Religious orders were divided into monks and nuns who followed a monastic life, and mendicants who followed a monastic rule but who went outside their house’s walls to preach, perform acts of charity and beg for alms. Complicating matters were canons regular, who were ordained priests (members of monastic and mendicant orders were not priests) who followed a monastic rule but who also went out into the community to preach.
The name ‘friar’ was commonly used to describe a member of a mendicant order.
There were four main orders of friars in London: the Franciscans, Dominicans, Cistercians and Carmelites.
The name friar, though, was also attached to a small order of Augustinian canons known as the Friars of the Holy Cross. These were also known as the Crutched Friars, a corruption of cruciferi, meaning cross-carriers, referring probably to a cross sewn on to their habits. Unlike other canons they promised obedience to a master-general, based in Huy in France. Normally canons just promised obedience to their own prior. Unlike mendicants, the order was allowed to hold property. The label ‘friar’, though, rather than reflecting their technically hybrid nature as an order, was probably simply due to their being lumped together with the mendicant orders in popular perception.
Their history is obscure, but they were founded in the mid-thirteenth century and by the end of the century had perhaps four houses in England, including the one in London. The sixteenth-century antiquary John Leland says the London house was founded in 1298 by two citizens – Ralph Hosier and Willam Sabernes.
One recent study (by Virginia Davis) has estimated that there were around 750 mendicants attached to houses in London from 1361 to 1400, confirming the general impression of a multitude of friars in the City.
The Crutched Friars like other orders had declined by the time of their demise in the sixteenth century, but were always a relatively small house. When the London priory was surrendered during the Reformation it had a mere six canons.
It is after them that the street by Fenchurch Street Station is named. The statue of the friars on Crutched Friars was made in 1985 when the current building Friary Court was put up.