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The Friars at Aylesford Priory


Aylesford Priory, or 'The Friars' to give it its traditional name, was founded in 1242 when the first Carmelites arrived from the Holy Land. They came under the patronage of Richard de Grey, a crusader, who gave them a small piece of land at his manor of Aylesford.

The 1200s - 1400s

In 1247 the Bishop of Rochester, Richard of Wendover, officially recognised the Carmelite foundation at Aylesford and the first General Chapter of the Order outside the Holy Land was held there. The Chapter effectively changed the lifestyle of the Carmelites from hermits to mendicant friars and over the next fifty years more than thirty priories were founded in England and Wales including London, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1348 at the Vigil of the Feast of the Holy Cross, the Bishop of Llandaff, John Pashcal, blessed the site of the cemetery and the new chuch but the church was not consecrated until 1417, the delay possibly being caused by the Black Death which affected so much of the population. The dedication of the church was carried out by Richard Young, the Bishop of Rochester.

The 1600s

During the sixteenth century a tradition developed that St Simon Stock (died 1265), Prior General of the Order, had a vision of Our Lady promising her protection to those who wore the Carmelite habit, and the wearing of the scapular subsequently became an important Marian devotion. Some believe the vision happened at Aylesford but it is more commonly thought to have occurred in Cambridge.

In 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, The Friars passed into the hands of Sir Thomas Wyatt of Allington Castle. The Wyatts lost their lands under Queen Mary and later, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Sedley took over the property. He made considerable alterations to the buildings in the 1590s.

In 1633 Sir Peter Rycaut, a Dutch international financier, bought The Friars from the Sedley family. The Rycauts took the Royalist side at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642; during the war The Friars was sequestrated by Parliamentary forces and served for a time as the meeting place of the Parliamentary Committee for Kent. Sir Peter died penniless in 1653 and his wife and youngest son, Sir Paul Rycaut, struggled to pay off the family's debts. Sir Paul is a renowned writer and traveller. He was born at the priory in 1628 and educated at Tirinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1650. He spent the next ten years travelling extensively in Asia, Africa and Europe and wrote several historial books, including works on the state of the Ottoman Empire. Sir Paul was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 12 December 1666, knighted at Whitehall in 1685 and died in November 1700

However, Sir Paul and his mother Dame Mary's struggle with finances were to no avail and Dame Mary was forced to sell The Friars in 1657 to Sir John Banks, a businessman who sold supplies to the British Navy. In the 1670s he turned The Friars into fine Caroline mansion where his visitors included the diarist Samuel Pepys. Elizabeth Banks inherited The Friars from her father and her husband, Heneage Finch, became the 1st Earl of Aylesford. He lived at The Friars but the family then moved to Packington Hall, Warwickshire. They did not live at The Friars again, although it was, at times, used as the dower house and was frequently rented out to other families.

Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century Mrs Woolsey and her son-in-law Mr Copley Hewitt, lavished care on the house. At this time The Friars became an important centre for scouting activities and Lord Baden-Powell visited on one occasion. A fire in 1930 caused immense damage but the restoration work brought to light many original features.

In 1949 The Friars was put up for sale, so the Carmelites were able to buy back their motherhouse. Fr Malachy Lynch, the first Prior, began the task of restoring the buildings and within a short time The Friars became a flourishing pilgrimage centre.

In partnership with Adrian Gilbert Scott, Fr Malachy conceived the idea of the open-air shrine and he gathered craftsmen and artists to help him. Outstanding among the artists were Adam Kossowski, who made the ceramics, and Philip Lindsey Clark and his son Michael Clark, both sculptors. Fr Malachy described The Friars as "a prayer in stone".

In the presence of Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy rededicated the Shrine in 1965 and it now serves as a centre of prayer for all Christians in Kent and a place of peace for those who search for meaning in their lives.

A more in-depth history is available in book form The History of The Friars Aylesford by Fr Wilfrid McGreal O Carm, priced £4.95 and available from the bookshop.