HISTORIC MALDON: The story of Maldon's white friars

  Posted: 25.10.20 at 09:00 by by Nick Spenceley

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Maldon has many fine views, but the view along White Horse Lane from the car park to the public library is not one of them. Yet this area was once part of the heart of Medieval Maldon.

A wrought iron sign and information panels in the rather bleak alley that runs alongside the old Woolworths (now M&Co) to the car park commemorates a piece of history lost in the turbulent years of Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries.

Maldon Friary was founded in 1293 to house a small order of Carmelite friars. Whereas monks were called upon to live in an enclosed community, cut off from the world and focusing on prayer, friars were (and are) expected to go out into the community to serve and do good works as well as pray. In addition, there was a greater expectation of poverty, and Carmelites lived to some degree by begging. The friary produced a number of scholars, including Thomas Maldon. Though most religious orders relaxed their strict disciplines in the Middle Ages, for the Carmelites this still only allowed them (from 1432) to eat meat three times a week.

Their white habits made them distinctive, and the name “whitefriars” attached to any building or place recalls this order.

Maldon’s friary was located where Carmelite House (with the library and adult education centre) is now, and the information panel in Friars Gate gives us an impression of what it looked like. There must have been larger grounds, and Friars Gate itself was the probable location of the gatehouse, while Maldon’s much-loved Friary Walled Garden probably originated with the friary, and the base of the walls looks much older than the much later walls that dominate this site.

The end for Maldon Friary came in 1538 when it passed into Henry VIII’s hands, eventually to be sold off. At this time it was one of the poorest religious houses in England, which suggests that the friars weren’t party to the greed, corruption and easy living that some of the big monasteries were guilty of.

Maldon Friary

In fact, the citizens of Maldon may have been quite attached to their friars. In the north of England the “Pilgrimage of Grace”, a massive armed rebellion loyal to the old church, had nearly unseated Henry in 1536. Nothing like this is suggested for Essex, but the friars may have continued serving and being supported by their local community while they lived.

The decaying buildings were replaced by Vincent Harris’s mansion in 1570 – another lost gem of Maldon which we will look at another day.

This roller coaster year for the world, for the country and for Maldon, our little part of it, just seems to – well, keep rolling. True, it could...