The first Norman church at Kells was founded by Geoffrey FitzRobert de Marisco in 1183. Ten years later he invited the Augustinian canons from Bodmin in Cornwall to come to Kells, and the priory was established. He also built a Norman style town beside it. It is worth noting that this is not the Kells that the Book of Kells comes from, that’s in County Meath and you can see pictures and some information here.
The buildings at Kells have several different dates. The extremely dominating walls which are the first impression of the site date to the late 15th early 16th century. They exemplify the war like nature of the area in this time period, as does the fortified prior’s house which dates to the same era. The remains of the original complex are more densely clustered, including the priory church (the canons would have ministered to the local inhabitants, they were not cloistered), a cloister, a mills and brewery. The remains of the church most likely date to the 12th century at least in part. This was not a large community of canons, with between 3 and ten canons in residence during it’s history. That being said there would have been a laity working for and with the canons and the acreage that the priory covers was impressive. Even today it still occupies around 10 acres, making it one of the biggest monastic complexes in Ireland.
From the very beginning the history of the priory itself is largely one of conflict. FitzRobert came out to Ireland with Strongbow in the 1170, Strongbow granted him 44 000 acres and he married Strongbow’s widowed sister Basila. Geoffrey was appointed Seneschal of Leinster by William Marshal in 1204, a post he held till 1208 and this brought him into conflict with King John. Geoffrey ended up as a hostage to King John as a guarantor for the Norman Barons in 1208. Geoffrey remained a hostage until 1211 when he died in Hereford.
This conflict was beginning of the distinctly warlike history of Kells priory. The priory was often at the heart of conflict, it was sacked a number of times. In 1252 Lord William de Bermingham burnt down the town of Kells and sacked the priory. In 1316 Lord Edward Bruce took possession of the town, though he didn’t damage it. Between 1308 and 1312 the last member of FitzRobert’s line died out and a series of landlords who were largely absent took over the priory, this led to the district being unprotected and frequent raids. Kells began to decline. In 1327 the town and priory was sacked and burnt again and over the next two hundred years it went back and forth between a few different lords, with the office of prior being a bone of contention amongst the local families.
Ultimately in 1540 it was dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The land was divided amongst the aristocracy who were loyal to Henry VIII. The majority went to James Butler, Earl of Ormond.
Site visit 2015
A Brief History of Kells, Co. Kilkenny by Albert Smith 1993.
The photos are all mine.