Site of Friary

Rival monasteries in conflict


A Dominican Friary once stood near this part of Dunstable, on four acres of land alongside the high street and what is now Friars Walk. It included a large orchard which stretched as far as today's Bull Pond Lane.

The friars, who came to Dunstable in 1259, had the active support of King Henry III and his wife, Queen Eleanor. But they were met with great hostility by the town's Augustinian canons, who had already established a large monastery on the other side of the high street and who regarded the friars as rivals. The present Priory Church is a remnant of the old Augustinian building.

There were quarrels and fights between the canons and friars. On one occasion a friar was thrown into a pond which was once in the middle of the street in front of Priory House. The bad feeling arose because the canons felt that charitable gifts received by the friars would otherwise have gone to them.

King Henry VIII brought it all to an end in 1538 when he ordered monasteries throughout the country to be closed. That included both Dunstable's priory and friary, although the Augustinian canons had a reprieve for a few years while the king pondered on whether to convert the Priory into a cathedral.

But the Friary was quickly pulled down and the site remained comparatively unused for centuries.

The Friary church, which faced today's Square, was a large building measuring at least 60 metres by 20 metres. It was made of stone from the quarry at Totternhoe. In the 1800s new buildings were erected over part of its foundations. These included the former Stuart and Taylor hat factory, built in about 1863, which became Norton House, and also the Noah's Ark cafe which became a veterinary surgery.

In recent times permission was granted for houses on the old friary land up to Bull Pond Lane. Before this development took place in the 1960s and 70s the Manshead Archaeological Society investigated the site. The most famous discovery was a medieval jewel in the shape of a swan. It was made of gold, with white enamel for the bird's feathers, and is now in the British Museum.

Excavation of the site of the Dominican Friary in 1965. Historian Thomas Bagshawe is on the right.
Skeleton being excavated in a Roman well on Friary Fideld in August 1967.
The gold swan brooch found on the site of the Friary.

Text: John Buckledee of Dunstable and District Local History Society. ©
Design: David Turner.
Narration: Veronica Yates of Dunstable Repertory Company.
Recording: David Hornsey.
Website developer: Joshua Buckledee.