The Aberdeen house was the third Carmelite friary to be established in Scotland. The first had been at Berwick, founded after 1260 and the second at Perth in 1262 (Figure 1). Cowan has Berwick being founded in 1270 (Cowan in Stones 1989, 21). However Copsey has it as c.1260 (when Berwick was still part of Scotland) (Copsey 1998, 41). The Carmelite Order had came to England in the 1240s and spread to Scotland some twenty years after that. Therefore, it was only thirty years after arriving in the British Isles that the Carmelites made a foundation in Aberdeen (Copsey in Chandler and Egan 1991, 190). This was the start of a long and fruitful residency in and relationship with Aberdeen for the Carmelite friars.
The foundation of the friary in Aberdeen was part of a general flowering of mendicant life in both Scotland and Europe as a whole. In this regard Burton has commented: 'In the third decade of the thirteenth century Britain was engulfed by a new and radical religious movement which challenged all accepted notions of the monastic life' (Burton 1994, 109; Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 246). The mendicant orders (by definition those who begged for alms) were new and different from previous orders of monks, in that they sought to eschew the trappings of worldly wealth and good living which had come to be associated with the established church. As was the case with the earlier emergence of new orders of monks and (although admittedly less so) the later Reformation, the mendicant orders sought to get back to what Christian religion ought to be. The mendicants sought to strip away centuries of change and adaptations to modern life: they aimed to introduce a new discipline, to return to a simpler older aesthetic whilst remaining responsive to the needs of the laity. To meet this objective the mendicants sought to live in towns and to educate and minister to the poor of the towns.
The Carmelite friary in Aberdeen was probably founded in the thirteenth century, although there are no extant documents to prove this. The earliest evidence concerning the foundation date comes from a later grant by David II made in 1361, (UA MS M390/1/3) not 1336 as Spearman has suggested (Spearman in Stones 1989, 30). The 1361 charter confirmed the two earliest charters relating to the arrival of the Carmelites in Aberdeen. First was a grant of land: in 1273 Thomas le Bouer granted the Carmelites the 'madderyard' in the Green (UA MS M390/1/3). The text of the charter would seem to indicate that the Carmelites in fact were already in Aberdeen by that point. David II's charter, of 1361, also confirmed a grant of an annuity to the Carmelites from Reginald le Chen, again dated 1273. The grant was of 'eight marks sterling towards the construction of their buildings annually, namely in the octaves of Pentecost, until these aforesaid buildings shall be constructed, namely, a church, cloister, refectory, dormitory, infirmary and kitchen. I want, also, that the said sum shall be expended on these buildings only.' (UA MS M390/1/3).
These two charters of 1273 appear to indicate that the Carmelites had only been in Aberdeen for a very short period of time, possibly only months or weeks. Copsey points out that at that time the order was administratively part of the English province of the order. Copsey argues that the decision to found the house at Aberdeen had probably been taken in London, at the provincial chapter held there in 1272 (Copsey 1995, 46). Moreover, he also suggests that the 'initial founding community is likely to have been drawn from Perth and Berwick…', that is to say from the already existing Scottish friaries (Copsey 1995, 46). If true this would mean that the original friars would have been strangers to Aberdeen, presumably arriving with letters of introduction.
The way for their arrival must have been prepared. Perhaps connections with the other orders of friars, the Trinitarians and Dominicans, were used. Some form of introduction would certainly have been necessary, especially as the Carmelites lacked royal backing for their foundations in Scotland, in contrast to the Dominicans (Foggie 2003, 14-15). In the earliest history of the mendicants in Britain, their entrance was aided by other religious orders. When the Friars Minor crossed the Channel to come to Britain in 1224, their passage was arranged by Benedictine monks, and then the friars lodged with other monks in Canterbury (Burton 1994, 113). Although there is no evidence for Aberdeen, perhaps a similar pattern was followed here.
Writing in the mid fifteenth century, the Carmelite historian John Bale suggested that the founder of the Aberdeen house was one 'magister Thomas Mura…'. Copsey, however, has worked over Bale's list of founders of the Scottish Carmelite houses and found that in almost all cases Bale was wrong (Copsey 1998, 46). Indeed there is no trace in the historical record of a magister Thomas Mura (or Murray) being connected with the Aberdeen house. As seen above the two earliest names associated with the friary were le Bouer and le Chen (Cheyne). Reginald le Chen may have been the brother of Henry le Chen, who was elected bishop of Aberdeen in 1282. Reginald, described as 'elder', has other known religious patronage: on 18 October 1285 he granted certain lands to the house of Ardlogy (Figure 4), a cell of the Tironesian abbey at Arbroath (Innes 1848, 166). Perhaps this points to the bishop of Aberdeen having been involved in aiding the introduction of the Carmelites into Aberdeen.
