Greyfriars, Leicester, a C13 Franciscan friary the church of which later became the burial place of King Richard III.
Reasons for Designation
Greyfriars, Leicester the early-C13 Franciscan friary, later the burial place of Richard III, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:
Historic interest: as a good example of a Franciscan friary, a post-conquest monastic site which played an important role in the social and economic evolution of Leicester’s medieval landscape. Also as the burial place of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. An event in history which impacted both nationally and internationally;
Potential: for the proven high level of archaeological potential retained within the unencumbered areas of the friary precinct;
Documentation: the history and evolution of the friary and its associated precinct is well documented both historically and archaeologically which adds considerably to the sites’ interest;
Rarity: as a Franciscan friary in an urban context which remains relatively unencumbered by post-medieval development;
Group value: for its spatial and historic relationship with numerous listed buildings and scheduled monuments which together form a cohesive group capable of contributing futher to the knowledge and understanding of the social, economic, religious and secular evolution of Leicester.
The Friars (from the Latin frater, meaning ‘brother’) represented a radical religious reform movement of the thirteenth century. The founding saints (principally Saints Francis and Dominic) advocated a lifestyle of absolute poverty, supported exclusively by begging and the gift of alms. Friars owned no property and lived in the community, preaching and undertaking charitable works, often moving from town to town. Nevertheless, they did establish permanent bases – friaries – from which, they emerged to fulfil their mission. The first English houses were founded in 1224, but they eventually established a presence in all the major urban centres. Their houses were often sited near poor and peripheral locations, and on restricted sites, one consequence of which is that they sometimes have less orthodox layouts than the older monastic orders, on which their houses were modelled. Their buildings were at first austere, but as time passed and their work attracted popular support, large and more richly decorated buildings became commonplace. Their churches were designed to accommodate large assemblies gathered to hear the friars preach, and they rapidly became the settings for many types of public meeting. Different groups of friars placed emphasis on different aspects of their mission; the Franciscans specialised in helping the poor and destitute. Eventually the Franciscans (often known as the Greyfriars) held about 60 houses in England and Wales.
Franciscan friars first arrived in Leicester between AD 1224 and 1230 but it’s unknown when or who founded their friary. Tradition dating from the C16 suggests it was founded by Simon de Montfort II, who became Earl of Leicester in 1238. Although this is considered to be unlikely he may well have been an early benefactor. The first reference to the Friary church dates to 1255 when Simon De Montfort’s wife Eleanor, Countess of Leicester persuaded her brother King Henry III to grant 18 oak trees to the friars to make choir stalls and for panelling their chapel, suggesting the near completion of the choir of the church at this time. The nave of the church with a north aisle, was completed in 1290. Other documented buildings include a chapter house, refectory, infirmary and possibly a theology school. The friary also had large areas of garden within its precinct and a cemetery was situated between the church and St Francis’ Lane (modern Peacock Lane). In 1402 the Friary became notorious when three of its friars were executed for treason along with Sir Roger Clarendon, an illegitimate brother of King Richard II, and Walter Baldock, a former prior of Launde in Leicestershire.
Of those buried in the Friary only four are named with any certainty; Peter Swynsfield, seventh Provincial Minister of the English Franciscans (d1272); Emma, wife of John of Holt (d. 1290) William of Nottingham, 17th Provincial Minister (d. 1330); and a knight called Mutton, ‘sometime mayor of Leicester’. Little else is known about the early history of the Medieval institution except that in 1327 a murderer called John of Busseby sought sanctuary in the church for five weeks before managing to escape and in 1414 King Henry V held a parliament in Leicester using some of the friary buildings for committee meetings.
There is little information about the size of the Friary; in 1300 at least 18 friars resided at Leicester and by mid-C14 there may have been as many as 20-30 friars in the community. In 1349 Gilbert Lavener and his wife Ellen donated a property in the town to the friars so they could enlarge the friary. However, numbers may have dropped after the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 and by C15 there may have been only a dozen friars left.
