Dig sheds new light on Norwich’s medieval past
PUBLISHED: 08:00 26 June 2015 | UPDATED: 08:48 26 June 2015
Copyright Archant Norfolk 2015
New light is being shone on a hugely significant part of the city’s history, as archaeologists excavate parts of a medieval friary which once rivalled Norwich Cathedral.
Who were the Austin Friars?
The Austin Friars were the last of four monastic orders which came to Norwich in the 13th century. These orders were a reaction to what was seen as the excessive wealth of the church.
In 1226 the Franciscans, know as Greyfriars, set up in part of the city bounded by the present St Faith‘s Lane and Rose Lane.
The same year, the Friars Preachers, known as the Dominicans or Blackfriars, arrived. They built what is now St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’ Halls.
The Carmelites, or Whitefriars, settled in 1256, close to the former Jarrold printing works, while the Augustinian or Austin Friars arrived in about 1272.
Their riverside friary, at St Anne’s Wharf, was in use from about 1290 until 1538 and was enlarged over the years. It was dissolved in 1538, as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
The site passed into the hands of the Duke of Norfolk and became part of his pleasure gardens. In the 20th century, it was home to Morgans’s Brewery and then Watney Mann’s brewery distribution depot, demolished in 2008.
Human remains, coins, pottery, oyster shells, animal bones and painted glass have all been discovered by archaeologists working at St Anne’s Wharf - once the site of the 13th century Austin Friars Priory.
And that will provide new information about the religious order which arrived with nothing on marshland on the edge of Norwich and went on to become one of four monastic orders which transformed the city.
Of the houses which those monastic orders built, only St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’ Hall survives, so being able to explore where the Austin Friars were once based is providing important information on the city’s medieval past.
The work is taking place ahead of the development of the site, between King Street and the River Wensum, where Orbit Homes is building 437 homes.
The excavations, now in their fifth week, are due to last for 18 weeks and have already resulted in a number of important discoveries.
Andy Shelley, principal archaeologist for contractors Ramboll, said: “It’s about preserving by recording and excavation. It’s a vast site and our primary aim is to preserve it in situ.
“The context is what we have known for years - that this is the site of the Austin Priory. It has extremely well preserved remains from when it was in use from about 1290 to 1538.
“Before the friary, this was marshland. They didn’t have a lot of choice but to set up outside what was the Saxon town and were given the land by rich benefactors in return for praying for their souls.
“They started off as a reaction to what was seen as the wealth of the church - living in poverty and chastity and taking the message to the people of Norwich, but they soon ended up becoming wealthy themselves.”
Mr Shelley said the team had hoped to find the east end of the great friary church and appeared to have succeeded, with the discovery of flint and mortar walls.
He said: “It would have been massive. We know from a man called William of Worcester, who went round pacing out buildings in the 15th century, that it was 150 feet long and 50 feet wide.”
Human remains have been found in a tomb in that church. The skeleton, which is either an elderly person or a child, probably dates from the 14th century.
With people buried inside such churches generally being wealthy, Mr Shelley said such finds could shed light on the diet and health of those connected to the friary.
One find is likely to be declared as treasure trove - a silver gilded dress fastener which is at least 300 years old, while other discoveries included oyster shells and animal bones, which helps shed light on what was eaten at the friary.
Mr Shelley said: “The hope and expectation is that the finds will be donated to Norfolk Museums Service for long term study and display.”
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