Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 16th: Kells Priory, County Kilkenny


IMG_2233The 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.


Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 15th: Jerpoint Abbey

Jerpoint1Jerpoint2Jerpoint3Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny Ireland was founded in c. 1160 probably by Donal MacGillpatrick King of Ossory. However in 1180 it was taken over by Cistercians monks from Baltinglass Abbey in County Wicklow.

The tower and the cloister date to 14th and 15th centuries where as the remainder of the church and the chapter house and the refectory date to 12th and 13th centuries.

Jerpoint was at the heart of the the early 13th century power struggle in the Cistercian Order between the Anglo-Norman Abbots and the Irish Abbots. The Abbot of Jerpoint was deposed in 1217 for instigating the riot of Jerpoint. The General Chapter of the Cistercians had organised a visitation to Ireland to investigate reports of misconduct by the Irish Cistercians. When the investigator arrived at Jerpoint he was greeted with a riot involving Jerpoint and four other abbeys. The Abbot of Jerpoint was blamed. Matters came to a head in the Conspiracy of Mellifont when all the Irish abbots were deposed. Jerpoint was removed from Batlinglass and was made subject to Fountains in Yorkshire. The Irish affiliation was restored after about fifty years.

The carvings you can see in the photos above date largely to the 15th and very early 16th centuries. In 1442 the abbey was granted an indulgence to repair the cloister, bell tower, dormitory, other offices and chapel of St Moling after they pleaded poverty following the English Irish conflict at the time. The carvings on the tomb are apostles.

In 1228 the number of brethren at Jerpoint was fixed at 36 monks and 50 lay brothers, but by the time the abbey was dissolved in 1540 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was down to the abbot and five monks. The possessions of the abbey went to James Butler Earl of Ormond.


Site visit 2015

OPW Jerpoint Abbey booklet




Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 14th: Dunbrody Abbey

Dunbrody1Dunbrody2Dunbrody3Dunbrody Abbey  in Wexford Ireland was founded at the instruction of Richard Strongbow in 1170 by Hevre de Montmorency who was his uncle. Montmorency made the grant of land for Dunbrody to the monks of Bildewas in Shropshire on the condition that they should establish a Cistercian monastery on them and that there should be sanctuary in the abbey for any malefactors.

The abbey was dedicated to St Mary and St Benedict. Montmorency became the first abbot of Dunbrody and when he died in 1205 he was buried there.

The church that remains is largely 13th century and is remarkably intact, there is less of the cloister remaining but you can still see where it was.

Dunbrody remained largely quiet and out of history until 1355 when the abbot and some of his monks were charged with taking up highway robbery. William de Ross, the abbot, and some of the monks were indicted for imprisoning Thomas Herlyn who was a monk from Tintern and stealing two horses worth forty shillings. They were also charged with expelling Thomas de Wiggemore who was the Abbot of Tintern and stealing three horses from him worth eight marks. The jury found the charges to be unfounded.

In 1522 the Abbot of Dunbrody Alexander Devereux granted the towns and villages of Battlestown, little and great Haggart, Ballygow, and Ballycorean for the term of 51 years with a rent of 22 marks to his relative Simon Devereux. Having disposed of one of the wealthiest part of abbey’s holdings to enrich his own family, he then abandoned being abbot, switched religions and became Bishop of Ferns.

In 1536 the abbey was dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was granted to the Etchingham family in 1545, they turned part of it into a residence.


Site visit 2015

Dunbrody Abbey booklet

Grosse, The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume I, Kilkenny: Wellbrook Press, 1982.

Chartularies of St. Mary’s Abbey Dublin

The photos are all mine

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 13th: Glendalough



St Kevin’s House dating probably to the early 1100s. Glendaloch3

Round Tower dating to 900 to 1200 for more on round towers see


Cathedral dating to 900-1000.

The name for Glendalough is from the Irish Gleann de Loch which translates as a valley of two lakes. The name really exemplifies the quiet, isolated beauty of the place.

