New understanding of old Leicester

Quite apart from King Richard’s mortal remains, the Greyfriars project has also provided new evidence about medieval Leicester. Most of the town’s medieval buildings were timber-built and consequently have not survived. What stone materials existed tended to be robbed and reused, as happened with the friary after the Dissolution in 1538.

Ironically, this demolition has helped to preserve the friary as it created a layer of rubble which has protected the archaeological traces of the buildings. The average depth of the remains was 110cm below ground level, well below the 19th/20th century additions of sewers, drains, cables and wall footings (and presumably, even in the early 17th century, deep enough to not trouble Robert Herrick’s gardening).

The friary

Medieval friaries varied considerably in layout. The basic principle was a square cloister alongside an east-west church, with buildings on the other three sides but even this could vary; the Austin friary in Leicester, for example, has two cloisters. As well as a chapter house, facilities at a friary like Greyfriars were likely to include a dormitory, a refectory, a kitchen and a latrine or ‘rere-dorter’, together with accommodation for visitors, storage and other buildings useful to a self-contained religious community. Although some very useful remains have come to light in the three trenches, they tell us little about the extent of the church and cloister and nothing about subsidiary buildings.

The only surviving (non-robbed) wall was in the southern part of Trench 2, still standing to a height of about 41cm. This was mostly constructed from locally quarried Danes Hill sandstone but with several other types of stone incorporated, suggesting re-use of older materials. Rubble in the chapter house was also from Danes Hill and contained some local Swithland slate which may have been used for the roof.

The church

The standard plan of a friary church from this period is, from west to east: the nave (within which the public were welcome), the ‘walking place’, the choir and the presbytery. Only the last two have been identified, although the approximate location of the walking place can be inferred since that would normally connect with a corner of the cloister.

Floor levels varied considerably between the church and the cloister, with the former being about 30cm higher in its original construction, and subsequent reflooring raising that difference to about 60cm – so presumably there were steps up to the walking place.

The disturbance in the northern part of Trench 1 turned out to be not quite in line with the wall in Trench 3 so may have been the foundations of a buttress supporting the church wall.

Some of the masonry fragments from the east end of the church bore the stains of brick dust. If the church was partly built of, or faced with, bricks, that would make it the earliest brick building in Leicester, predating ‘Abbot Penny’s wall’ in the remains of Leicester Abbey, which dates from about 1500. A tantalising photograph from the early 20th century shows a brick wall on the northern edge of the site, demolished in 1928 and there is a fragment of an old brick wall in the New Street car park which may be medieval.

Leicester

Placing the church on the north side of the site helps us to accurately map one more part of medieval Leicester. There had been speculation that the church was on the south side of the friary as that would have placed it alongside Friar Lane, the route from the South Gate to Leicester’s Saturday Market. The Grey Friars were a mendicant order, ie. dependant on charity, so they might be expected to have placed their church alongside a busy road. However, we still don’t know what buildings might have been to the south of the cloister, and perhaps there was something there which encouraged generosity from people travelling to and from the market.

  • Floor Plan of Walsingham compared to Leicester Grey Friars
    Grey Friars, Walsingham
    Franciscan Friary of comparable size
  • Map of the Leicester Grey Friars Trenches
    Map of the Leicester Grey Friars Trenches
  • Wall of the Leicester Grey Friars Priory - 19th century photograph
    Published in 1920, this photograph was captioned 'Wall of Grey Friars' Priory (Brickwork circ.1500)'. It may show the original northern boundary wall of the friary precinct. The wall was demolished in 1928.

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