The Carmelite Friary in Denbigh, known locally as The Abbey, is a curiosity, to say the least. Its foundation in the town, variously ascribed to between 1289 and the middle of the 14th century goes someway to show the importance of medieval Denbigh and the apparent ambitions for its continued development. It is assuredly the only Carmelite house in Wales, despite a suggestion by Leland that others were established in nearby Ruthin and Tenby.
It has been said that the site of the Friary surrounded, as it is, by warehousing and terraces, detracts from its beauty. Well, quite. But in truth its position does rather make the point of the motivation behind its foundation in the town, rather than in the more isolated landscapes, favoured by the Cistercians, for instance, at Valle Crucis (where the carbuncular caravan park on its flanks really does detract from the aesthetic) and elsewhere. The Carmelites, as a mendicant order, were begging brothers, dependent on alms and donations. To survive, to fulfil their preaching mission, they moved into towns. Finding Denbigh Friary in the town suburbs is no surprise.
A fire gutted the Friary in 1898. This photograph from 1911, shows the extent on the damage.
The Carmelites, or more properly known as, The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel and known as the White Friars, can with some certainty, trace their history back to the beginning of the 13th century. On Mount Carmel (now in northern Israel), centered on the Cave of Elijah and his well, Christian hermits formed an order of sorts. These hermits were likely to have arrived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as crusader knights and their entourages, eventually abandoning the violence of their original mission to solitary prayer and meditation. Carmelite tradition states that the caves they sheltered in had been the homes of Jewish hermits from the time of Elijah. A further tradition states that as hermits they have no founder, but that they asked Albert of Vercelli, Patriarch of Jerusalem sometime around 1209 to create a written rule for them to live by.
As the Muslims began their reconquest of the Holy Land, the Carmelites were required to leave their cells upon the Mountain Carmel, settling first in Cyprus, and followed swiftly by France and then England. Their first home in the British Isles was at Hulne, near Alnwick in Northumberland in 1242, followed by Aylesford in Kent in the same year. The first General Chapter of the Carmelites was held in Aylesford in 1247, under St. Simon Stock, where it was agreed that the Order would become mendicant - thus making the decision to move into towns.
Mount Carmel from the south west at sunset.
Denbigh is a long way from Mount Carmel, it must be said, but there is rhyme and reason to their establishing a friary in Denbigh, given the importance of the medieval town. The question remains, as to why Denbigh was the only town to be graced with a Carmelite Friary. The answer leans towards speculation, naturally, but some conclusions can be made. While Denbigh may have been the only home of the Carmelites in Wales (ironically, there are more Carmelite foundations today, then before the Reformation), they were not the only mendicant order in Wales. Both the Dominicans and Franciscans had friaries in Wales, and it does seem to have been the case that it was agreed that each town would have but one of the mendicant orders - it just so happens that the Carmelites claimed Denbigh. And while the Carmelites had only one friary in Wales, there may well have been ambitions for more than ultimately bore no fruit.
However, perhaps there is a little more method to the Carmelites in Denbigh, than mere fortune. It was long held that the Carmelites came to Denbigh through the patronage of Sir John Salusbury. It is, after all, almost impossible to find the join between the Salusburys and Denbigh, so utterly ubiquitous they are in the fortunes of Denbigh and, indeed much of north east Wales. Such a belief has traditionally then assigned the date of the Friary’s foundation to 1289, the date of Sir John’s death and believed burial there. A foundation by Sir John Salusbury is convenient for a Carmelite friary, since as a crusader it teases a connection with the Order. Salisbury’s connections with Reginald de Grey and Henry de Lacy, who between them had been granted by Edward I almost the entirety of north east Wales (excepting the coastal area of Tegeingl), further enhances his presence in Denbigh. Rhyme and reason then.
Denbigh Friary, looking east from the nave towards the choir.
However, it is also believed that the founder of the Friary was actually one John de Swynmore (or Swinmore, if you fancy). This muddies the waters somewhat, since a lot less is known of Swynmore than of Salusbury. He has been variously described as a, ‘man of Denbigh’, an ancestor of Jane Seymour and constable of Denbigh Castle. All may be correct. The original Charter of 1290 for Denbigh is clear enough.
