Medieval Friars to be reburied

 Fr Antony Lester, Prior of the Carmelite Friars in York, with Patricia Wilson, leader of  Newcastle Lay Carmelite Community.

Fr Antony Lester, Prior of the Carmelite Friars in York, with Patricia Wilson, leader of Newcastle Lay Carmelite Community.

The remains of more than twenty medieval friars and lay associates of the Carmelite Order in Newcastle and Northallerton are to be reburied following excavations carried out by Archaeological Services Durham University between 2006 and 2008.

In Newcastle, some 13 individuals and charnel deposits were unearthed at the site of the Carmelite friary that stood near the castle by Westgate, not far from the River Tyne. The friary, established in 1262, was a major centre of religious and social activity.

The Carmelites were established in the Holy Land around the year 1200, arrived in England in 1242, and quickly developed into an international religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Suppressed at the Reformation, the Order returned to Britain in the early twentieth century. The Carmelites now, as in the Middle Ages, are devoted to prayer and preaching, as well as to service of the local community.

It is likely that most of the individuals unearthed in Newcastle were friars, who were buried alongside lay benefactors who supported and shared their way of life.

According to Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis, four of the individuals were buried under the floor of the Chapter House, the friars’ meeting room, suggesting that they were senior members of the community. One grave occupant had an iron ring at about hip-level, and another was buried with a stick by his right leg. Final tests being done on the bones have helped to explain the unusual burial posture of one of the friars who was laid in a slightly crouched position on his right side with a floor tile placed behind his heels. Analysis has shown that the friar had a slightly deformed left arm, shorter than normal and incapable of straightening completely which might account for his unusual burial posture.

In 1539 the Carmelite friary in Newcastle was suppressed at the Reformation, and the site underwent various redevelopments, being until recently the location of BEMCO (British Electrical and Manufacturing Company). The former BEMCO site was acquired by Buccleuch Property, the commercial property arm of the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate. Detailed planning consent for a new 45,000 square foot office scheme, ‘Fusion’, has been secured. Also contributing to the regeneration of the area behind Newcastle Central Station is a separate project, the redevelopment of Friar House, an 18th-century Georgian townhouse that recalls in its name the history of the site, that will become ‘The Saints Hotel’. The interior of the Carmelite church almost certainly contains further burials, but was not excavated as it lies under a road.

The remains of eight medieval Carmelite friars in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, were uncovered as part of a dig carried out in 2006 ahead of a residential development by Castle Homes. The dig at Priory Close was likewise carried out by Archaeological Services Durham University. The excavation revealed that the town’s Carmelite priory – established in 1356 and suppressed at the Reformation – differed from other European Carmelite houses in its layout. The dig also unearthed eight burials from the cloister; other graves and friary buildings most probably survive beneath buildings in the surrounding area. The team of researchers was able to establish the diet of the friars from excavated animal bones and detritus, and also managed to determine that one individual had been struck on the forehead but lived to tell the tale. Other finds discovered on the site included two iron shoe buckles and pottery, some of which was made in North Yorkshire and the Tees Valley, while other fragments were from Germany.

The medieval Carmelites from both Newcastle and Northallerton will be reburied at Jesmond Old Cemetery in Newcastle upon Tyne. The reburial is being organised by the present-day British Province of the Carmelite Order ( which has dozens of communities of friars, nuns and lay people across England, Wales and Scotland.

Commenting on the reburials, the Prior of the Carmelite Friars in York, Fr Antony Lester  said: “It came as something of a surprise to receive a phone call from the archaeologists in Durham asking us what we, as ‘next of kin’, wanted to do about the reburial of members of our Order who died more than 500 years ago. But as fellow Carmelites we feel a strong spiritual bond with all our brothers and sisters from the past, and it is right that they should be re-interred with dignity. Back in the 1960s when there was a lot of redevelopment taking place in many of Britain’s city-centres, a number of our medieval friaries were excavated and we re-interred bodies in the cemetery at our large priory at Aylesford in Kent. But today we think it is important to lay the bodies of our brothers to rest in the place where they were in ministry at the service of God’s people, especially since the first Carmelite community in this country was established in the northeast, at Hulne near Alnwick. We are very grateful to all those who have been involved in this unusual project, including the developers, archaeologists, and Newcastle City Council.”

The remains of each Carmelite are individually boxed and will be buried in a single grave at Jesmond Old Cemetery, in a coffin donated by Co-Operative Funeralcare in Durham.

A special Memorial Mass will be celebrated by the Prior Provincial of the Carmelites at The Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church (7 North Jesmond Avenue) at 11am on Monday 15th November, which is the day each year when the Carmelite Order worldwide commemorates its dead. The Mass, which all are welcome to attend, will be followed by a short service at the grave-side.

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