been donors and it seems like many local lords and ladies contributed as the indications are that Warrington Friary was one of the largest in the area.
Because friars depended on others for funds – either grants from local lords or donations from the common people – the presence of a Friary in the town by the 13th century can be seen as an indication that Warrington had achieved a certain amount of economic success. The friary was positioned near to both to the bridge over the River Mersey and to the main road into town because passing trade meant people, and people meant more donations to both support the friary and be distributed to the poor and needy.
Thomas did not remain at Warrington Friary all his life and after being trained there he left to continue his studies at the Austin Friary in Oxford. For unknown reasons in 1468 he moved to the Friary in Cambridge in 1468 where he became a Doctor of Theology at the University. There he was particularly attracted to the work of the religious philosopher John Duns who is commonly known as Duns Scotus or “Duns the Scot”.
John Duns reputation has faded into obscurity these days but during the Medieval period he was considered to be one of the most important religious philosophers of the age along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, whose name you might just recognise as it lives on today through the problem-solving principle of Occam’s Razor.
A few words about John Duns wont go amiss here. Born in Scotland over 170 years before Thomas John Duns writings on the subject of metaphysics were considered to be so nuanced that he earned the name the ‘Subtle Doctor’. John spent much of his early life studying in Oxford before travelling to Paris where he wrote most of his works and then finally to Cologne in Germany where he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1308 at the age of 42. According to legend John had a habit of falling into a temporary deathlike coma every so often and died when he was accidentally buried alive during one of these episodes because his devoted manservant who knew this was temporary happened to be out of town. This is almost certainly a myth and a more likely explanation is that he simply died of a hemorrhage or a stroke. Whatever the truth when John died he left behind a huge body of largely unfinished and unedited writings that were pored over for centuries by later scholars.
Pre-eminent amongst these scholars during the 15th century was our Thomas Penketh. It was said that Thomas’ knowledge of Duns writings was so deep and thorough that he could reproduce all of them from memory if they were ever lost. Later biographers described Thomas as being “like John Duns as milk is to milk, or one egg is to another”. His reputation as a scholar was such that in 1469 at around the age of 32 Thomas was elected Provincial or senior Friar over all other Austin Friars in England making him one of the most important religious figures in the country.
Thomas’ fame had also spread to Italy, which was no mean feat in the fifteenth century when it could take 4 months to exchange letters between the two countries. In 1474 he was invited to visit Italy where he was offered a teaching post as professor of theology at the University of Padua, one of the greatest Universities in Europe. At Padua he lectured in metaphysics and at the request of his pupils he began to publish amended editions of some of John Duns works. Printing was still in its infancy at the time and so Thomas Penketh’s writings are amongst the earliest surviving specimens of printed works in Italy. After completing his time in Padua he was offered an even more prestigious position at the University of Pavia, but he declined it as by this point he was determined to head back to England.
Returning to England in 1477 Penketh went back to Oxford where he assumed the Chair of Theology. In 1480 he was elected to become Provincial or senior Friar of the Augustinian order in England for the second time. Yet again Thomas was the most senior figure in one of the most important religious orders in the country. But with great power came great responsibilities and Thomas was required to relocate from the Friary at Oxford to the English headquarters of the order at the Austin Friary in London.
Up to now Thomas was a scholar who had largely avoided becoming involved in politics. The move to London, the seat of power in England, was to bring this to an end.
When King Edward IV died in April 1483 his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, was named lord protector of England on behalf of the King’s son and heir Edward V, then aged just 12.
Arrangements were made for the coronation of the new king on 22nd June 1483 but unfortunately for the Prince at some point the Bishop of Bath and Wells informed Richard that the young Edward V was actually illegitimate, her father having been promised in contract of marriage to another woman before his mother. Now Edward IV’s romantic history was certainly complicated and the truth of the matter will probably never be known for sure, but Richard certainly seemed to believe the report. If Edward V was illegitimate then the logic ran Richard, the King’s brother, was technically the rightful king of England. However Richard needed support in his claim, not just from the nobility and the populace but because his claim rested on religious law, from people of faith.
Shakespeare describes Richard’s next move in his play, Richard III, in which he has Richard send Lord Lovel to gather a number of conspirators:
“Ah, Go, Lovel, with all speed to Doctor Shaw;
Go thou to Friar Penker, bid them both
Meet me within this hour at Baynard’e Castle.”
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Baynard’s Castle was a medieval palace in London near the current site of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s not to be confused with Barnard’s Castle, which is a town in Durham reportedly able to miraculously cure poor eyesight.
The Dr Shaw mentioned in Shakespeare’s text was a Senior Canon and another important religious figure of the time, who just happened to be the brother of the Lord Mayor of London. Dr Shaw quickly came out in support of Richard’s claim at St Paul’s Cathedral on 22nd June 1483. The other person mentioned, Friar Penker, is our old friend the Provincial of the Augustinian Order in England, Thomas Penketh of Warrington.
