Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 26, 2017.
Webpage updated: July 26, 2017




In 1288, during the Reign of King Edward I, one John de Valle Torta granted a messuage and orchard in Plymouth to a group of Carmelite friars who were then based at Bristol.  This grant was confirmed in 1295 and by 1297 the community was said to consist of eight members.

The remains of Friary Court, formerly the Carmelite Friary.

A print of the remains of Friary Court, formerly the Carmelite Friary.

But not far away was Plympton Priory and they not only held the advowson of Saint Andrew's Church but were also Lord of the Manor of Sutton Prior.   Although the Carmelite Friars were resident on land owned by the Valletort family (i. e. the Manor of Sutton Vautort) they were still carrying out their religious duties as preachers and confessors within the parish of Saint Andrew's and this was seen as encroaching upon the privileges of the local clergy.  It also affected their sources of income, of course.  It should be mentioned that the Parish of Saint Andrew's at that time included Pennycross and Saint Budeaux.

As a result, the Vicar of Saint Andrew's, aided and supported by the Prior of Plympton, petitioned Bishop Stapledon, who upheld the complaint and placed the friars under an interdict.  He did relent when forced to by King Edward II and in September 1314 granted them an Episcopal licence to celebrate divine service.  He event allowed them to select any Bishop they pleased to consecrate their church.

In 1329 they were granted additional land by one Joel Pollard and this enabled them to enlarge their Friary.  They even won some support from Bishop Grandisson, who in his will of 1368 left them forty shillings and a simple vestment.  However, both he and his successor, Bishop Brantyngham, objected to their hearing confessions and in 1374 this privilege was completely withdrawn and the Prior, Henry Sutton, was excommunicated for presuming to grant absolution.  Relations seem to have been soon patched up, however, as in January 1375 that same Bishop granted the Prior a licence to hear confessions in future.

The only other grievance was over the right to charge burial fees, a very lucrative source of income in an age when people died frequently and at an early age.  Local people preferred, it would seem, to be buried in Saint Andrew's Churchyard for the agreement that was reached was only that no stranger dying in the Town should be buried at the Carmelite Church without the vicar's consent.

Prior John Mellyn and his community of five surrendered the Friary to the suffragan Bishop of Dover, acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, on September 18th 1538.  The furniture and possessions raised 6 at sale but the land passed to the King, who in 1539 leased it to Mr James Horswell.  It would seem that he had not only helped with the dissolution but a few years before had been responsible for arresting three priests and imprisoning the head of the Franciscan Friary.  He was not well liked, even when Mayor of Plymouth, and stood accused of living largely by extortion.

When Horswell died, presumably to relief all round, the land was granted to Giles and Gregory Isham of London but they quickly sold it on to Mr William Amadas, a local merchant.  When he died in 1560 the land was inherited by his eldest son, John, and upon his death, sometime around 1581, to his widow, Jane.

The friary's most well known owner, Mr Jonathan Sparke, got the land by marrying Jane Amadas.  He was described as 'a merchant of mean accompt and of slender estate and living' and when his wife died, the Amadas family demanded that the land be returned to them as they considered he had got possession of it purely through marriage.  But the Sparke family continued to live in what was known as Friary Court until the death of Mr William Sparke in 1714, when the land passed to the Molesworth family.

The remains of the keystone at Friary Court, Plymouth, showing the arms of Jonathan Sparke.

The remains of the keystone at Friary Court,
showing the arms of Mr Jonathan Sparke.
The keystone was lost when the Athenaeum,
where it was on display, was destroyed in March 1941.

Sir William Molesworth sold the site to Mr William Clark in 1785 and he sold it on to Mr Thomas Bewes MP in 1823.  Neither of these owners did anything special with the land and the buildings were later used as a hospital for sick soldiers from the Frankfort and Millbay Barracks and eventually as 'a common lodging house of the lowest order', in which were said to lodge 'a motley crowd of lodgers, hawkers, knife-grinders and pedlars, with others who probably followed less honest avocations.'  By 1836 it was a total ruin and demolished but the keystone of the entrance arch, containing the arms of Mr Jonathan Sparke, was preserved in the Plymouth Athenaeum until both were destroyed during the Second World War.

The land was used in the 1890s by the London and South Western Railway Company as the site of their Friary Station.  The existence of the Carmelite Friary is remembered in the naming of Whitefriars Lane.