Beneath Our Feet: Medieval Cambridge

5 minute read

When looking for ideas and narratives to develop the story of new discoveries in Medieval Cambridgeshire, MAA found a story right on its doorstep. 

Figure 3. Examples of the types of material found during the 1908-1910 excavations at the friary site can be seen in the Beneath our Feet exhibition at MAA. This display includes the ivory buckle discovered in the recent excavations by the CAU. Image courtesy of the author.

The Cambridge Augustinian Friary 

The Augustinian Friary in Cambridge was established around the 1280s and was one of a number of thriving monastic communities in town. These religious orders were expected to serve the wider community but, in addition, the Augustinian Friary was an international study house where clergy from across Britain and Europe came to read and study manuscripts. 

The Augustinian Friary was located between Bene’t Street and Wheeler Street to the north, Free School Lane to the West, Corn Exchange to the east and King’s Ditch or Pembroke Street to the south. This large area was occupied by the friary church, cloisters, dormitory, cemetery, infirmary, gardens and many more buildings. 36 friars established themselves in the area by 1297 but their numbers increased to 70 over the course of the next 30 years. The Friary continued in use until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. 

Early Excavations 

In 1908 building works began by the University to develop new examination and lecture rooms. As workmen dug down, the remains of buildings became exposed and human remains were revealed. This caught the attention not only the University but also of various members of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and the anatomist Wynfrid Duckworth.  

Following this discovery, small-scale excavations were carried out between 1908 and 1910. 

As well as tiles, stained glass, and fragments of clunch, the remains of 47 individuals were discovered. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that a full-scale excavation of the area was undertaken by the Cambridge Archaeology Unit (CAU). 

New discoveries 

From 2016 to 2019, following the University’s decision to redevelop the site, the CAU undertook extensive excavations of the friary buildings and land. Walls and foundations were found as well as 38 additional burials in the cemetery area.  

The cemetery at the friary was used not only by friars but lay-people. From the study of these burials, archaeologists have been able to identify those belonging to friars, based on the dress-accessories found, or not found, with each individual. 

Dress was very important for the friars of Cambridge. Each order could be identified by the way they dressed. Augustinian friars wore a black woollen tunic, a hood to match, black leather shoes tied with a thong at the ankle, and a black leather belt at their waist usually fixed with a simple bronze buckle. Of those individuals found by the CAU many had been clothed with a buckle at their waist, leather surviving only where in contact with the metal. The discovery of these identified the burials as belonging to a friar, the buckle of their dress being the only surviving item. Lay-people would have been shrouded for burial, not clothed. 

A unique find 

An interesting find during the excavations was of a single buckle made from elephant ivory. Most buckles were of bronze which makes this find quite unusual. How would a friar in Medieval Cambridge come across elephant ivory? It certainly would not have been produced locally and is likely to be French in origin. One thought archaeologists have is that this buckle would have been picked up in France as friars visited Paris to undertake their clerical studies.  

But what else do we now know about this individual with the ivory buckle? The After the Plague project team at the University of Cambridge undertook a wide range of analyses from osteology to isotopic study – something not available to Wynfrid Duckworth in the early 1900s. The project team discovered that the young man was well nourished as a child and that his diet changed when they entered the friary. Like many others, he suffered from bunions caused by the pointed shoes fashionable at the time. The most unusual and notable thing was that the muscles on his left side were more strongly built, indicating he was left-handed. This is supported by his ivory buckle – all other buckles found pointed to the right, but his pointed to the left. 

Collections at MAA

Figure 1. An almost complete circular piece of stained glass, with faint remains of paint forming a letter or knotwork design, found during the 1908-1910 excavations of the examination room site. Photograph by Dave Webb. MAA Z 41520.1.

The collections housed at MAA from the Augustinian friary site were discovered during the 1908-1910 excavations. They include many colourful fragments of stained glass as well as various types of floor tiles with different glazes and stamped decoration. Alongside these remains of the building itself are the personal belongings of the friars. Buckles range from a large annular buckle with a circular frame with chamfered sides, to simple D-ring types with plain metal plates. Leather from the belt is seen between the plates or wrapped around the frames and a rare fragment of textile found in 1908 is thought to be from the woollen habit of a friar. 

Figure 2. A face from the past can be seen in the design on this medieval floor tile. Photograph Dave Webb. MAA Z 16298 A.3.

Objects discovered at the Augustinian Friary site can be seen on display as part of the Beneath our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region exhibition at MAA until April 2024. Thanks goes to the After the Plague project for sharing their research on the individuals discovered between 2016 to 2019, and to the Cambridgeshire County Council for their loan of the ivory buckle. 

Further Reading

Cessford, Craig and Neil, Benjamin. 2022. The people of the Cambridge Austin friars. Archaeological Journal. Vol. 179 Issue 2. pp. 383-444. 

Cessford, Craig and Samuel, Mark et al. 2023. The Architecture of the Augustinian Friary, Cambridge. The Antiquaries Journal. pp. 1-33. 

Cessford, Craig et al. 2022. Buried with their Buckles On: Clothed Burial at the Augustinian Friary, Cambridge. Medieval Archaeology. Vol. 66 issue 1. pp. 151-187. 

Cranage, D.H.S. and Stokes, H.P. 1921. The Augustinian Friary in Cambridge, and the History of the Site. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Vol LXX. pp. 53-75. 

Duckworth, W.L.H. and Pocock, W. Innes. 1909. Skeletons of Augustinian Friars. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Vol. LV. pp. 7-38 

Capturing Cambridge. Austin/Augustinian Friary: https://capturingcambridge.org/centre/downing-street/austin-friary/  

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. British History Online. Friaries: Austin friars, Cambridge: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp287-290 

University of Cambridge. After the Plague: Health and History in Medieval Cambridge: http://www.aftertheplague.com/  

University of Cambridge. 800 Years of Death and Disease in Cambridge, A guided walking tour: https://www.cam.ac.uk/walkingtour/deathanddisease#article  

Les Andrews. Beneath Our Feet: An Exhibition Review. MAA Digital Lab: https://www.maadigitallab.org/blog/2023/10/05/on-yer-bike-a-review-of-the-maa-beneath-our-feet-exhibition/  

Rebecca Rees. Q&A with the Curator of MAA’s Latest Exhibition. MAA Digital Lab: https://www.maadigitallab.org/blog/2023/11/09/qa-with-the-curator-of-maas-latest-exhibition/  

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