The settlement in County Wicklow Ireland was founded by St. Kevin in the latter half of the sixth century. This was a period of great religious change in Ireland and there was still tension between the older faiths and Christianity. Christianity was still the Celtic rather than Roman form and there was a tradition at the time of small and very isolated communities living lives of asceticism to sacrifice themselves to the love and worship of God. It was in this tradition that St Kevin founded Glendalough. He probably lived there alone for roughly seven years, but word eventually spread and he was joined by others so he founded his first actual settlement. The original site of the settlement was on the lake but as the community grew the space became to limited and they moved to their present site.

Life as Glendalough was not always calm and isolated, there were Viking raids in 790, 834, 889 and 938. But while they would have been damaging they did not affect the overall longevity of the settlement. The monks would not have been the only inhabitants of the settlement, there would have been craftsmen, pilgrims and students. The monks educated the children of the aristocracy. Glendalough was a centre of learning.

The first major change to Glendalough came with the invasion of the Anglo-Normans in 1169. The Anglo-Normans were keen to absorb Glendalough into their version of a religious community and in 1173 Richard Strongbow gave the cathedral and parsonage to his clerk Thomas. By 1214 Glendalough was incorporated into the Dublin Diocese.

Over the years Glendalough became a symbol for Celtic resistance, and it found itself in a territory that was openly in rebellion against the English. It was in fact sacked by an English force 1398. Glendalough began to fall into decline over the next two hundred years and the Flight of the Earls (which was the departure of the last of the great Gaelic chieftains) in 1601 spelled the end for the community and the churches fell into ruin until they were renovated by the Board of Works in the 1870s.



Glendalough: A guide ISBN: 9181905487462

The photos are all mine, bar the first one which I have permission to use.




Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 12th: Hore Abbey

Hore Abbey1Hore Abbey2Hore Abbey3Hore Abbey in County Tipperary Ireland is often overshadowed by the awe inspiringly spectacular Rock of Cashel which looms right over it. It is, however, a very interesting abbey in its own right.

The Abbey was founded by the Benedictines in 1266. However in 1269 it is said that the Archbishop of Cashel David McCarvill had a dream that the monks attempted to decapitate him so he violently threw the Benedictines out. It is definitely true that he evicted the Benedictines, though it was probably for a more prosaic reason.

He remade the abbey as a Cistercian foundation and imported monks from Mellifont Abbey to populate it. It was the last Cistercian abbey to be founded in Ireland. The majority of the ruins you see today date from the 13th century though some changes were made in the 15th century. The most obvious change was the addition of the tower in the middle of the transept. The remains of the cloister arcade are positioned to the north of the abbey itself, which is unusual. It is possible that the location of the Rock of Cashel might be the reason for this odd positioning.

The buildings are actually quite substantial. The remaining choir is twenty-nine feet long and twenty feet wide. The nave is fifty feet long and twenty three feet wide.

The Abbey was dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and only the Abbot and one monk were granted a pension. In 1561 Elizabeth I gave the abbey and its grounds to Sir Henry Radcliffe along with a portion of ale, called the Mary-gallon, out of every brewing in Cashel.


Site visit 2012

Grosse, The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume I, Kilkenny: Wellbrook Press, 1982.

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 11th: Tintern Parva

Tintern Parva1Tintern Parva2Tintern parva3

Tintern Parva on the Hook Head Peninsula was founded by William Marshal in c.1200.

Tintern Parva means little Tintern and it is also known as Tintern of the Vow. It is a daughter house of Tintern in Wales and was colonised with monks from the Welsh Tintern.

Hook Head Peninsula is at the tip of South East Ireland and is possibly the origin of the saying ‘by hook or by crook’. Tradition has it that when Cromwell was invading Ireland he said he’d take it by hook or by crook, meaning by Hook Head Peninsula or Crooke in County Waterford. Whether this is true or not is very much debatable, but it is a nice story regardless.

Marshal came to visit the lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word.  The Irish Annals found in The Chartularies of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin recorded that Marshal came in a storm and, in thanks to God for his survival on the unforgiving Irish Sea, he founded the abbey of Tintern Parva.

