skip to content

Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


David Radford

For most people in Medieval England, heaven and hell were realities. How to achieve one and avoid the other was of great importance. For those in rural settings where the parish priest exercised strong influence, it was uncomplicated. But in areas of rapid urbanization, where new ideas on religion found fertile ground, the Church was losing control. Among those who saw this clearly was Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. He decided to take some friars with him on his tours of his diocese to address this problem. Boston, with its rapidly growing population and commercial interests was a prime target for his revival. Called the Mendicant Orders, the friars chose to live among ordinary people rather than in monasteries. They were the religious teachers and the medical and social care workers of their day.

Illustrative depiction of Black Friars, Spain Lane (FL Griggs, 1914)

Blackfriars, Spain Lane, Boston (F L Griggs, 1914)

Illustrative depiction of preaching Friar

Illustration: Kerry Ellis

The first to settle in Boston were the Dominicans (Order of the Preachers) or Black Friars. Located near the town quay, their Friary included an open-air preaching yard where they gave regular talks. Like the other Orders they were only accountable to the Pope which frequently led to clashes with the parish clergy, bishops and others over their rights. What remains of their buildings is now the Blackfriars Arts Centre.

Boston’s Grey Friars (Franciscans) were from the part of that Order dedicated to working in towns. Less confrontational, they settled among the ‘Esterlings’ (European traders) and took care of the sick and poor of the town. They also put on ‘Mystery Plays’ which were must see events. Boston Grammar School now occupies their site. This school was founded (endowed) by Queen Mary and Philip of Spain in 1555 and was one of the earliest grammar schools in England. It later became the model for the Latin School, Boston MA, the first school in America.

Blackfrairs Theatre entrance

The refectory, the only surviving part of the Blackfriars Friary is now the successful Blackfriars Theatre and Arts centre.

Sculpture to commemorate the medieval friary by Rick Kirby

Sculpture by Rick Kirby erected on the site of the Franciscan Friary commemorates the medieval friary and celebrates 'new life'.

The Carmelite Order (White Friars) began on Mount Carmel but were driven out of the Holy Land when the Crusaders were defeated. They became refugees and eventually reached England where former crusading families such as Boston’s De Roos family helped them. The Order was given an oratory chapel in St Botolph’s and eventually built a Friary near Fydell Crescent.

The Augustinian Friars (Austins) wanted to help those facing the commercial stresses and crowded living conditions of urban life by teaching about a more contemplative lifestyle. They set up their house on land in Skirbeck which later became the site of Boston’s workhouse.

Although based in Whaplode, the ‘Crutched Friars’ (so called because of the distinctive staff surmounted with a crucifix they carried) would have been a familiar sight in the town. They collected money to pay the ransoms of those seized by pirates and brigands while on pilgrimage.

While the Friars were popular at first, their concern about their own privileges and their support of indulgences and preachments against dissenters such as Wycliffe and Martin Luther lost them support. When Henry VIII shut down the friaries, John Tavener, the king’s agent and musician wrote, ‘The devotion of the people has clear gone’. Boston had turned Protestant.