It was a rather surreal moment last week, when a mediaeval friary was discovered underneath the old bus station in Newport, between a main road and a shopping centre. The pictures in the South Wales Argus show the remains of what appear to be a small chapel, where the entrance flagstones, the pillar bases and a wall are distinctive.
Unfortunately the council doesn’t consider the site important enough to preserve where it is (which would likely be impractical anyway). I think it deserves more than a cursory mention in the local paper, so I did a little research. If that’s anything to go by, the discovery is just a fraction of what archaeologists could find there.
The Friary was established by a faction from the Order of St. Augustine and Hugh de Stafford in 1377. Bob Trett, who runs the excellent Newport Past site, suggests its first prior himself came from Staffordshire.
The main buildings stood in the middle of ‘Friars Field’, which appears to have had a width extending from near the high street to the riverside, which means the land Kingsway and John Frost Square was built on was elevated by a considerable amount at some point. The field’s length ran from the old bus station to roughly where the university is, perhaps a bit further.
References to the Corn Trade
What’s also noticeable is the de Staffords continued to support the Friary until the transition from the Plantagenet to the Tudor regime, give or take a few years. With the de Staffords being loosely related to The Powers That Be, I originally entertained the thought this was somehow related to the Woodville/Plantagenet involvement in the corn industry up until the late-1800s, following the War of the Roses and some of the family’s migration to Scarbrough. But that would be conjecture based on stuff I heard in passing many years ago. Nowhere near enough to demonstrate any link. There’s a place further up Stow Hill called ‘Woodville Road’, but that could also be pure coincidence.
There was a quay extending from the Usk river to where the current bus station is, and one of the neighbouring roads is ‘Corn Street’ – this is right next to the construction site (and practically in the back garden of the Friary), as a 1750 plan for the area shows. We also know the quay and the friary were there 200 years before, with the latter referred to in 1540 as a ‘house of Reliqion by the Key beneth the Bridge‘.
It would hint at the Friary having some connection to the corn trade through the de Staffords.
The image on the right shows the view along Corn Street. The image to the left is of the old bus station, which is now the construction site where the Friary was discovered. The quay existed somewhere around where the following image was taken:
What I’m really hoping the historians and archaeologists can shed light on are the friars themselves. What kind of people were they, and what lives did they lead? The Order then largely consisted of what the Catholic church likes to call ‘layity’, but by all accounts they had a reputation for being highly educated, having established and operated a number of universities since its founding. This appears to be common across their friaries, and would explain the discovery of a press at the location. They were ‘eremetical’, but only hermits in the sense of devoting their time to learning.
It’s unclear whether the Friary became a private residence or a hospital after 1538, but the buildings themselves were mostly intact in 1801. A description written at the time is of several detached buildings, a chapel in a state of disrepair, a cider mill and a press. A reproduced sketch of the buildings made 58 years later is provided by Bob Trett.
The buildings were knocked down in 1860, but the foundations and everything slightly below ground was merely filled in – this is what the South Wales Argus photographed last week.