The death of King Richard III in the final battle of the War of the Roses, at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on August 22 1485, resulted in Henry Tudor (Henry VII) becoming king of England. Shortly after the battle Richards’s body was buried with little ceremony in the church of the Franciscan friars (the Grey Friars) in Leicester and ten years later Henry paid for a modest tombstone to be placed over Richard’s grave. In 1538, the friary was dissolved, the church was demolished and the site eventually passed into the hands of Robert Herrick who had his mansion built there in the early C17. When in 1612, Herrick showed Christopher Wren (father of the famous architect) the site of Richard III’s grave, ‘it was covered with a handsome Stone Pillar, three Foot high, with this inscription, Here lies the body of Richard III. Sometime King of England’. Herrick believed that the king’s remains still lay in his garden, whilst other rumours circulated suggesting that Richard’s skeleton had been dug up and thrown into the River Soar by a jeering mob, a belief commonly held by many until the present day.
Little is known about the last 50 years of the friary leading up to its demise during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. However, in 1513 prominent wool merchant and former Mayor of Leicester called William Wyggeston set up a hospital to care for the poor. He chose a site next to St Martin’s Church for the building and leased the land from the Grey Friars. Seven years later, the hospital leased a second piece of land from the friars, called St Francis Garden. We do not know where this garden was located, although it was probably nearby and is thought to be a small enclosure in the north-west corner of the friary precinct still marked by a short stretch of walling in north-west corner of the western car park.
On 10th November 1538, the remaining friars surrendered their house to Henry VIII’s commissioners, who made an inventory of the friary’s assets, sold off everything of value and rendered the buildings uninhabitable. The last seven friars were the warden William Giles, the reader Simon Harvey, Henry Shepherd, John Stanish, Robert Aston, Radulph Heyrick and William Abbot. At this time they appear to have been very poor, subsisting largely on alms; a record of the friary’s annual rental value lists a sum total of £1 4s.
Greyfriars was sold in 1545 for £24 3s 4d to John Bellowe and John Broxholm, C16 property speculators from Lincolnshire, as part of a large land purchase which also included Leicester’s Augustinian friary. In the years that followed the friary appears to have been systematically demolished with some of its stone and timber being sold to St Martin’s Church. By the late C16 Robert Herrick had acquired the plot, and on it built a large mansion close to Friar Lane (under the modern street called Grey Friars). The remainder of the land was occupied by gardens. Greyfriars House remained in the possession of the Herrick family until 1711, when Robert’s great grandson Samuel Herrick sold it. In the following decades much of the property was divided and sold off. In 1743 New Street was laid through the site and in 1759 a new town house was built on part of the land. This still survives today at 17 Friar Lane which is listed at Grade II* (NHLE 1183556). In 1776 Greyfriars House was sold to Thomas Pares who in 1800 established the bank Pares and Co. in the north-east corner of its garden. The land was sold on again in 1824 and Herrick’s mansion was finally demolished in 1871. A new street called Grey Friars, was laid through the site in 1873 and the remaining land was sold for commercial development. This included the Leicester Trustee Savings Bank, built on the corner of St Martin’s and Grey Friars in 1873 and now listed at Grade II (NHLE 1299747).
Part of the land at No 17 Friar Lane was sold in 1863 to the Alderman Newtons Boy’s School and after 1915 the remaining property was acquired by Leicester County Council. New offices were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, which were used until 1965, when County Hall was opened. Since then, the buildings have been used by LCC, with the former gardens serving as a staff car park.
Very little evidence of Greyfriar’s church survives above ground, but map regression dating back to 1722 provides good evidence as to its location. In 1722 Greyfriars is shown immediately south of St Martin’s Church and Thomas Roberts’ map of 1741 shows it in the same place. Old street names such as St Francis’ Lane and Friary Lane suggest the Franciscan friary once stood in the vicinity. Other documentary evidence includes a Coroners Roll dated to 1300 which lists all sudden deaths in Leicester. Following a murder the street where the assault took place is described as ‘the lane which leads to St Martin’s church and towards the church of the Friars Minor.’ This may refer to St Francis’ Lane, suggesting Greyfriars Church lay on the north side of the friary opposite St Martins Church. John Leyland recorded ‘the grey Freres of Leicester stode at the end of the hospital of Mr Wigston’ placing the friary south of Wyggeston’s hospital built in 1513. In 1791 John Throsby noted that ‘the Franciscan or Grey Friary, stood on the south side of St Martin’s church-yard… the grounds belonging to the Friary were spacious and extended from the upper end of the Market Place to the Friar Lane meeting house.’ He also placed the church beneath houses facing St Martin’s Church (today 6-8 St Martins) because human bones were discovered there when workmen were digging their cellars.
