Although there is a large and busy Preston street still named Friargate that has existed since medieval times, the exact location of this monastic site has remained a mystery. Recent archaeological evidence has drawn it tantalizing closer, as we shall see.
The friary was in existence by 1260, as there is documented evidence of King Henry III allowing the friars to cut timber in the royal Forest of Fulwood. His son, Edmund Earl of Lancaster is often credited as the founder, but the friary may have been founded before that at the bequest of a local family. It was on a main route into Preston, but was situated outside in fields, as friaries often were. It would have been small in comparison to an abbey complex, but would have had cloisters and a chapel. The friary site was south of present day Marsh Lane, between Ladywell Street and Pitt Street. Ladywell Street was name after the Lady Well, a medieval holy well.
Friaries were rare in Lancashire. Only three existed, the other two being a Dominican one at Lancaster and an Augustinian one at Warrington. In Preston the friars were Franciscans, or Grey Friars and the friary was dedicated to St Clare. Friars worked in town with the poor, and money would be raised by begging from townsfolk and from donations from powerful families. Documents show that Preston Friary received bequests from Richard Sherburne of Stonyhurst in 1437 and William Ffarington of Farington and Leyland in 1501.
In 1539, under Henry VIII, the order came for it to be dissolved and the buildings sold. Part of the site may have been pulled down soon after and the stone re-used, but it is thought that some of the buildings were converted into private housing. In 1680 the remaining structure became a house of correction (a prison) and continued to be used as such until 1789. Some accounts have the shell of the chapel being converted into cottages after this date, but the site undergoes heavy industrial use from then on: the Lancaster Canal cuts through it, a foundary is built, railway lines and sidings are added and finally the canal is filled in again. During the course of all this construction work human bones and stonework fragment were occasionally found and presumed to have come from the friary. The Lady Well may have survived into the 1800s, but by 1880 it had gone.
In 1991 when the Penwortham bypass (Ringway) was built an archaeological dig was mounted to try to find the site. The dig found no structures, but did find four shards of medieval floor tile that would be associated with a high status monastic building. In 2007, part of Brunel court near Ladywell street was excavated, before the Legacy Preston International Hotel was built and this turned up medieval glass and floor tiles. Most interestingly the dig revealed the site of the friary cemetery. Thirty graves were found, and five of these had coffin boards. Twenty two different skeletons were identified, twelve of which were virtually complete. The skeletons were of men, women and children which leads the archaeologists to think that the friary had an infirmary or hospice on the site. Joint disease was observed to be common in the skeletons. Interestingly, not that far away from this place was another site dedicated to the looking after the sick, the Medieval leprosy hospital of St Mary Magdalene – to see the blog post on that click here .
If you’d like to see the site where the cemetery was recently discovered and look at the area where the friary used to be, arm yourself with a town map and head down the hill on Friargate’s pedestrianized area. Cross over the Ringway dual carriage way and turn left along it, following it until you reach Corporation Street on your right (where Office World is). Head up Corporation Street and take the first left turn after the superstores into Healey Street and follow it to the end. It connects to Ladywell Street, former site of the holy well and probably at the outer edge of the priory’s precinct.
Follow Ladywell Street to the end, and turn left onto Marsh Lane (which used to be called Friar’s Lane). As you follow it down past Brunel Court you can see the Legacy Preston International Hotel on your left. This was built in 2007, and that’s when the medieval cemetery was discovered underneath where it now stands.
If you pass the hotel and take a short path on your left through the trees this brings you out back onto Ringway. With the railway sidings in front of you across the dual carriageway and the railway bridge to the right, you are probably standing in the place where the Friary was located. Looking around, and knowing the recent industrial activity in the area, you can see why not a lot of its remains have been found !
If you’d like to see a rare surviving statue from the site, head back up the pedestrianized Friargate street to the Harris Museum and Library. In the new Discover Preston history gallery, there is a piece of stonework on permanent display from the friary.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2013
Parking: Park in any of Preston city centre car parks and head down the pedestrianized part of Friargate.
The Harris Museum is open every day except Sundays. Inside is a newly revamped gallery, giving a comprehensive history of Preston, from the stone age until the industrial revolution and is well worth a visit.
Just a short drive away
The Wharncliffe Companion to Preston: An A to Z of Local History, David Hunt, 2005, Wharncliffe Books
A History of Preston (Second Edition), David Hunt, 2009, Carnegie Publishing
The People and Places of Historic Preston, Stephen Sarin, 1988, Carnegie Press
Preston Friary- an Archaeological Evaluation, Patrick Tostevin and Peter Iles, 1991, www.archaeologyuk.org/lahs/Contrebis/17_62_Tostevin.pdf (accessed 8/11/13)
BBC news website “Ancient bones set for analysis” 2/4/07 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/6517485.stm (accessed 8/11/13)
British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteology Annual Review 2011, (February 2012, Issue 13)