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Gloucester Blackfriars - the 'most complete Dominican friary in England'


Research notes on Gloucester Blackfriars by Janice Lyall


These brief research notes and added context were compiled by conservation artist Janice Lyall prior to creation of Gloucester Blackfriars paintings.

( Janice would welcome any feedback and has lots more detailed information, should anyone need it!)

1 - Henry III & the arrival of the Dominicans

The Dominicans, or Blackfriars (they wore black cloaks), came to Gloucester in 1239 and built the original house (completed in 1270 for 40 monks) with funds from Henry III, a pious King who was coronated (aged 9 yrs) in Gloucester and spent much time there. He was also very wealthy and a lavish spender on huge projects, such as Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The site was built in the Bailey of the Norman Castle. Henry III also enlarged the churchyard and built the thoroughfare through the town to it.


The buildings were constructed of stone rubble with dressed stone features. Oak for the close-set scissor trussed church roof came primarily from the Royal Forest of Dean.


The buildings were arranged around a cloister, including a church, Chapter House library (scriptorium - England's oldest library), buttery (used in the prepration of food), refectory, dormitory and infirmary. 




2 - Why did the Blackfriars come?

Norman Britain, along with the rest of the continent had been in 'turbulent times' with numerous wars and the Crusades, but was expanding through economic growth from trade flowing into the exchequer. Norman wealth reflected itself in architecture (castles, mansions and palaces) and in aristocrats requiring intensive labour and episcopal forests to feed their lavish demands. The church became increasingly powerful & conspicously wealthy too through the notion of purgatory which could be lessened by financial gifts. There were many competing 'Orders' at that time, each with their own rules, heraldry, priory and practices.  Gloucester had a number of priories competing with each other  - increased followers meant more wealth creation, more oblates, more influence.


Inevitable conflicts between church, monarchy and the barons had recently led to Magna Carta in 1215. At that time, the monarchy was disliked. Henry III was the son of bad King John (brother of Richard the Lion Heart) who had lost the Crown Jewels.  This was also the era of Simon de Montfort, calling for the first parliament. He needed to do something to appease his opponents, as he himself was not a warrior.


Ordinary people had been taxed heavily and forced into wars by monarchs who ruled by the sword with almost absolute power, apart from the papal rule of the church.  For ordinary people, religion was not a personal choice, but a necessity  for survival.  The church & monarchy owned vast areas of land & presided over administration of their entire lives, including law enforcement, punishments, medications, trade, culture, knowledge flow, work and conscription, not to mention security, food and lodgings and their next life. Ignoring either, effectively meant certain death through starvation, or worse.


However, the Dominican order was aimed at the laity. The Pope was a Dominican, Henry III had been raised within the church and his Confessor was a Dominican. Not surprisingly, the Blackfriars were successful.



3 - Life as a Blackfriar - the next 3 centuries

Blackfriar monks differed from the wealthy clergy and were engaged with preaching and charitable work with the laity (ordinary people). Large numbers of men & women came to hear the sermons in the church (paying for the privilege).


The monks were scholars tending the sick and deciding on affairs affecting the community in the Chapter House. The scriptorium retains 29 of its original medieval study carrels, where monks studied most disciplines, including law and medicine.


Opus Dei - the monks followed normal monastic life (Mattins, Lauds,  Mass, Prime, Angelus, Terce, Nones, Vespers, Compline) and their charism-singing sermons in English were popular, especially when friars processed down from the quire blessing locals with holy water and  wishing them  well. 


The order ruled that Dominicans travelled everywhere on foot and begged for every morsel of food whilst away from the monastery. Each year a fit person was elected to travel to France and also Oxford. Special dispensation from the Pope was required to enable a Gloucester Dominican to travel on a cart with Henry III, as his personal Confessor.


There was a special pathway leading down to the river - Dominicans were allowed only to eat fish, no meat. They did have their own brewery on site and drank ale with their meals (water would have been contaminated).


All friars slept fully clothed and recycled candles were kept burning all night, however they did wash in the lavabo.


Disease (often spread from the port), including the plague, severely reduced the numbers of friars and people.

The Dominicans took in all the sick who were nursed and buried in the Priory. (2000 people are buried here)

4 - Henry VIII and suppression of the monasteries

The significant size of Blackfriars drew unwanted attention and was dissolved along with the monasteries. In 1539, the buildings were purchased by Sir Thomas Bell, the alderman for £240. It was called 'Bell's Palace' in the deeds & he immediately dismantled the church to create a palace for himself.


Prior to the dissolution, it is probable that many monks fled & those who remained were miserably poor. In 1538, it was reported that the monks were ready to surrender, had nothing left, could not keep the 'visitor's injunctions' and consequently delivered it for the King's use.


During that period, many English monks starved and at least one Friary sold for only 8s. (40p)


Fortunately, the books from Blackfriar's Scriptorium had previously been sent to Edinburgh for safety (where they still remain).

5 - Thomas Bell, the burning of Bishop Hooper, hats on Sundays and the weavers

Sir Thomas Bell was a wealthy merchant cloth maker and draper. Bell remodelled the church into a Tudor Mansion and converted the rest of the buildings into a factory.


Perhaps being politically astute,  during Mary 1st reign, Thomas Bell allegedlly invited his guests for dinner after witnessing the burning of Bishop Hooper and an old occupant of the Priory, a 4 yr old blind boy.


However he was rewarded in Elizabeth 1st reign when she ruled that people must wear hats to church. He made a great deal of money from making hats in his factory.

6 - Bottling plant & terraced houses

Following Thomas Bell's death, it continued to be used as a large family home until 1938, with the other buildings becoming a printer's shop, a school and a mason's business.


Robert Raikes' widow lived on one of the houses on the site.


Various alterations to the buildings took place in the 18th century for a range of commercial uses.


The scriptorium was used as a bottling plant for Talbots'  lemonade for many years until it closed in 1960.

7 - English Heritage guardianship

Restoration commenced from 1960, first by the Ministry of Works and later by English Heritage who took over building management in 1984.


All post medieval floors & partitions were removed to expose the proportions of the church. Evidence of painted decoration remains in the Abbot's Lodging against a reddish-brown background.


Gloucester City Council is instrumental in reclaiming the land & buildings around the cloister and demolishing unsuitable buildings.

8 - Weddings, weddings & Rick Wakeman

In 2012, Gloucester City Council leased Blackfriars Priory  and the site is often open for weddings, visitors and events, such as the Rick Wakeman concert.


There are still many plans to excavate and regenerate the area.



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