Greyfriars - The house that Thomas built

Carpenters marks from the original fifteenth century house

The house that Thomas Grene built was a message. It announced to the people of Worcester that he was a person of higher status. Its extravagant gables, ornate timbers and looming structure dominated Frerenstrete, which followed the inside line of the City of Worcester’s Eastern wall.

The folk who made their way down this path were cowed by the imposing and ultra-modern façade that stood out amongst the more plain timber-framed houses along the street. Thomas’ house sat adjoined to the Franciscan friary which had been the streets namesake for as long as anyone could remember. The house reflected his status as a member of the City’s social elite. Thomas was a merchant brewer by trade. In Worcester, he had found a base connected to the superhighway of his day: the river Severn offered transport for trade down to Gloucester, Bristol, Gascony and even the Iberian Peninsula. His wealth and social standing afforded him a place in the Merchants Guild which effectively governed the City and which enabled him to control the prices of his competitors. Worcester was a place where men like Grene could make their fortunes. In times of peace, its position on the Severn brought trade and prosperity. Perversely, this same trait had always made it a valuable military target in times of war. 

Thomas Grene's initials over the main entrance to Greyfriars
A device in wood relief showin the initials of Thomas Grene, featuring a heraldic anchor

The people of Worcester were no strangers to conflict. A fortified settlement since the late Iron Age, the City had been successively re-fortified by the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans. It had changed hands numerous times during the Civil war between Stephen and Matilda, only to become entangled just decades later in the baronial wars under King John and Henry III.  John had ordered that new City walls be built in stone in the late 12th Century and it was the Eastern face of these walls that Thomas’ house backed on to. In Grene’s time Worcester had seen no hostile armies at its gates for centuries. The city walls were by this time of more use controlling taxes on goods going in and out of the city. The Friary next door even had its own private gate installed in to the wall!

Despite the complacency that long periods of peace had brought, the citizens of Worcester in 1480 were acutely aware that war could engulf the City at any time. Worcester was figuratively a rose between two roses. To the West, Lancastrian support centred in the Welsh Marches; In the Midlands to the East, Yorkist forces dominated. The recent battle at nearby Tewkesbury was a potent reminder of the real dangers the city faced. Thomas Grene, as a member of the Merchants Guild, had a duty to help protect the city. He also had his own personal fortune to worry about. The bailiffs of the guild had issued ordinances for the city, designed to stem any potential source of violence. They decreed that ‘no man shall ware livery but that of the kings’. Citizens were also compelled to assist the bailiffs in keeping the peace. The city was garrisoned with troops and its walls and gates refortified in readiness for an attack. As a leading citizen, Thomas was expected to set an example of confidence in the City’s capacity to protect the people, their fortunes and local commerce. He chose the moment to build his new house wisely.

Doorway leading to the entance hall
The entrance hall to Greyfriars

The house that Thomas built was therefore more than just a statement of personal wealth. It represented confidence and defiance in a time of great danger. The Wars of the Roses were concluded at Bosworth just five years after construction was begun and Worcester was never attacked. Thomas Grene enjoyed his new house for nearly two decades before dying in 1499. He was twice elected High Bailiff of the City in that time and his will records that he left his house and brewing business to his sons.   

Thomas had risked his new house to help boost morale and confidence in the economy he depended upon and had won. Its status as fashionable and grand residence was secured for posterity. But fortunes wheel is ever turning and the imposing house on Frerenstrete would know war in its time.