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Preston’s lost leper hospital and friary

Posted on - 29th August, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Friargate, History, Preston News
Skull depiction Pic: Pixabay
Pic: Pixabay

Once lepers were shunned as cursed by God, often the only help they received came from the Church! Religion dominated the lives of medieval people in Preston. For example, the rich attempted to buy their way in to heaven, by supporting leper hospitals, while the poor tried hard to avoid being sent to purgatory. Large tracks of land were owned by monasteries, in the area. 

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Preston also boasted a friary, one of the few in Lancashire. More on this later. Friars were monks who belonged to certain orders, such as the Franciscans. The friary in Preston was operated by the Franciscans or Grey Friars. As a result the monks were not tied to monasteries and could travel and help the sick and poor.

Healing of the 10 lepers depiction

Leprosy and its symptoms

Indeed, leprosy was endemic in Britain by the 12th century. Leper hospitals were often built out of town and included a chapel. The sites of the friary and hospital, in Preston, are indicated below.

Friary and hospital sites in Preston Pic: Google
Friary and hospital sites in Preston Pic: Google

Leprosy is caused by a bacteria. Symptoms include a skin rash and deformities. Gangrene was common as was blindness and ulcerations. Lepers were often shunned due to their appearance. Some thought that the disease was a punishment from God while others thought that lepers were closer to God due to their suffering.

It was thought that helping lepers would ensure that you went to heaven.

Monasteries and land ownership in Preston

In Preston much land was owned by the Parish Church, the priory at Lytham and abbeys such as Whalley and Sawley. Importantly, the Church held three times the wealth of lay people. The earliest place of occupation in Preston is now the site of the Church of St John the Divine. An earlier church stood here, dedicated to St Wilfrid. In fact the first mention of a church on this site comes from 1094.

The church was not the only religious site; a leper hospital and friary were in existence by the 12th century.

The leper hospital in Preston

Leper hospitals were usually dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

A typical leper hospital and chapel (in Winchester) Pic: Historic England
A typical leper hospital and chapel (in Winchester) Pic: Historic England

A leper hospital was present in Preston by 1177; the proof being a letter of protection that was issued by King Henry II.

The protection was continued by King John in 1206:

John, by God’s grace King of England, Master of Ireland and Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine with Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, counts, barons, justices, sheriffs, and to all the ministers and loyal subjects, Greetings.

Know that the hospital of St Mary Magdalene, Preston and the lepers there are in our hands, care and protection, therefore we command that it, and the lepers and all their possessions, is maintained, protected and watched over, so that there is no injury, damage or disturbance done to them or permitted by anyone, and if anyone shall presume to do this they shall make amends without delay. This to do as stated in our father King Henry’s letters of patent which have been witnessed as reasonable. According to me at Chester, 29th February, in the seventh year of our reign

Preston also had a friary where the monks lived and worshipped.

The Preston Friary

While there was no set plan, most friaries had a chapel and graveyard, as shown below in Claregalway Friary. The graveyard for Preston Friary was recently discovered.

Claregalway Friary layout Pic: Claregalway
Claregalway Friary layout Pic: Claregalway

Friargate once lead to the friary, although it was more towards what is now Maudlands. Friaries were small compared to monastic sites but would have had a chapel and cloisters. As mentioned earlier, money was raised by donations from powerful families and by begging from the wealthier citizens.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, in 1539, the site was ordered to be closed down. After 1680, some of the buildings became a prison.

The friary rediscovered

During the 19th century the site of the friary was cut through by the canal and then by the railway. However in 1991, when the Penwortham bypass was being built, archaeologists attempted to find evidence of the friary. No structures were found although some medieval floor tiles from a high status monastic building appeared. 

Finally, in 2007, a site near Ladywell Street was excavated, and more medieval floor tiles and glass were found. More importantly the graveyard was found. Thirty graves were excavated and most showed signs of joint disease, possibly indicating the presence of a hospital at the friary site.



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