Pontefract Friary Action Group
Pontefract & District Archeaological Society
2012 brief update
Following the tremendous achievements of the Action Group in delivering the dig, led PDAS, which was followed by successful Open Days, PFAG as a temporaray campaign group was wound up, and PDAS assumed full responsibility for future activity.
There was an initial plan to seek major founding to do an even bigger dig in 2012, though the planning time for the level of funding made that possibility even more difficult. On a positive note, funding was secured for a smaller dig to continue in August 2012 led by Simon Tomson.
‘Community Open Days’ – Friday 23 September & Saturday 24 September 2011
At these events, visitors will hear more about both the history of the site and the dig itself. The information below has been written by and is reproduced by kind permission of David Wandlass, which was initially published through a PGAF Newsletter (27 Sept, 2011).
The Dominican Order was founded in 1216 at Toulouse S W France. The Dominican mission to Britain arrived in 1221, with the first Friary founded at Oxford, then York by 1227 and Pontefract by 1256. Eventually there were 59 Dominican Friaries in Britain.
The Dominicans mission was to preach and counter heresay. The friars were trained preachers “racy, provocative, entertaining and informative”. St Richards Friary was founded on land donated by Edmund de Lacy at the edge of Pontefract as the town was full of buildings and no site big enough for an urban monastery was available.
The Black friars owned nothing, begged the friary site, stone, builders, food, clothing and all else, giving to the friars was seen as an act of Christian charity by the population. The Pontefract Black friars were allocated a territory in which to preach and beg encompassed by Pontefract, Rotherham and Wakefield. From 1330 onwards the Pope awarded the Friars the power to preach, hear confessions and bury the dead. Many townsfolk in Pontefract left small legacies to the Friars and requested to be buried in the Friary lay cemetery.
The Friary comprised a large `preaching box` church with narrow chancel and large nave, cloister, dormitory, chapter house, refectory, kitchens, lavatories and guest accommodation. All the friary buildings lay south of the church ranged around the cloister, today lying below the demolished former hospital site.
The Friary was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538 and surrendered to the crown. The two bells and roof lead were stripped and sold as was the entire site; the buildings were demolished for their stone, wood, glass and fittings and sold. The site reverted to agricultural use as pasture and later became liquorice fields. The hospital eventually spread over the site after the foundation of the dispensary in the late 1890’s.
What we have found so far
Our excavation has found the north wall of the Friary church nave. The wall is 75cm wide and set on a deep rock-cut foundation. The wall has been later buttressed to bear the weight of additions, possibly the construction of a nave clerestory (raised upper story above the nave with high windows to provide additional light into the church).
The east wall of the nave north aisle, this too was later buttressed (twice) reusing a broken grave cover slab. Part of an altar (there would have been several) base survives within the church against the whitewashed east wall.
After the dissolution both of the walls indicate that the stone had been removed and sold, a process known as `robbing`.
Multiple fragments and whole pieces of stone window tracery from one of the north wall gothic windows, the interior faces of which are whitewashed too. Fragments of painted window glass and the lead cames into which it was set have been found too.
Graves of the lay cemetery lying north and east of the church, there is a particularly dense cluster of graves outside the east wall of the church while some on the north side are almost touching the wall.
A rare, high status, Purbeck `marble` sarcophagus, once set into a wall niche, later pulled out, broken open and ransacked, the bones of the occupant left scattered around it. The tomb had once held a high status burial.
The sarcophagus was imported, probably from Barrack in Cambridgeshire or perhaps from Purbeck in Dorset. Fragments of fine decorative stonework probably from the tomb niche décor were also found nearby.
A single burial had been cut into the demolition debris from the church; it is possible that this individual may have been a civil war casualty 1645-48.
A 5’ deep cultivation soil covered the site of the former church, this soil was improved and manure with waste from the town and used for the cultivation of liquorice from the 18th to the 20th century, the deep harvesting trenches can be seen in the soil section on the northern
edge of the excavation.
We have also found a significant amount of medieval pottery, painted window glass, clay pipes covering 400 years of history, metal objects, animal bones oyster shells etc.
Tues 12 Jul, 2011 7pm – 2nd Public Meeting ~ Central Methodist Church, Newgate, Pontefract
Preservation of St. Richard’s medieval Dominican Friary, the Hermitage, the Dispensary and the Valley Gardens.
The Pontefract Friary Action Group aims to record before destruction, and if possible preserve the archaeological remains of the unique 13th century Dominican Friary of St Richard. The Group was established on 2nd June 2011, by a coalition of local community organisations with a shared interest in protecting the heritage of the medieval market town of Pontefract, the historic centre of the West Riding of Yorkshire.
Urgent and specific concerns relate to the plans of the Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust, acting through their contractor Balfour Beatty, to demolish buildings constructed as a part of the development of Pontefract General Infirmary during the 1960s and 1980s. The Trust is currently demolishing the Accident & Emergency Department and various ward areas. It proposes to clear the foundations to a level one metre [over three feet] below ground level and to flatten the site which, when the Friary was constructed in the thirteenth century , was a terraced area containing important buildings.
The impact of this demolition work will be to destroy much of the archaeology of one of only five Dominican Priories established in Yorkshire, along with associated medieval cemeteries. The Pontefract Friary Action Group has been established to fight these proposals, to protect the heritage of Pontefract. Specifically, we want the Trust to:
• Recognise and protect the thirteenth century terracing of the Friary, with its associated building remains, which continue to endure after nearly 800 years.
• Take the requisite steps to ensure that future developments respect the ancient remains beneath the ground.
As the present work continues, much of these ancient and unique remains (which are proven too exist) will be lost forever. We propose to undertake archaeological excavation to locate, record, and, where possible, allow sympathetic re-planning of the site to preserve the ancient structures within future re-development.
The Friary Action Group is also opposed to planning consent being given to the Trust, in relation to buildings within the conservation area which may impact on the Grade 1 listed Hermitage [c1386 and of international importance] and an early 15th century Oratory [small private chapel] associated with the Priory at Nostell. Both of these important sites are accessed through a 19th century Dispensary [c1880] paid for from public subscription and currently regarded as ‘at risk’ by the Friary Action Group.
Specifically we want the NHS Trust to:
Fund a desk top archaeological assessment of the whole site, prior to any further damage, and to agree to allow urgent archaeological investigation and excavation by Pontefract & District Archaeological Society. This must also include a detailed published report of their findings.