Thursday, 12 July 2012

Gloucester Blackfriars

I felt rather lucky yesterday, part of my job sometimes is to wander round historic buildings making sure what we think is there, is actually there. Very tedious, I know!!

Well, yesterday just happened to be one of those days. The building in which I was lucky enough to visit was Blackfriars Priory in Gloucester. It is owned by Gloucester City Council and will soon be open to the public, available for weddings, conferences and gatherings or just a jolly old nose around.

Blackfriars was originally a Dominican Priory; a Roman Catholic Religious order whose uniform of black cloaks over their white habits gave them the name "black friars". There are also Greyfriars and Whitefriars. Please don't ask me the diferrence apart from their clocks, as it becomes very confusing.

After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII from 1536-39, the priory was bought by Thomas Bell in 1542 who turned the northern range (which seems to have been the church!) into his residential dwellings. This is not as uncommon as it sounds. At the time of the dissolution, monastic sites were some of the richest in the country, owning land, titles, and various levels of expensive objects handed over by the aristocracy throughout the centuries. There are other examples of urban monastic conversion in Exeter, Coventry and London. The lack of space compared to the rural monastic conversions meant that owners became original in their use of space.

Within Blackfriars, quite surprisingly, Bell did not use either the prior’s lodgings or the dormitory for his new home, which were the more common areas for conversion as they already hosted comfortable furnishings.

The picture below shows some of the ways in which Bell converted the monastic fabric to fit his needs. He divided the northern range into three floors, through the addition of windows (at the very top) and then fireplaces on the ground and first floors.

The cloister still exists, though the covering has long gone and the western range has been replaced by Georgian terraced housing.

The southern range (yellow building) is the original Scriptorium and is thought to be the country’s oldest library. Inside on the upper floor, many individual cubicles run along the walls where the monks would sit and scribe from manuscripts. The windows are designed specifically for right-handed people with a slight lean right in order to make the most of natural light. If you were left-handed – sorry you just had to cope.

During the 19th C this part was used a bottling factory and “clutch clinic” for old cars.

It is an absolutely fantastic building hidden away in the centre of Gloucester, whose external and internal fabric is still very much intact. I highly advise a visit to this gem of the site that will transport you back 500 years.

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