Preston Friary

Excavation of a Lost Franciscan Friary

In the medieval period, the growth of towns across Europe gave rise to a new type of monk: the Friar. These belonged to mendicant orders, who depended for their food on gifts rather than land grants, and therefore, in order to survive, a fairly large population was needed to support them. The Friaries were normally established in towns, and in 1260, a Friary of the Franciscan order was founded on the outskirts of Preston. Its general location is shown on historical maps, but the site was thought to have been destroyed by the construction of the canal and railway in the nineteenth century. More recently, the Penwortham Bypass was built in the area. The Franciscans were known as grey friars (named from the colour of their habits) and they played an important role, providing education and looking after the physical and spiritual welfare of the townsfolk. People could pay to be buried within and around the friary church, with the most expensive places being within the presbytery and crossing (before the high altar at the east end) and in the transepts (the north and south arms of the church).

In 2007, the cobbled footings for a substantial structure with corner buttresses and 1.5m-thick sandstone walls were revealed some 2m below the street level on the site of Brunel Court in Marsh Lane. Excavation by Oxford Archaeology North uncovered a 12m-long building, and, sharing its east/west alignment, were some 21 graves, many containing the articulated skeletons of men, women and children. Several graves had coffins, three of which have been dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by examining the pattern of tree rings on the oak boards. Further graves were outside the building, although very few of those contained skeletons. Yellow- and green-glazed geometric tiles with incised decoration suggested the building had a mosaic floor, whilst fragments of painted glass and lead indicated the presence of stained glass windows. It is just possible that the remains are those of the north transept of the friary church.

After the friary was closed by Henry VIII in 1539, some of its buildings became a prison. This is probably the structure shown on the map of Preston in 1774 by JB Lang, and it seems likely that the fields around preserve the outline of the friary precinct. The area of the Brunel Court excavation is outlined in red, the possible precinct in yellow.

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Foundations of the south wall and a pair of buttresses, with completely excavated graves within the building.

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Incised and glazed tiles that once formed part of a colourful mosaic floor within the building.

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The graves formed rough rows within and around the building, which indicates a level of organisation. They often overlapped one another, though, suggesting either that they were not always marked, or that there was a desire to cram in as many as possible.

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An unusually complete and well-preserved skeleton for the site, perhaps because the grave was dug quite deep. The tight arrangement of the limbs may suggest that this individual was buried in a shroud, whilst there is evidence that this burial cut an earlier grave, perhaps explaining the arm bone near the head.

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This individual was buried in a coffin, the base of which survived as dark material. The position of the shin bones suggests that the grave may have been disturbed at some point in the past.

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Many of the graves were very shallow when excavated. Several graves could be seen to have cut earlier ones.

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