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 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 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.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 7th: Tintern Abbey


Tintern was the first Cistercian monastery in Wales. It was founded  in 1131 by Walter Fitz Richard of Clare, lord of the nearby Chepstow castle.

The abbey thrived because of the grants of land that Walter provided with its foundation. They were successful enough to be able to attract new recruits and found daughter houses. The first daughter house was founded in 1139 in Kingswood in Gloucestershire by William Berkeley. Prior Thomas of Tintern was chosen as the first Abbot.

Tintern was the second Cistercian monastery established in Britain. A key figure in the early years was Abbot Hugh who was in charge of the community from about 1148 until 1157. He was a former brigand who in repentance took the habit of a Cistercian and rose to lead Tintern.

When Tintern was founded the original buildings would have been wooden and building most likely began even before the first colony of monks arrived. By the mid 1150s the first stone church and a number of other monastic buildings were probably complete. Little remains of the original stone buildings at Tintern, because much was rebuilt in the gothic style in the late 12th and mid 13th centuries. The original church and some building were probably romanesque in style, in line with austere ideals of the Cistercian architecture.

My main interest in Tintern comes from William Marshal . He became lord of Chepstow by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1189. He and his son William Marshal the younger became liberal benefactors of Tintern. William Marshal held extensive lands in Ireland, by right of his wife, and he endowed a daughter house of Tintern there in 1203. It was known as Tintern Parva or Tintern of the Vow and will be featured later in this advent calendar.

Isabel de Clare was buried at Tintern in 1220 and her son William Marshal the younger endowed Tintern with the extensive arable property Rogerstone in return for keeping a lamp burning at his mother’s tomb. Three other of Isabel’s children were also buried at Tintern: Walter and Anselm (who were both lords of Chepstow in their own right) in 1245 and Maud (who was Countess of Norfolk) in 1248. Sadly the location of the burials is no longer known.

The abbey was dissolved in 1536 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and in 1537 the buildings and local possessions were granted to Henry Somerset Earl of Worcester.

In the 18th century the romantic ivy clad ruins of Tintern became a key tourist attraction and a favourite subject for writers and artists like William Wordsworth and Turner.


Site visit 2012

Cadw: Tintern Abbey ISBN 9781857602876


Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 6th: Lanercost Priory

Lanercost1Lanercost2Lanercost3Lanercost Priory was founded in 1169. It was home to a group of Augustinian canons. Augustinians were not monks exactly. Each was a canon, an ordained priest, and they were ruled by a prior. The priory was founded partly as a political act; both to establish a point of Anglo-Norman control and to help demarcate the newly re-established English Scottish frontier. In fact a reasonable portion of the stone used to build the priory was probably reclaimed from the nearby Hadrian’s Wall.

The priory was founded by Robert de Vaux. As well as political considerations de Vaux also probably wanted a site to endow perpetual prayers both for himself and for the souls of his parents. The priory was endowed with both churches and lands and it was both dedicated and founded in 1169. The original buildings would have been largely wood, but due to the proximity of Hadrian’s Wall, and thus a steady supply of already cut and dressed stone, the buildings were built in stone comparatively early in the building process. There was also significant rebuilding works in the mid 13th century.

Lanercost is a small priory, but it found itself at the centre of English Affairs in 1306-1307 when Edward I stayed there. He was in the area to deal with a resurgence in Scottish resistance. He did not intend to stay at Lanercost for a long period of time, however illness confined him there for nearly six months. This meant that the priory was not only host to the king but to a number of leading courtiers and the Queen and Prince Edward. New buildings had to be constructed to house the growing number of attendants, ultimately there was at least 200 people in permanent residence with the king. This is not counting the courtiers that turned up with their retinues. The priory was quite impoverished by having to supply resources to the king for six months, but he did reward them by bestowing the churches on Carlaaton and Mitford on the priory. It took time to secure their claims though, and it was years before they were better off from the king’s visit.

The priory was dissolved in 1537 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the nave of the church was retained to serve as the parish church which is continues to do today. The remainder was sold as a grand residence. Thomas Dacre was granted the priory in 1542 and converted the west range of the cloister as his residence and the first floor as his great hall. You can see Dacre Hall in the final photo above. It is reputed to be the oldest village hall in England. It was given to the people of Lanercost as their village hall in 1952.


Site visit 2012

Lanercost Priory Cumbria by Henry Summerson and Stuart Harrison. ISBN: 9781873124309

The photos are all mine



Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 4th: Fountains Abbey


A truly stunning abbey with the most spectacular surviving undercroft that I’ve ever seen. Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132. It’s a Cistercian Abbey. Its foundation was rooted in the dissatisfaction of a group of monks from the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s in York. A small group of monks led by Prior Robert were unhappy with the comfortable existence in the abbey. They wanted to return to a more stringent observance of their monastic vows.

They were supported by Abbot Thurstan of York. He described the monks at St Mary’s as “the whole chapter house rang with such noise that it seemed more like a group of drunken revellers than humble monks”. When Prior Robert’s group had to flee the abbey, Thurstan looked after them in his palace and then gifted them land in the valley of the River Skell so they could found their own monastery. To begin with they barely survived, building a simple chapel and living off what they could grow in a small garden and the bread that Thurstan sent them. After they only just made it through the first winter they realised they’d need more support. They applied to Bernard of Clairvaux to join the Cistercians. Bernard welcomed them and sent Geoffroi d’Ainai to teach them the Cistercian ways. They were accepted officially into the Cistercian Order in 1135. They almost didn’t survive the first years, with poverty and a bad harvest almost forcing a move to France, but in time Fountains became one of the richest abbeys in Europe with a significant number of daughter houses.

Fountains survived until 1539 when it was another casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was closed, the abbot and monks pensioned off and the estate was sold to merchant Sir Richard Gresham.



Site visit 2012

The photos are all mine

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 3rd: St Augustine’s Canterbury


St Augustine’s was founded in roughly 598 by St Augustine, making it one of the oldest monastic sites in the country.

Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 500s to restore Christianity to Southern England. Christianity had waned in England with the departure of the Romans. In the late 500s England was divided into a number of small kingdoms and Augustine set out with the aim of converting the royal families, deciding that they could then persuade their subjects.

He started in Kent because the king,  Ethelbert, was one of the most powerful in the region and his wife, Bertha, was already a Christian.  Augustine was successful and Ethelbert converted.

The Abbey was built after Ethelbert’s conversion and it served both as accommodation for the monks that Augustine imported and as a burial place for the kings. It was built outside the Roman and later medieval walls of the town of Canterbury. It also became the burial place for the early Archbishops of Canterbury.

After the Norman conquest the abbey became a standard, though powerful,  Benedictine monastery. It remained so until 1538 when it was suppressed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After it was dissolved it was used as a royal palace by Henry VIII and as a resting stop on the journey between London and the ports in the South East. It was used as a brewery for a time in the 1700s and 1800s and by the late 1800s a missionary school had been established. Today some of the site is still occupied by King’s School. The abbey is often overshadowed by it spectacular neighbour Canterbury Cathedral, but as the site of the re-establishment of Christianity in England and as one of the most powerful monasteries of the time it is in many ways more important.


References: Site visit 2012

English Heritage book: 9781850746690

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 2nd: Bury St Edmunds

burybury st 3bury st 5Bury St Edmunds is one of my favourite abbeys. It was the first abbey I ever saw and the ruins that remain are less romantically dishevelled than many of the other religious institutions you’ll see on this list. There is an epicness to the ruins which is hard to convey in photographs.

As Bury St Edmunds is one of my favourites I have written about it before in detail so here’s the link to the original post