‘To Adam de Swynemore (Adam of Swinemore) one burgage in Denbigh within the walls, and one curtlage in Denbigh without the walls, with one ox-gang of land with the appurtenances in Astret Canon.’
Patent Rolls of 1331 name a John de Swynmore in a complaint by a Henry de Bello Monte of Loughborough as having away with his horses, cutting down his trees and hunting in his park - was this the same ‘man of Denbigh’ that apparently founded the Friary, or perhaps a member of his extended family. And if this is the John de Swynmore of Denbigh, then it does rather fit with a later possible foundation date of sometime between 1343 and 1350. Other historians have suggested that Swynmore was responsible for a refounding of the Friary during this time, holding to the earlier date of 1289 for the initial foundation.
The magnificent 15th century perpendicular five light window. Bricked up now to prevent collapse, but still impressive.
Very little is known of the Friary’s subsequent history, which at the greatest possible extent could not have exceeded 250 years. Denbigh Friary was never a sizeable concern, and does seem to have quietly gone about its business with little drama. Given its position outside the medieval town walls, outside the obvious protection of the castle, it does seem something of a surprise to find that it avoided much of the violence that was inflicted upon the town, especially in the first two hundred years of its existence. The rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, in which the unfinished Denbigh Castle was captured, albeit briefly, would have been avoided, of course, if the Friary’s foundation was indeed during the middle of the 14th century. It seems to have survived unscathed the Glyndwr Rebellion at the beginning of the 15th century, perhaps for the same reasons as Denbigh Castle. It survived Lancastrian-Yorkist internecine conflicts of the later 15th century, despite Denbigh being razed in 1468. It is impossible to be absolutely clear as to why, but perhaps a combination of its mendicant existence, the preaching remit of the Carmelites endearing it somewhat to the people of the town, the very fact that it was integral to the town, rather than isolated from the people contributing to its survival?
Being a mendicant order, the Friary was dependent on donations and alms. Denbigh Friary seems to have been rather well looked after in the quality and quantity of its patrons, being especially favoured by the Salusburys of Lleweni and Bachymbyd, many of whom are believed to have been buried at the Friary. It was also supported by the likes of Henry Standish, Bishop of St Asaph (1518-35) and fellow mendicant, probably Carmelite, possibly Franciscan. Standish was something of a ‘big deal’ a combative clergyman who was known as being one of the counsel for Catherine of Aragon during her acrimonious divorce from Henry VIII. He had his own chamber at the Friary and left a sum of 20 marks to the brothers in his will. It was his successor as Bishop of St Asaph, Robert Warton (also known as Parfew, Purview, Warbington or even Warton) who eventually surrendered the Friary to the Crown in August 1538, when it housed just four friars. And despite this eventual closure, it was clear that Warton was a staunch supporter of the Frairy.
An inventory of the, ‘stuffe delivered to the Bishop of Saynt Assaph’, compiled at its surrender, gives an invaluable insight into the Friary. Much of the ‘stuffe’ was the expected ornamentation and regalia, but the inventory also describes much of the layout of the Friary, most of which has been lost to anything but foundations and masonry memory in later residences. The Friary clearly conformed to the normal layout. The cloister, which was thought to be small, was on the south, of course. The chapter house and Bishops Chamber were to the east of the cloister, while the refectory and first floor dormitory were to the south. To the west was thought to be the hall. It is clear from the inventory that the Friary also had a brewhouse, a buttery and stables.
'The churche is a long house slated like unto a barne, with a steple of tymbre like a louere of a hall borded (the toppe therof leaded).
It'm, a little cloister, halfe overbuylded on the south side of said churche.
It'm, on the easte side of the said cloister, the chapter house and the bishops chamber.
It'm, on the south side of the cloister, the dorter.
It'm on the weaste side a little hall, a buttry, and a chamber.
It'm an olde kechyn, a gatehouse, and an old stable.
It'm, a fair orchard and a little garden.'
The doorway in the south wall of the crossing would have given the brothers access to the cloister.
