In 2020, at the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown, work had just begun on transforming Dulverton House – a slightly run-down Grade II*-listed school building nestled in the shadow of Gloucester Cathedral – into a bright, new, and modern Sixth Form Centre for The King’s School. For the Urban Archaeology team, who had been contracted to investigate the site during these works, what lay ahead was six months of intensive excavation and building-recording as layers of development were carefully peeled away and the structure’s historic core revealed and conserved. The team worked hand-in-hand with contractors Town and City Builders Ltd to assess and record everything from 1980s breeze-block partitions and fire doors to medieval timbers and 11th-century buttresses, allowing architects Roberts Limbrick to implement the school’s vision and requirement for modern academic and social spaces, and give the 700-year-old building a new life while securing its future.
Gloucester Cathedral is rightly famous for its Norman and Perpendicular architecture, but it is often forgotten that the religious complex has its origins in the 7th century and was later run as St Peter’s Abbey by Benedictine monks who lived and worked in the structures surrounding Abbot Serlo’s Romanesque church. The precinct is still full of their buildings, and, while some like the exquisite Great Cloister remain in their original state, many have been changed and adapted over the centuries, with layers of later development disguising their original form. Dulverton House is one such building: it was known to be medieval in origin, and to have included the 12th-century chapel of St Bridget and the Infirmarer’s Lodging, but over time its historic treasures had become hidden by layers of thick gloss paint and chipboard panels. With the structure never having been studied in detail, there were many questions to answer.
Many of these questions were not historical, but related to preserving the building’s older features during its refurbishment. Dulverton’s Grade II*-listing reflects its national importance; how do you conserve and respect the historic fabric, while creating a functional building that can actually be used? It was not an easy square to circle, and the new design was at pains to retain as much as possible, while allowing the building to be updated and preserved through use. Our archaeological works formed a key part of this process, and as we probed the walls and timbers, we started to uncover a fascinating history.
The evolution of an abbey
Although Dulverton House lies at the northern edge of the precinct of the medieval abbey of St Peter, until 1218 this part of the site largely lay within the lands of a neighbouring priory dedicated to St Oswald. In the period before the Norman conquest, the community of St Oswald’s had been involved in establishing a new market or suburb to the north of Gloucester, and at the southern end of this area they had built a stone chapel. Writing in the 13th century, the chronicler Gregory of Caerwent tells us that the chapel of St Bridget was consecrated in October 1184, and almost 1,000 years later the remains of its southern buttresses were found preserved in Dulverton House.
When St Peter’s precinct was extended to the north in 1218, St Bridget’s was subsumed by the abbey and became the east end of a new early to mid-13th-century Infirmary Hall. The Infirmary would have housed the abbey’s monks when they were ill, or too infirm for the rigours of monastic life, as well as when they were recovering from the blood-letting that was a common medical treatment at the time. The monastery’s water supply was probably also developed further at this time, with the Fulbrook stream running in channels across the site to supply the complex’s buildings and flush away waste. Remains of the culvert were found on site, buried beneath the later buildings, where they continued to carry water into the 18th century.
The Infirmary itself was run by a senior monastic official, the Infirmarer; originally he would have probably lived in the Infirmary Hall, but later the role was accorded a purpose-built lodging south of St Bridget’s chapel. Its initial form was a two-storey masonry building constructed in a ‘T’ shape, with cross-wings at the south end. The main undercroft was a massive, probably open, storage and service space with a ceiling supported by two Samson posts. Each of these had brackets sporting decorative carved figures, and there was also an axial spine-beam running the length of this undercroft. On the first floor was the Infirmarer’s accommodation, which was accessed via an external masonry stair, and was open to the roof throughout, with a timber partition separating the southern chamber from the northern hall, with a garderobe at the north wall. The south-eastern cross-wing is interpreted as a private chapel, its first floor illuminated by a large Gothic-arched east window, while the first floor of the south-west wing was accessed by a Gothic arched doorway, and was probably guest accommodation.
The main hall roof is largely intact and was recorded by Maggie Henderson; it is of clasped side-purlin type with arched wind-bracings and hipped terminals. While this was a simple building, it was not undecorated, and a couple of motifs could be seen recurring on both timber and masonry: a combination of diamond chamfer stops and finely carved trefoil-headed stops were used on external arrisses on the chapel and hall, and also on the internal timber Samson posts. Diamond stops were also used on an early to mid-14th-century oak doorway that was found reused in a 17th-century wall.
Tales from the timbers
To help date some of the structure’s features, over 30 dendrochronological samples were taken by the Gloucestershire Dendrochronology Project, a Heritage Lottery Fund project looking at timber buildings across the county. Samples from timbers of the primary phase of the building returned felling dates clustering on two distinct date ranges: five from the chapel and main hall date from c.1205-1228, while two timbers from the main hall and the hall roof date from 1306-1323. These two date ranges might, at first glance, suggest an early 13th-century construction with a later rebuilding and a new roof, but there is convincing evidence that the entire primary building is actually of early 14th-century date, with the earlier timbers all having been reused, probably from a single early 13th-century building demolished elsewhere in the precinct.
