‘Long-lost’ medieval friary uncovered in Gloucester

Recent evaluation trenching by Cotswold Archaeology on the site of the former multi-storey car park on Bruton Way, Gloucester, has identified the remains of the city’s medieval Whitefriars Friary for the first time. The site was being investigated on behalf of Reef Group, which is working with Gloucester City Council to bring forward a £85m scheme to regenerate the King’s Quarter area of the city. This includes ‘The Forum’ – a new social and digital campus for the South West.

Archaeologists have long suspected that the Bruton Way bus station and car park was the site of Gloucester Whitefriars, a 13th-century friary founded by the Carmelites, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s four great mendicant (living by charity) orders. Andrew Armstrong, City Archaeologist at Gloucester City Council, said: “For around three hundred years, Whitefriars played an active part in Gloucester and produced some notable friars, including Nicholas Cantelow (or Cantilupe) in the 15th century. It’s very exciting to finally reveal the exact location of this ‘long-lost’ friary. Seeing and documenting this site will serve to underline, and recognise, the place of the friary in the city’s history.”

Remains of Whitefriars wall
Remains of Whitefriars wall

Whitefriars was one of several important religious houses in medieval Gloucester along with Llanthony Priory, the Blackfriars and the Greyfriars. Whitefriars’ place in the city’s history has tended to be overlooked because of the lack of identifiable remains. It owned most of the land between what is now Station Road and Bruton Way, which is shown in some historic maps as ‘Friars Ground’. Whilst a variety of sources suggest the friary was located at the western end of this land, next to Market Parade, it has not been possible to confirm the precise location of the friary until now.

The investigations suggest there were at least four large medieval buildings at the site. These buildings were either built of stone or had stone footings, with some of the walls measuring a metre wide. The team has also found the remains of tiled and mortared floors, and part of a medieval drain. Importantly, some of the larger walls are aligned east-west – a typical feature for a medieval ecclesiastical building.

Working on site at the Whitefriars dig
Working on site at the Whitefriars dig

The Carmelites in Gloucester

Historic records suggest that Whitefriars was founded in Gloucester around 1268 with grants from Queen Eleanor (the wife of Henry III), and members of the Giffard and Berkeley families. Henry III is known to have given eight oaks towards the building of the friary. His son Edward I also supported the friary, which during its heyday supported around 30 friars in the community. The Carmelites were so called because they traced their origins to a community of hermits on Mount Carmel. By the middle of the 13th century they were an established mendicant order popular in much of Western Europe. They were often referred to as ‘White Friars’ because of their white cloaks.

The Gloucester Whitefriars, like every other monastery in England, was supressed by 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII. By that time there were only three friars left, and the friary was in financial difficulty. By the late 16th century little was left of the friary building complex. One building, known as the friars’ barn, was used in the defence of the city during the English Civil War. Gloucester had sided with Parliament during the war and was famously besieged by Royalist forces in August 1643. The friars’ barn, being made of stone, was used as a fortification by the defenders of the city but was demolished some years later.

The Forum

The Forum forms a key component of the plan to regenerate the Kings Quarter area of Gloucester. Esther Croft, Development Director at Reef, said: “Working in partnership with the City Council, our aim is to deliver The Forum with the least possible impact on these important archaeological remains. We expect, as the development moves forward, that further archaeological investigations will be needed, hopefully improving our understanding of this intriguing site. We look forward to sharing the full results of this dig, and any future archaeological work, with the people of Gloucester.”

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