The Franciscan Friars (Orders of Friars Minor, often called the Grey Friars from the colour of their garments) came to England in 1224, around a year before the death of St Francis of Assisi, their founder. Friars differ from monks in that they are not a secluded community but work among the local people, on whose charity they are dependant. The nave of the friary church would have been accessible to the public, while the rest of the buildings were private. Medieval Leicester supported two other friaries, one Dominican and one Augustinian.
The Priory of the Grey Friars in Leicester is said to have been founded in 1255 by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester from 1238 to 1265. Following the Dissolution, the site of the Greyfriars was sold in 1536 to John Bellowe and John Broxholme –16th century property speculators from Lincolnshire who bought up numerous similar sites across the England, including Leicester’s Augustinian Friary – and the buildings were finally demolished in 1538 with some of the timber and stone used to repair St Martin’s church.
The land was bought by Sir Robert Catlyn, Chief Justice to Elizabeth I (and a distant ancestor of Princess Diana) who then sold it to Robert Herrick.
Robert Herrick (also spelled Heyrick, 1540-1618), from a family of successful ironmongers, followed in his father’s footsteps as Mayor of Leicester, holding the position in 1584, 1593 and 1605. He was also a Justice of the Peace and at various times the town’s Chamberlain, Coroner and MP. The Mayoral Roll records: “For some years prior to his death, he resided in a mansion house within the precincts and grounds of the dissolved Grey Friars monastery, nearly opposite St Martin's church.”
Herrick built a house on the eastern part of the grounds, visited in 1612 by a young man named Christopher Wren, who was tutor to Herrick’s nephew at Oxford. (This was not the famous architect but his father, later Dean of Windsor.) Wren wrote in his diary that Herrick showed him a stone pillar with an inscription ‘here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England’. This was the last recorded location of Richard’s body.
Herrick’s daughter Frances married Thomas Noble and one of their descendants (also Thomas Noble, c.1656-1730, later the town’s MP) bought the Greyfriars land in 1711. His son, yet another Thomas, divided the site into two in 1740 with the appropriately named New Street, along which houses were built, with numerous burials discovered during the building work. Herrick’s house and garden passed in 1743 to Roger Ruding of Westcotes, in 1752 to hosier Richard Garle, and in 1759 to banker William Bentley who built a fine house with the address ‘17 Friar Lane’.
Part of the land at 17 Friar Lane was sold in 1863 to the Alderman Newton’s Boys’ School who built a schoolhouse (extending the property in 1887 and 1897) and the remainder, with Bentley’s house, was bought by the Leicester Corporation in 1866 who considered the site as a possible location for Leicester’s new Town Hall (replacing the ancient Guildhall). Leicestershire County Council acquired the land in 1920 and in 1936 constructed smart offices which were used until 1965, when the new County Hall was opened. Since then, the building has been used by Leicester City Council, with the unbuilt land serving as a car park for Council staff.