The evidence for this later date includes 14th-century pottery recovered from beneath the undercroft, and the presence there of two primary ‘Caernarfon’ doorways – this kind of shouldered arch does not appear in England and Wales until the later 13th century, while the Samson post figurative carvings are paralleled by early 14th-century examples elsewhere. Multiple reused timbers were also recorded within the chapel and hall floors and lintels, casting doubt on whether the early set of dendro results date the primary phase. In the early 13th century, the Abbot himself lived in a small chamber above the west slype by the cloister, and he did not get his own standalone lodgings until the early 14th century, at the same time that other guest accommodation was built around the precinct – including, on the balance of evidence, the Infirmarer’s Lodging.
The Infirmary would have functioned as an almost self-contained community within the wider abbey, and comprised a number of buildings in addition to the already mentioned Infirmary Hall and the Lodging, all arranged around a courtyard and with extensive gardens. Life in the Infirmary was more relaxed than claustral life, with luxuries like heating and a more varied diet, including meat, served in the misericord. The Infirmarer’s Lodging provided accommodation for his guests, and they too would have been served food prepared on-site.
Further changes came in c.1475, when a new south-west range and a timber-framed kitchen were added to the west side of the Lodging. The kitchen had a large open masonry fireplace in the south wall, but the floor was unpaved and we found bones that had dropped from the tables and been trampled into the floor. Samples taken from these deposits show that small mammals, birds, and especially fish were being butchered and prepared in the kitchen, and that the Infirmarer enjoyed a diverse range of dishes, including relatively exotic or luxury foodstuffs such as conger eel. Many of the foodstuffs would have been drawn from the Abbey’s estates and from the Severn and Wye rivers; bird species included chicken and red grouse, but there were also four-and-twenty blackbird bones – although whether they had been baked in a pie is unclear. Mammal remains included rabbit and hare, as well as bones from a suckling pig, a popular delicacy slaughtered at two to six weeks old, but the majority of the bones were of fish species – as would be expected given the medieval monastic diet, which restricted meat on the many fasting days. The ubiquitous herring was joined by local eels from the Severn and Wye, as well as whiting, cod, gurnard, plaice and flatfish, carp, and salmon/trout.
Dulverton and the Dissolution
By the end of the medieval period, the Lodging had developed into a distinct complex of buildings with a central lightwell, and further associated structures to the west around a courtyard. Further wings and extensions were subsequently added, with a timber stair turret replacing the masonry stair, but, at the dawn of Henry VIII’s and Thomas Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the future of St Peter’s seemed uncertain. Fortunately, the foundation of the new Gloucester Cathedral saved the church and many of St Peter’s buildings, although many were by then redundant and some were demolished. Most of the surviving structures found new, secular, uses; the Infirmary, for example, was converted into tenements known as ‘the Firmary’ and ‘Babylon’, which were described rather damningly as ‘congeries of squalid little dwellings occupied by lay clerks, beadsmen, and sundry poor widows in pokey and wretched rooms’. The Infirmarer’s Lodging, meanwhile, was assigned to one of the Prebends, the six chief canons who ran the cathedral, and it became known as Cloister House. Although the building changed in occupancy, there is little evidence for widespread structural change at this time beyond repairs in brick and a few minor alterations.
The beliefs of the individuals occupying the site during this post-Reformation period are hinted at in Dulverton’s fabric, particularly in the iconoclastic mutilation of the carved figures on the Samson posts holding up the first floor, which is typical of Edwardian (Edward VI’s reign) or Parliamentarian damage, while more than 50 charred ‘taper burn’ marks on oak beams and posts are probably apotropaic and intended as protection marks and to ward away evil; related to this may be the six small pentangles incised into plaster by the west door of the undercroft.
The 17th century also saw the upper floor remodelled with the installation of oak panelling – much of it reused from other buildings – and the addition of a new piano nobile (main floor) in the newly subdivided first floor. An extension to the north made use of a medieval oak doorway, probably reused from the original chamber screen. By the Georgian period, fashionable new brick buildings were being built around the cathedral close, and Cloister House must have looked increasingly dated – something that probably motivated the refurbishment that took place at this time. The old medieval walls were squared up and plastered over to create a new interior with sash windows, and its rooms – probably originally adorned only with plain limewash – were hung with fashionable wallpapers. Further hints at the use and lifestyle of the prebendal occupants came from under the floorboards, where we found a series of brass pulley-cams from a system of wires and bells that had been used to alert servants to their masters’ needs.
Perhaps the most dramatic changes came in the mid-19th century, when large parts of Cloister House were rebuilt by the cathedral architects F S Waller and Thomas Fulljames, although a surprising amount of earlier fabric survived. This brings us almost to the present day: in 1956, following the death of its last prebendal resident, the suffragan Bishop of Tewkesbury, Cloister House was taken on by the cathedral school, King’s, and converted into a boarding house. This structure was named after a benefactor, Lord Dulverton, and would remain largely unchanged, with layers of chipboard and gloss paint sealing and preserving the historic features for us to discover during our present works. The recent refurbishment to create a new home for the King’s Sixth Form has stripped away most of the later additions, and revealed, once more, the medieval form, detail, and history of this remarkable survival.
All images: Chiz Harward, unless otherwise stated.
Chiz Harward is Senior Archaeologist at Urban Archaeology.