So, was Thomas Penketh part of some conspiracy to install Richard III on the throne? Shakespeare’s play was written over a century after these events, of course, and furthermore written for Queen Elizabeth I who took a dim view of her grandfather’s enemy Richard III and anyone who’d supported him. Furthermore the play was based on the works of Thomas More which were written during the time of Henry VIII which were, to all intents and purposes, basically Tudor propaganda. #Fakenews if you like. It is not clear, therefore, whether Thomas was actually part of some conspiracy to seize power or whether – more likely – he was a scholar who was persuaded by the evidence that Richard was the legal and legitimate king of England.
Whatever his personal opinions, less than a year after King Richard III’s coronation in July 1483 Thomas spoke out in support of the king in a series of Easter Week sermons in London. These sermons were one of the most important religious events of the year and drew huge crowds. Also in attendance were London’s leading citizens of the day one of which was, perhaps not insignificantly, Dr Shaw’s brother the Mayor of London.
Thomas Penketh was scheduled to preach at St Mary’s in Bishopsgate. According to some reports he entered the pulpit and began his sermon in support of King Richard’s claim. Richard was the rightful King by law, he explained, and the Princes, his nephews, were illegitimate under the same law. Then, according to some reports and unusually for an accomplished speaker, Thomas faltered, stood in silence for a minute and then closed his book before descending from the pulpit and hurrying away. Historians unsympathetic to Richard III suggest Thomas’ resolve had failed him and he couldn’t bring himself to speak out in support of a pretender, others suggest that Thomas simply had a sore throat or that the incident never happened in the first place.
Whatever the truth of the matter the political landscape changed again when King Richard III’s short reign ended with his death in battle just over a year later in August 1485. Richard’s successor King Henry VII and his supporters set about destroying Richard’s reputation and that of those who had supported a king who they saw as a usurper. Thomas was just one of the many who had spoken out in favour of Richard’s claim but even today, thanks to Shakespeare, when his name is mentioned it is more likely to be in connection with his part in an alleged conspiracy than with his writings or scholarship.
It’s worth mentioning that if Thomas was indeed part of a plot it doesn’t seem to have affected his standing among the Augustinian Order. They re-elected him as Provincial for a third time and then invited him to dispute at the General Chapter at Siena in 1486, one of the highest honours in the order. Unfortunately Thomas couldn’t attend, sending word that he was too ill to travel. Thomas was never to recover and died the following year on 20th May 1487 at the age of around 50. He was buried at the Austin Friary in London.
But what of the fate of Warrington Friary where Thomas had undergone his training? The last ordination of a friar at Warrington happened in 1498 but the Friary was still operating around 20 years later when the then lord of the Manor, Thomas de Botelor, gifted funds towards its upkeep.
Unbeknownst to everyone though the Tudor dynasty who later damaged Thomas Penketh’s historical reputation were about to trigger the end of the friary where he had begun his training.
In 1531 Henry VIII, having failed to get his marriage annulled by the Pope, declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. Shortly afterwards he began a process somewhat misleadingly known as the “dissolution of the monasteries”. Misleadingly because along with monasteries it also involved the disbanding of priories, convents and friaries and the disposal of their assets. Warrington’s friars departed the town and the site was sold to a landowner called John Caldwell for £126, around £53,000 in modern money.
Today we’d describe Caldwell as a property developer, and he certainly wasn’t someone interested in preserving the site. The friary was dismantled stone by stone, although he was prevented by law from removing any part of the church at the centre. Known as Jesus church it was still used by those worshippers who couldn’t make the journey to the parish church St Elphins. Eventually the congregation dwindled and even the church fell into such disrepair and decay that it was demolished. Only the arched gateway of the Friary survived into the 18th century and even that had vanished a hundred years later by which point few people in Warrington were even aware there had been a friary in the first place.
Today the only remaining evidence of the friary is found in the museum, in the names of the streets surrounding the site and under the floor of a pub named after its most famous inhabitant the Friar Penketh. There, if the bar is not too busy, you can even catch a glimpse of the stone foundations through a small glass window in the floor.
Sadly even the reputation of Thomas Penketh’s idol John Dun didn’t escape the turbulent 16th century. Duns’ work remained popular with Catholics but during the Reformation his dwindling number of followers, sometimes known Scotists or Dunsmen vigorously opposed the rise of Protestantism. This so angered the members of the new faith that the term Dunsman was adopted as a term of abuse meaning a pedant or someone who was incapable of learning. Over time the term Dunsman was shortened to Duns and then to the word dunce which is used as a slur against a person’s intelligence even today.
In the next episode of the podcast we’ll be looking at a ball. A cannonball in fact as we tell the story of Warrington during the English Civil War and the most important battle that you may not even have heard of.