The Science of History

The details of Greyfriars’ past have always been a matter of conjecture amongst historians. The name ‘Greyfriars’ is actually a misnomer stemming from the C20th, when it was widely held that the buildings here were all that remained of the Franciscan Friary which had stood next door since the C13th. More recent assessment by English Heritage concluded that this was not the case, and that the building was archetypally an example of a late medieval Merchant’s house – probably built circa 1480.

The desire to know for certain the exact dates of Greyfriars’ construction had grown stronger in recent years. After all, the suggested date of 1480 came very close to straddling the end of one era and the beginning of another. 1485 saw the ascension of the Tudor dynasty to the throne and is generally regarded as a way-marker for the beginning of the early modern period and the end of the medieval period in this country.

Modern innovations with science coupled with a strong passion for heritage in the local area combined to provide a more definitive answer to the question. In 2015 the Worcestershire Archaeological Society undertook to raise the necessary funding for a session of dendrochronology to take place here. Core samples were taken from the structural timbers of Greyfriars and were compared with a data base of local climate information for the time period. Using the data base as a reference point and comparing this with the samples, it was possible to accurately date when the trees were felled.

The results showed that the latest assessments of dating the building according to its architectural style were very accurate. The earliest timbers appear to have been felled in 1489 – just ten years later than the suggested date of original construction. Whilst this doesn’t represent an earth-shattering distance in terms of dates held, it does represent a significant change in how we present the narrative of Greyfriars. Can we now justifiably call Greyfriars a medieval property? The backdrop to its construction also alters drastically with this new information. Prior to 1485, Worcester was a garrison town, occupying a strategic military position on the River Severn. The end of the civil conflicts after this time may well have been a motivating factor in the construction of Greyfriars. After all, with the risk of the City being sacked drastically reduced, it would have seemed a safe and sensible place to build a grand town house.

The results may change how we think about Greyfriars – but this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nothing is ever black and white in history. There are many layers and chapters in Greyfriars’ story and undoubtedly many more surprises to uncover. Science and history have worked together here to alter our perception of the past. All the while, new advances in historical theory and scientific practice take us closer to new possibilities and new understandings.