3. 16th to 17th Century – Breakup & Decay

After the Friars

Dissolution of the Monasteries       In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church in England in place of the Pope. By 1535 on his behalf Thomas Cromwell (First Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain) had ordered the valuation of church property prior to closure of the monasteries, starting with the smallest, circa 1536. Last to go was Waltham Abbey on 23rd March 1540. Controversy between church and state had gripped all concerned and in 1534 local priests were heavily involved. Dr Thyrstell of Grey Friars and neighbour John Wayne, Rector of St James’s are reported to have urged local people to ignore new books ‘of the King’s print’. The Colchester friary was dissolved in 1538.

Much of the valuable material was plundered, but most buildings remained in some form, although the monarch reserved the right to dismantle and remove any structure. The Crown first leased the defunct Grey Friars premises to Francis Jobson, farmer, for £2/10s/8d and then in 1544 granted some of it (listed as “le olde halle, le fermerye house, Syr Thomas Tyrrells lodgynge chambers, the kitchen, the bakehouse, the brewhouse, two little gardens and four acres of land”) to Francis and Elizabeth Jobson, Robert Henage, Richard Duke and their heirs. Other changes of ownership followed in 1565 and 1595.

The Tyrrell family’s very close connection with Grey Friars is apparent in the will of Sir Robert Tyrrell, written in 1507. “First I give my soul to Almighty God ….. my body to be buried within the church of the Greyfriars of Colchester by Dame Christian, my wife … also I will that the said friars shall have paid by th’ hands of mine executors … 5 marks yearly sterlings conditionally that the warden … shall appoint a friar, a brother of the same convent, to sing for my soul and my said late wife soul and for those souls that I am most bound to do for …”

And in a definite and precise reference to the Grey Friars premises he states “Item, I will that mine executors shall make an arch of freestone in the wall within Our Lady’s Chapel thereas I and my last wife shall lie, and also I will have a stone of marble to be laid on me and my wife in the said place over our grave, and a remembrance of my name and hers in the said marble stone …” Thomas Tyrrell is mentioned in the will as “mine eldest son”.

Francis Jobson’s success in securing a lease to farm part of the Grey Friars site seems to have been at the expense of a claim by Sir John Rainsford. He was parliamentary representative for Colchester (along with Richard Rich, with whom he had an awkward relationship at times). He was apparently appointed more from his connections in the county and at royal court than local significance and support. Indeed, he appears to have been something of a difficult character, for his style and manner in staking a claim for a share in the distribution of the Grey Friars site after the dissolution seems to have resulted in a firm refusal. Thomas Cromwell rebuffed him, preferring to give Francis Jobson use of the land.

(above) The Castle area and Grey Friars site as depicted in a section of “Prospect of Colchester from the North 1697” by James Maheux (redrawn). A building within the site can be seen, as can a twin-gabled building along the High Street frontage. British Library

There seems to have been a general aura of decline in the neighbourhood during the C17th. Part of the nearby East Gate fell down in 1652 and in 1676 there was further demolition due to instability. However, part of the Roman guard house was reputed to be still in evidence in 1813, but was cleared away later in a tidying-up exercise.

Civil War        One of the most significant events during the C17th was the Siege of Colchester, when Royalist troops supporting King Charles I sought refuge within the town walls and were besieged by the Parliamentary forces of Sir Thomas Fairfax. The town’s citizens were caught up in the conflict and suffered starvation, economic disaster and heavy fines for their involvement, albeit mostly involuntary. (below) “The Siege of Colchester By the Lord Fairfax, As it was with ye Line and Outworks 1648” (detail showing the walled town)


Grey Friars is mentioned in the agreement governing the conduct of the surrender on 27th August 1648: “That all private soldiers and officers under captains, shall be drawn together into the Fryar’s Yard adjoining East-Gate, by ten o’clock to-morrow morning, with their cloaths and baggage; their persons to surrender into the custody of such as the said General shall appoint to take charge of them, and that they shall have fair quarters, according to the explanation, made in the answers to the first query of the Commissioners from Colchester which is hereunto annexed.”  The ‘first query’ which was “What is meant by rendering mercy?” was answered as follows: “By fair quarter we understand, that with fair quarter, for their lives, they shall be free from wounding or beating, shall enjoy warm cloaths to cover them, and keep them warm, shall be maintained with victuals fit for prisoners, whilst they shall be kept prisoners.”

It will be noted that in the closer detail from the siege map (above) the Grey Friars site is still mistakenly labelled “Black Fryars” as the diagram was probably based on Speed’s original map. ‘K’ marks the Friars’ yard, now approximately where Roman Road meets East Hill. Again, we have the same intriguing front boundary line seen in earlier maps. Such an arrangement, which may have something to do with the remains of the Roman eastern gate and guardhouse, could indeed have formed what may be termed ‘the friars’ yard’.

The nearby East Gate was badly damaged and removed in 1674. In 1772 Daniel Defoe observed that Colchester “still mourns in the ruins of a civil war” with “battered walls, breaches in the turrets and ruined churches”.


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