The priorities of the first friars to arrive would have been to find land and some local support. The grants of 1273 would cover these important first objectives: they now had land and they had money with which to begin building. The history of the piece of land they got, named the 'madderyard', is somewhat elusive. Madder is a plant used in dyeing, and produces a red colour. Perhaps the term implies an area for dyeing or an area where madder was stored. However, there is no archaeological evidence that the area was used for dyeing. It should be remembered that from at least the late 15th century, the word yard (or rather yaird) could mean a garden or specifically a kitchen garden. This is relevant as Phase 1a of the excavation revealed that under the Carmelite church there were 13th-century plough marks. Alternatively, perhaps the name was associated with a merchant who imported the crop (the prevailing conditions in Aberdeen at the time were not consistent with its cultivation) and then he named different parts of his land after his trade in this crop.
The madderyard was in the area of the burgh known as the Green. This was not the centre of the burgh; it has been noted that mendicants often favoured these sites within burghs for their foundations. Randla offers four reasons for this: first, they moved into well established towns and the central land was already taken; second, and partly as a consequence of the first reason, the central land was very expensive, in fact prohibitively so for a mendicant order; third, they wished to be closer to the poor and needy of the burghs and fourth, it may have been a reflection of their eremitic origins to seek quieter locations (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 251). Randla also comments, mistakenly, that all of the Aberdeen friaries were within the town walls: this cannot have been the case in a town that never had walls (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 251). It cannot even be said that the friaries were within the town gates (or ports), as technically the Trinitarian and Carmelite places lay outside the ports.
Two years later, in 1275, a chapel of some description had been built. The evidence for this again comes from a later charter of confirmation by David II. On 7 May 1361 David II confirmed, inter alia, a charter granted by Gilbert de Fynch dated 18 February 1275 (Anderson 1909, 17 and Webster 1982, 288-9 and Copsey 1995, 46) which gave the Carmelites 14lb of wax for candles located in front of the statue of the Virgin. It was probably a wooden chapel; the archaeological evidence can be interpreted as showing a series of temporary wooden structures in the late 13th century. Their building programme was certainly well under way by 10 January 1278. On that date they purchased land from Katherine de Welles, daughter of Walter de Welles. The land adjoined the site of the madderyard to the east (Anderson 1909, 17 and Copsey 1995, 47). Room for expansion, such as this undoubtedly was, is perhaps evidence of an expanding building programme. In 1285 William Finch, son and heir of Gilbert, confirmed his father's grant and added to it the sum of 6d (again to the cost of candles in front of the statue of the Virgin) (Anderson 1909, 17 and Copsey 1995, 47). This charter thus indicates that the friars were well settled in Aberdeen, that their building work was proceeding and that they had picked up an association with a family (the first of many).
Presumably the work was executed by local craftsmen. The first buildings, those of wood, would have been executed by the various wrights in the burgh. Aberdeen would probably have been able to supply the majority of the skills and expertise necessary for the building work. However, the earliest name so far recovered from the records of Aberdeen of a plumber, Alan Fowler, comes from the very late date of 30 October 1436 (Moir 1890, 26). Curiously the next known plumber in Aberdeen was in 1507, when John Burneile was admitted as a burgess, he was described as an Englishman, and plumber to the King of England (Moir 1890, 43). Despite all of this building work, not only for the Carmelites but also for the other orders of friars in Aberdeen, we only know the name of one builder. This comes from later, in 1459, when John Cran was made a burgess, his composition (or payment) being the repairs he effected to the 'house' of the Friars Preachers (Moir 1890, 16).
The discovery of 13th-century burials is significant. These may have been some of the initial friars. However they may also have been local people who had chosen to be buried there. Orme has commented that:
'The arrival of the friars in the thirteenth century led to disputes about funerals and burials, all over Western Europe. Friars were independent of the authority of local bishops and cathedrals, and established burial grounds without asking permission…Eventually the popes were forced to arbitrate in the matter, and it was laid down in 1300 that although anyone might choose burial at a friary, a quarter of all the dues and legacies paid on the occasion must go to the clergy of the dead person's parish.' (Orme 2004, 19).
Presumably the papal ruling was in force in Aberdeen, although there is no evidence for this. Neither is there any extant evidence of any disputes between the bishop of Aberdeen, the clergy in St Nicholas parish church, or the Carmelite friars, although the lack of evidence proves only that: that there is no evidence. There are only a few names of those buried in the friary which have came down to us, and they are of local townspeople; however they date from considerably later on. The association with the le Chen family, and hence with the bishop of Aberdeen, may be significant.
The 13th century thus saw significant progress being made by the Carmelite community in Aberdeen: they had made a foundation, received land, local backing, expanded their site and begun building works. By the turn of the 14th century they had the beginnings of a stone church; however the remainder of their buildings would still have been wood. It is also probable that by this point the friars were recruiting members from the local community. In short, the last thirty years of the 13th century saw a successful foundation in Aberdeen.
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