After its surrender in 1538, and hinted at by Speed’s map of 1610, the Friary seems to have suffered little structural change until the 17th century, when ‘by the iniquitie of those days’ the Friary buildings, including the chapel were used as a stable, a barn and finally a malt house. It retained much of its original form until a fire in 1898 gutted the building, bringing down the roof which, it seems, had survived from its foundation. Eventually, the buildings to the south and west of the cloister became private residences, Abbey Cottage and Abbey Hall.
'Nothing but the stroke of the flail and the rattle of the crushing mill has, for many a long year, been heard where the monk once chanted his matutinal Te Deum.'
'Ancient and Modern Denbigh' J. Williams (1856)
Not the clearest representation of Speed's map of Denbigh in 1610, but the Friary is vaguely visible in the top right corner.
The remains of the Friary today are sparse, tremendously evocative and intriguing, standing as they do amongst warehousing, terraced housing and fast food outlets - obscured from view by an untidy suburban sprawl. The domestic buildings to the south are long gone, and only the chapel now remains. A simple building, just 19 by 7 metres, length and width. Its internal remains are fascinating however. It was divided into a choir and nave, the two separated by what would have been two rood screens, between which existed a crossing of sorts, above which was a steeple, presumably lost in the fire of 1898.
The Buck Brother's engraving of 1742, showing the Friary in an excellent state of repair, clearly showing its steeple and something of the domestic buildings to its south.
The choir retains a rather splendid five light, perpendicular 15th century window, with rather sophisticated tracery. Though it has been entirely bricked up as a form of support, it remains an impressive and quite dominating fixture. In front of this window would have been the altar, of course, and in the south wall, close to where the altar would have stood, are the remains of a three seat sedilia and a piscina. There is also a largely bricked up but graceful five light ogee window in the north wall of the choir. Within the ‘crossing’ between the nave and the choir, is the remains of a doorway which would have given the brothers access to the cloister and domestic buildings. The nave is fascinating, since it would have had two altars - one to the north, the other to the south. A gracefully constructed piscina remains in the south wall, and would have serviced the altar there. The well in the north west corner of the nave was dug subsequent to its surrender and is probably contemporary to the malthouse, thus 18th and perhaps 19th century in age.
The three seat sedilia and the piscina in the choir.
And while the Friary does seem to have had a rather sedate existence until its dissolution, there are a few curiosities which intrigue. The remains of the probable 14th century ‘Abbey Cross’, which now stands within the grounds of Dolhyfryd House were found within the grounds of the Friary in the 19th century. Also, a rather mysterious sepulchral slab was discovered, depicting a female, it is thought, in the attitude of prayer, along with an indecipherable inscription - its current whereabouts are unknown. When it was found it was said to have had a lead cover, underneath which was found what was described as an, ‘antique key’ - what door it opened, we can only wonder. Even curiouser, if perhaps a little predictable, is the tradition of a subterranean passage, linking the Friary with the Castle. Unfortunately, no such passage has ever been found, but then again, very little work beneath the chapel has been conducted. And perhaps most curious of all, is the intriguing early 19th century tale of a mysterious ‘man in black’, who appeared one day and directed the grandfather of one Elias Jones to dig at a very specific spot within the choir. It was not long before, ‘all kinds of things, gold and silver’ were found. Upon their discovery, the man in black directed the finds to be reburied where they were found, and then left the Friary never to be seen again - do they still remain somewhere beneath the magnificent east window, which has never been properly excavated.
The five light ogee window in the north wall of the choir.
On the subject of excavations, it is true to say that the Friary has seen little of the spade and trowel. However, in 1985 during building works to the east of the south end of Ysgol Frongoch, east of the chapel, bones were found. A sample subjected to radiocarbon dating returned the central date of 1435, give or take. The suggestion that this was the site of the Friary cemetery has never been certainly proven. An excavation of 1994 found the remains of some 170 individuals, tipped into what appears to have been a charnel pit, which has been attributed to the undocumented clearing of the vaults, perhaps in the 19th century when the Friary became a brewhouse.
The delightful piscina in the south wall of the nave.
Denbigh Friary then, retains something of an air of mystery. The only Carmelite Friary in Wales, snapped stark and hidden away amongst the grey anonymity of suburban sprawl. And all the more wondrous because of it.