Rediscovering Greyfriars Church: A Historical Detective Story.


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Leicester_Greyfriars_plan[1] John Ashdown -Hill

Plan of Greyfriars Church. (Click for larger image) Image by John Ashdown-Hill (used with permission)

Tracing Greyfriars Church

In 1538, all of the priory buildings were destroyed and rebuilt upon. Over time the site hosted a manor house and acquired Georgian houses and roads, as well as many Victorian buildings, including the Alderman Newton Boys school. Dr Ashdown-Hill was confident that the church would be found to the north of the site, near the medieval main road.

Throughout Europe, medieval friaries – of whichever religious order – tended to be based on a common plan,” explained Dr Ashdown-Hill. “The church might lie north or south of the cloister, with the domestic buildings on the opposite side – but the key issue was that friars had a vocation to preach to the people. Therefore, they wanted their nave to be easily accessible. With this in mind they normally sited their church near a main road.”

Finding Richard III’s Grave: Map Regression

Armed with this evidence, the Richard III Society approached Leicester University’s Archaeological unit. Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the project, was convinced of the society’s seriousness but not of the search for Richard III. “He said to me, Philipa, we don’t do that. Archaeologists don’t look for famous people,” Philipa Langley of the Richard III Society told Decoded Science. “So what we did was, we discussed it and he said he might be interested in going in search of the church.”

Dr Buckley used a technique called map regression to pinpoint the site of the church. He laid a series of old scale maps of the area over a modern ordnance survey map, finishing with the earliest map of the Greyfriars precinct. “The earliest Leicester maps date back to the 1700s,’ Dr Buckley explained, “but the first most reliable map that was made from a survey of the area dates to 1741. This was the one we used.” By matching streets, property barriers and buildings on the old maps with those of the modern city, the archaeologists were able to pinpoint the church to the west of the site in a modern parking lot, or car park.

2012 Excavation of Greyfriars

We can’t predict what will survive,” said Dr Buckley. “And if you dig a trench and find a building-how do you decide what it was for?” In the case of Greyfriars, the finds and features were fairly decisive. The first trenches yielded old stone benches found only in the Chapterhouse. Then, the walls of the cloister corridor were identified. Armed with the position of these key buildings, the archaeologists were able to trace the position of the church, including the choir and its mysterious remains.

Is it King Richard III?

UPDATE: March 22, 2015:

The case of the missing Greyfriars Church has been satisfactorily solved by a partnership between historical research and archaeological technique. Science has also solved the mystery of the remains. On the 4th February 2013, the University of Leicester confirmed that the bones were indeed those of the last Plantagenet King, who will be duly reinterred at Leicester Cathedral with full honours on the 26th March 2015.


Ashdown-Hill, J. The Last Days of Richard III. (2011). The History Press. 

Leicester University. The Greyfriars Project. (2012). Accessed January 20, 2013.

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