The Leaning Tower of Lynn

One Not Four

King’s Lynn has a famous leaning tower. And it’s quite safe. The twenty-eight meter tower of the Franciscan (Greyfriars) Friary leans just over one degree to the northwest. However, by comparison the Leaning Tower of Pisa leans nearly four degrees. The Lynn Greyfriars’ Tower is one of only three surviving Franciscan towers in the country. There is another one in Richmond and one in Coventry, but Lynn’s is believed to be the finest.

Greyfriars (Franciscan) Tower, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021

Who were the Franciscans?

The Franciscan Order was founded by John Bernadone whom we now know as Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226). After a religious calling Francis gave up his relatively affluent life and saw himself as married to “Lady Poverty”. His mission involved preaching simple sermons and caring for the sick and the poor. In 1209 when his disciples had increased, he made rules for them to follow based on poverty, chastity, and obedience, and these were given Pope Innocent III’s approval. In 1224 Pope Honorius III granted the first formal charter to the order. By 1221 the Franciscans numbered over three thousand members.

The Franciscan Friary in Bishop’s Lynn

The Franciscans were the first friars to arrive in Lynn and were here by 1230. Their early arrival reflects Lynn’s importance as a port in the medieval period. (The Dominicans arrived in 1256, the Carmelites in 1260, the Austins in 1295). Lynn was one of the few towns to have all the houses of Friars as well as the Benedictines. Their churches and towers would have dominated the skyline as you approached the town.

John Stanford, provincial of his order, who died in 1264, was buried in the Lynn Franciscan Friary.

In 1314 the Franciscans obtained a licence to acquire a mill in North Runcton called “Bukenwelle”. It was owned by Thomas Bardolf and Robert de Scales. An underground conduit brought water to the Lynn friary.

The Lynn Greyfriars building comprised a nave and a choir divided by a walkway that was later (C14th, C15th) adorned with a bell tower. It is this bell tower above the walkway that remains.

Drawing taken from Rowlands (1999)

By the fourteenth century many Franciscan churches in Britain had a distinction not found anywhere on the Continent. They had a walkway separating the nave from the choir/chancel, with a slender bell tower or bell turret over the walkway. This formed an entrance passage which led directly to the street – a symbol of the friars’ close contact with people. The Lynn tower is the best surviving example in the country of a Mendicant tower with a passageway.

In addition to the Friary Church there were buildings on the south side comprising a dormitory, a hospital, a refectory, a chapter house, a kitchen, and a hall, with access via a cloistered walkway. From 1314 the site was fed by a water supply from North Runcton.

It is difficult to know the precise numbers of Greyfriars in the town. There were ten friars in 1320 at the beginning and nine in 1539 at the end. According to Rowlands, the average size of Franciscan establishments throughout the country (1230-1538) was twelve to fifteen. The Britain Express website claims that in 1325 the Lynn group comprised thirty-eight friars.

In 1537-38 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and the Franciscan site passed into the ownership of the local authorities. Although most of the stone from the building was used elsewhere the tower remains because it was considered to be a useful navigational aide for sailors.

© James Rye 2022

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