Underneath the House of Trembling Madness Lendal lies one of York’s great secrets. From 1272 onwards, this part of Coney Street was home to York’s Augustinian Friary, or 'Austin Friars'.
We don’t know much about the friary, but we have some idea of what it could have looked like from the friary’s daughter house at Hull, which has been thoroughly excavated, and from excavations on the site itself as well as surviving documents.
The friary was established in 1272 from land given by a Lord Scrope, which consisted of seven plots along the street. The friars walled off their land to create a precinct and built both accommodation and a church. Nothing of these buildings survive, but it is probable that the church was long, with an aisled nave and a thin chancel, and likely had a small lantern tower similar to the example at St Helen’s Stonegate. If the friary was like the daughter house at Hull, the friary dormitories and secular buildings would have been joined to the church, and nearby, there would have been gardens for the growth of vegetables and fruit. Excavations have uncovered the foundations of the kitchens, and it seems they were placed to the southwest of the complex, near to the Guildhall.
Somewhere amongst these buildings was a library; from documents we know that this was perhaps the most unusual and interesting about the Austin Friars. Miraculously, we have a list of the contents of this library, dated to 1372. Over 2100 works in 646 volumes are present, and over half belonged to just one friar, John Erghome, who left his books at the library while he was at university in Oxford. The list features books on theology, philosophy, science, history, practical subjects like astronomy, medicine, music and geometry.
The list shows that the library was very unusual. Firstly, it contained some books in Greek, which was extremely unusual at this time - indeed, the friary was the only place in the North known to have Greek texts in the Late Middle Ages. Secondly, it had a huge quantity of Greek and Roman authors. Thirdly, it had a tremendous number of scientific texts making it ‘one of three known libraries of England which were adequate in science’.
The impression all this evidence gives is of a monastery of great importance and this importance is visible in other ways as well. The friary attracted a relationship with several important figures throughout its history. As well as ‘Lord Scrope’, the friary was associated with two members of the influential Neville dynasty, Sir Humphrey and his brother Charles, who buried in the church in 1469, with the Duke of Gloucester and later King, Richard Plantagenet, who used the friary as his accommodation when visiting York, and with Thomas, Lord Darcy, who had an agreement with the friary in 1511.
Amongst its chief friars were Fr Richard de Wetwang, who helped assess the case of York’s Knights Templar in 1311 after their disbanding, and Fr John Aske, who supported the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 and supped with his relative and leader of the rebellion, the famous Robert Aske, at the friary. Further friars of importance included John Waldeby, a 14th century friar known for drawing vast crowds to his sermons, and John Erghome, who was directly responsible for the creation of the huge friary library.
These relationships did not save the monastery however, and like all of its kin, the Austin Friars was dissolved at the Reformation. A succession of subsequent private owners divided the land up and demolished all of the friary buildings, leaving little trace.
If you want to see some small pieces of the friary, you still can. In the Lendal Cellars pub there is a section of wall that belonged to the friary. Similarly, part of the wall of Mansion House is made from pieces of the friary and a section of the friary’s river wall is visible from Lendal Bridge. Further possible remains are visible in gardens and backyards the length and breadth of Coney Street and may include pieces of the building’s quire, nave and windows.
Finally, it is possible that the friary’s main gate (or at least a fragment) formed part of the George Inn’s entrance further along Coney Street. While the doorway is no longer found on the street, an image was produced by the etcher Henry Cave, as was a photo before the demolition of the inn in the early 20th century.