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Long-Lost Medieval Monastery Discovered Beneath Parking Garage in England

Carmelite friars established Whitefriars in 1270, but the religious site was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation

Archaeologists unearthed the friary's ruins beneath the site of a demolished parking garage. (Courtesy of Cotswold Archaeology)
smithsonianmag.com

Archaeologists digging under the remains of a demolished parking garage in Gloucester, England, have found the ruins of a 13th-century monastery, BBC News reports.

Established around 1270, the Carmelite friary—known as Whitefriars—was all but demolished during the 16th century. Historians had long been aware of the house of worship’s existence, but they didn’t know exactly where it was located. Researchers from the Gloucester City Council and Cotswold Archaeology took advantage of a redevelopment project in the city’s King’s Quarter neighborhood to investigate.

“For around 300 years, Whitefriars played an active part in Gloucester,” says city archaeologist Andrew Armstrong in a statement. “… Seeing and documenting this site will serve to underline, and recognize, the place of the friary in the city's history.”

Medieval friars were similar to monks, but rather than devoting themselves purely to prayer and scholarship, they engaged with and served the broader community. One of the most significant figure connected to the Whitefriars site was Nicholas Cantilupe, a theologian and historian from a noble family.

Last year, excavations at the site unearthed a clay floor suspected to be part of the friary, reports Ed Stilliard for Gloucester Live. Since then, researchers have found the ruins of at least four large medieval buildings, including some with three-foot-thick stone walls. Additional finds include tiled and mortared floors and a medieval drain. Some larger walls are aligned east to west—a common feature of medieval Christian architecture.

Friary walls
The dig found sections of the medieval friary's walls. (Courtesy of Cotswold Archaeology)

According to the British Province of Carmelites, the first Carmelites were Christian hermits who settled on Mount Carmel in the Middle East around 1200. Soldiers returning from the Crusades brought the order to Britain in 1242; five years later, the group joined a new movement of mendicant friars, or “begging brothers,” and became known as Whitefriars due to the color of their cloaks.

At the order’s height, more than 1,000 Carmelites lived in 40 communities across England. But the Carmelites’ influence faded after Henry VIII dissolved the country’s Catholic monasteries in the 1530s and ’40s. During the Protestant Reformation, British authorities destroyed the majority of monastic buildings or distributed them to new owners.

Most of the Gloucester Whitefriars’ buildings were demolished around 1567, according to British History Online. Later, locals converted a remaining brick-and-stone building into a barn. This structure was demolished around 1700, leaving only ruins.

Whitefriars was just one of several Christian monastic organizations in the city. As Gloucestershire Live’s Stilliard reported in 2019, archaeologists have already located the ruins of the four other medieval holy houses: Blackfriars, Greyfriars, Llanthony Priory and St. Oswald’s Priory.

Esther Croft, development director at the Reef Group—the firm behind the city redevelopment project—says the company is working with the city council to protect the archaeological findings.

“We expect, as the development moves forward, that further archaeological investigations will be needed, hopefully improving our understanding of this intriguing site,” she explains in the statement. “We look forward to sharing the full results of this dig, and any future archaeological work, with the people of Gloucester.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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