Greyfriars - The house that Thomas built

Carpenters marks from the original fifteenth century house

1480 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 buildings along the street. Thomas’ house sat adjoined to the Franciscan friary which had given the street its name long ago. The house reflected his status as a member of the city’s social elite.

 

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


 A merchant brewer by trade, Thomas had found in Worcester 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.

The Wars of the Roses had raged about England some 25 years by the time Thomas built his house 5 years before their bloody conclusion. The battles of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 and Tewkesbury in 1471 had taken place uncomfortably close.  Figuratively a rose between two roses, Worcester sat on the strategic river crossing of the Severn with Yorkist forces concentrated to the East and Lancastrian support dominating Wales to the West. The presence of the royalist garrison quartered on the walls was a constant reminder to the people of the dangers they faced. Understandably, an air of tension hung heavily in the streets.

As a member of the city’s governing Guild, Thomas held minor influence over the local ordinances, which decreed that parts of the City wall and gates were to be fortified against any ‘grete peryll that might fall unto the said cite and to the citizens dwellynge theryn’. The Guild was keen to keep Worcester from the conflicts that could destroy the wealth of a city. Despite the dangers, Thomas felt confident enough to commission the building of his new house close to the Eastern face of the city wall.

In the event Worcester survived the Wars of the Roses relatively unscathed. If Thomas Grene had gambled to build his house, he had won. If he had built it to boost confidence in the local economy at a time of uncertainty, he had achieved his goal. If he wanted to make a lasting impression, he had certainly done so. He went on to enjoy the house he had built for nearly two decades. During this time, he was twice elected to the office of High Bailiff in the city. He died in 1499, leaving his brewing trade and the house that he had built to his two sons.

The house called Greyfriars had proven a survivor from its conception. Its status as a fashionable and grand residence was secured for a long time to come. But fortunes wheel is ever turning and the imposing house on Frerenstrete would know the true face of war in its time.

Doorway leading to the entance hall
The entrance hall to Greyfriars