A number of historians felt it to be unlikely that Richard III's skeleton had been dug up and thrown into the River Soar and David Baldwin in 1986 predicted that the king’s remains might yet be found on the Greyfriars site by archaeologists.
This was realised in August 2012 when Philippa Langley, a screenwriter and secretary to the Scottish Branch of the Richard III Society, launched a project aimed at locating the burial place of Richard III. Within hours of the machining of the first trench human remains were found and within the next ten days it was confirmed that the remains were positioned within the choir of Greyfriars church. The burial was excavated on 5th September 2012 and found to have a curvature to the spine and evidence for battle wounds. By the 4th February 2013, following extensive scientific analysis, it was announced beyond reasonable doubt that the individual exhumed at Greyfriars was Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.
Excavations continued with a total of three trenches being opened within the confines of what is now (2016) beneath the Richard III Visitors Centre and part of the adjacent Social Services Car Park. The excavations revealed sections of the Friary church enabling it to be mapped, and its plan and alignment outside of the trenches to be predicted, providing a clear indication of the high level of archaeological potential of the site as a whole. Further burials were also recovered indicating the diversity of important archaeological evidence surviving relatively close to the current ground surface.
In October 2016 planning permission was granted for four houses to be built to the rear of 10-14 New Street. The area of this future development has been removed from the scheduling, as shown on the attached map.
The site of Greyfriars church is situated to the south of Leicester Cathedral within a parcel of land defined by Peacock Lane and St Martins to the north, Friar Lane to the south and Grey Friars (the modern street name) to the east. The friary occupied a large walled precinct (the boundaries of which largely follows the modern street pattern) with the church aligned roughly east-west towards the northern boundary wall, and the cloister immediately south of the nave with the chapter house to the east of the cloister. Other documented buildings include a refectory, infirmary and possibly a theology school. Within the confines of the precinct wall there is also likely to be a cemetery, dormitory, kitchen, library, priors lodgings, guest house, workshops, stables, gardens, water management features and other buildings and structures which supported the functioning of the friary.
The friary survives largely as buried archaeological deposits with the exception of approximately 18m of standing fabric to the rear of 6 and 8 Peacock Lane. This stretch of walling, heavily repaired over the past 800 years, is thought to mark the southern edge of St Francis Garden, an area of land leased to Wyggeston Hospital in around 1520. Archaeological excavations in the former bus depot to the west of the precinct, in advance of building development, revealed the footings of a medieval wall which is understood to mark the western edge of the friary precinct. This is preserved beneath the fence marking the western edge of New Street car park and the rear property boundaries of 2-14 New Street.
The excavation of the three trenches within the confines of what is now (2016) beneath the Richard III Visitors Centre and part of the adjacent Social Services Car Park showed the stone from many of the walls had been robbed but the survival of other archaeological deposits has enabled the plan of the Friary church to be mapped, its alignment to be predicted, and has given a clear indication of the high level of archaeological potential of the site as a whole. A pair of parallel east-west walls with stone benches built against their internal faces were excavated and identified as the chapter house, the only small building within the friary which would normally have fixed seating around the walls. The second trench revealed a pair of parallel north-south walls, a little over 2m apart, with flooring between, indicating a corridor which would have served the chapter house, thereby identifying it as the eastern cloister walk. At the southern end of this was a fragment of north-south wall surviving to a height of around 0.41m and thought to be part of the east range. From this evidence it was then possible to propose a plan of the cloister garth, cloister walks and chapter house and suggest the position of the church. The third trench tested this theory, and confirmed, with the discovery of substantial parallel east-west walls, that the church was on the north side of the cloister. This is the most common configuration although exceptions to the rule have been recorded. Within the church, slender non load-bearing east-west walls indicate supports for the timber choir stalls, whilst a step marked the junction between the choir and the presbytery to the east. Overall, the eastern half of the church (choir and presbytery) was 10.4m wide and at least 14m long, based on the predicted position of the ‘walking place’ immediately north of the east cloister walk.