King John confirmed Marshal’s grant of lands for the abbey in 1200 but Marshal’s charter of confirmation dates probably to 1207-1213 from the names of the witnesses. The lands that the abbey stands on were part of the Hervey de Montmorency’s fief, but when he died in 1205 they reverted back to Marshal and this might have been one of the reasons for the delay in the confirmation of lands for the abbey.

In 1447 the lands had wasted considerably and the current Abbot was forced to rebuild his house at his own cost. As recompense it was enacted in parliament that the Abbots of Tintern could not be forced to attend parliaments or great councils.

The Abbey fell to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. In 1541 it was partly converted into living quarters. The Colclough family occupied the abbey from the mid 16th century until the 1960s.


Site Visit 2012 and 2015

Wexford Heritage Trail booklet.

John T. Gilbert, (ed.) Chartularies of St Mary’s Abbey Dublin with The Register of its House at Dunbrody and Annals of Ireland, Volume II, London: Longman and Co, 1884.

Grosse, The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume I, Kilkenny: Wellbrook Press, 1982.

Bradley, John and ODrisceoil, Colin (eds.) William Marshal and Ireland, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016.

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of medieval Religious institutions: December 10th: St Mary’s Abbey Ferns.

StMFerns1StMFerns2JPGStMGerns3The town of Ferns in County Wexford, Ireland stands at an important strategic site as the area was historically the capital of the Kings of Leinster. The first christian community roughly on this site was founded by St Aidan in about 600.

The legend is that whilst he was building his monastery his followers were complaining that water couldn’t be found. So St Aidan ordered them to dig in a certain spot. Beautiful clear water then emerged from the hole and became known as St Mogue’s well (Mogue being another name for Aidan). The well is now under the road next to the abbey, but it is still accessible from a more modern structure just to the side. It is said to have curative powers, including the ability to reduce baldness.

The abbey you see today was founded by Diarmuid MacMurrough King of Leinster in 1158 as an Augustinian Abbey. The foundation charter of the abbey included a portion of all the beer brewed in Ferns. Not much of the abbey remains today; only parts of the church and the vaulted chancel survive sadly. The bell tower is the most unusual feature, the base is square shaped and then it tapers into a round top as it reaches higher. Stairs to the top of the tower still survive.

The abbey’s founder MacMurrough holds the dubious distinction of being the Irish king who invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland (they never left again). MacMurrough lost his kingdom in the late 1160s and he sailed to England to invite the Anglo-Norman lords to come and help him reclaim it. Richard Strongbow Lord of Striguil (now called Chepstow) was the key lord to answer his call and MacMurrough promised Strongbow his kingdom on his death and marriage to his daughter Aoife if he would help. Strongbow agreed and MacMurrough took sanctuary at St Mary’s in 1167/68 while his waiting for his Anglo-Norman allies to arrive.

MacMurrough died in 1171 and is buried in the abbey’s grounds.

Strongbow had married Aoife by this point and he became the ruler of Leinster. The Anglo-Norman lords never left Ireland again. Strongbow’s daughter was Isabel de Clare who married William Marshal and inherited Leinster in her own right.

The abbey continued to function under Anglo-Norman rule and it was dissolved in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


Site visits 2012 and 2015

Ferns: Ancient capital of Leinster book.

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 8th: Shrewsbury


Shrewsbury Abbey is in Shropshire, England and there actually isn’t that much left of the Abbey itself, which was once an entire complex, but the church remains reasonably intact. The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul was founded by Earl Roger de Montgomery in 1083. It was a Benedictine monastery. It survived as a complete abbey until, like many other religious institutions, the dissolution of the monasteries.

By the time the dissolution of the monasteries act was passed in 1536 the abbey was 34th out of 602 monasteries in terms of wealth. Abbot Thomas Boteler was given a pension and so were some of his monks when the abbey was dissolved in 1540. The majority of the buildings were demolished and sold off, some of the church survived though. The nave was left standing while the rest was demolished and a new east wall was built. This is the church you see remaining today. In the photos below you can see the interior and exterior of the remaining abbey and you can see where the new wall was built after the remainder of the abbey was demolished.



Site visit 2012

Shrewsbury Abbey:

The photos are mine.