The recovery of stone rubble, fragments of plaster, roof tiles, floor tiles, architectural fragments and window glass have all contributed to our understanding of the buildings appearance and plan. It is clear that the friary was mostly built from grey sandstone, quarried locally from Daneshill approximately 2km west of Leicester. Broken Swithland slates, ceramic roof tiles and ridge tiles show that many of the roofs were tiled, whilst the documentary sources from the time of the dissolution suggest that the church roof at least was clad in lead. Some examples of early Perpendicular window tracery of a style current in about 1400 were recovered from the presbytery although they were recovered from a backfilled modern drain and not therefore in-situ. The recovery of plaster indicates that at least some of the friary walls were rendered and whitewashed and small pieces of glass and lead found amongst the rubble show some of the windows were glazed. In most buildings, floors appear to have been covered with plain tiles laid in a diamond pattern. These had coloured glazes in brown, orange and green. In the church however many of the tiles were highly decorated. Many of the tiles were made relatively locally at Nuneaton, approximately 27km to the south-west of Leicester, whilst others were of a type more commonly found in south-west England. These frequently had patterns of heraldic design representing popular chivalric designs of the period including eagles, lions, griffins, fleur-de-lys, and geometric and floral patterns.
In addition to the burial of Richard III other burials were discovered in the church. These were marked by rubble infilled voids in the floor, showing where tombs or grave slabs had been removed when the church was demolished. Beneath the voids graves could be seen. Significantly, none of these appears to have been disturbed, the destruction and defacement of the tombs being confined to floor level. Further evidence for burials comes from John Throsby’s History and Antiquities of Leicester c.1791. Here he also noted that, ‘the ground belonging to the Friary were spacious and extended from the upper end of the Market Place to the Friar Lane meeting house’. He also placed the church beneath houses facing St Martins Church (now 6-8 St Martins) because human bones were found there when workmen were digging their cellars.
Historic maps dating from the early-C18 show the Greyfriars site as open land surrounded by buildings on the outer edges, with the central areas being occupied by remnants of formal gardens. Goad plans for the late C19 also show the central areas of the precinct as gardens, becoming car parks by the mid-C20 and it is here that there is the greatest potential of surviving archaeological remains. The level of disturbance from the laying of the car park asphalt is unlikely to have had a huge impact on the buried remains.
The C18 and C19 development around the periphery of the precinct will have impacted on the survival of archaeological deposits, particularly given that the majority of the buildings have basements and for this reason the ground beneath the buildings is not included in the scheduling. Seventeen of the buildings are currently (2016) listed, the majority being at Grade II with the exception of 17 Friar Lane which is listed at Grade II*.
The area of the proposed scheduling encompasses two buildings. 15 New Street is a C20 construction which is proposed for demolition in order to improve accessibility to the rear of 6-8 St Martins and to allow landscaping to better reflect the Medieval context of the Friary and visitors centre. It has no basement, and given that it sits within the cloister, the potential for the survival of archaeological deposits is high and the ground beneath it is therefore included in the scheduling, although the building itself is excluded (see below). The second building is a circular structure in the eastern corner of the scheduled area, behind the City Council Offices, on the corner of Friar Lane and Grey Friars. This is supported on piers and has therefore required minimal ground disturbance for its construction. For this reason the ground beneath the building is included in the scheduling, although the building itself is again excluded (see below).
Planning permission (application no: 20160613) has recently (October 2016) been granted for the building of four town houses to the rear of 10-14 New Street. The development lies within the precinct walls but given archaeological conditions have been placed on the planning decision the site of the development was excluded from the area that was assessed for scheduling. An outbuilding to the rear of 37-39 Friar Lane which is shown within the development area, has recently (2016) been demolished in preparation for the development but is still shown on the Ordnance Survey mapping.
Extent of scheduling:
The scheduled area is irregular in shape, reflecting those areas within the original precinct which remain unencumbered by post-medieval development and therefore those areas with the highest archaeological potential as defined by the map.
The scheduled area does not fully represent the extent of the original friary precinct. Nationally important archaeology may survive in other areas but evidence for its survival is less obvious. Given the number of buildings with cellars built within the bounds of the precinct it is likely that archaeological deposits in these areas will have been disturbed during the construction and subsequent adaptation of these buildings. Many of the buildings are listed so the built-up areas are best managed through a combination of listed building controls and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
All modern road and paving surfaces, fences, signage and drain covers are excluded from the scheduling, although ground beneath all these features is included. Also excluded are The Richard III Visitor Centre, 15 New Street and the circular structure in the eastern corner of the scheduled area, behind the City Council Offices, although the ground beneath all these buildings is included.