Britannia Monasteries: St. Nicholas Priory, Exeter


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Short History of St. Nicholas' Priory, Exeter in Devon
Edited by David Nash Ford

S T.  N I C H O L A S'
P R I O R Y

Exeter's Other Great Church

This house, the only important monastic foundation in Exeter, took its rise in the reign of King William I. He gave, to his Abbey of Battle, the church of St. Olave in Exeter which owed its being to Gytha, widow of Earl Godwin of Wessex and mother of King Harold II. In 1087, the monks of Battle established here, a Priory of St. Nicholas (though technically a cell dependent on the Abbey). As was not unnatural in the case of a monastery situated in the midst of a city, the monks of St. Nicholas had quarrels with their neighbours of the cathedral and with the municipality over the years. The former were composed by Arch-bishop Anselm; the latter finally patched up in 1527, when not many years of life remained to the Priory. The monastery was valued at only 147 12s, when Henry VIII's commissioners arrived to dissolve the establishment in 1535. They called in workmen to pull down the rood screen, but these were attacked by the Priory's tenant womenfolk, who threw them off the tower and barricaded themselves in the church until arrested by the Mayor.

Nothing is left of the Priory Church. The cloister buildings were on the north side of it and, of these, we have the west range and part of the north. Chapter House, sacristy, dorter and whatever else occupied the east side, are all gone.

The west range contains the passage into the cloister, used as a parlour, probably, for meetings with lay visitors. Next to this, on the north, is a fine vaulted chamber of Norman date known as 'the Crypt'. The purpose of it is not certain. It may have been used by the servants of visitors. Then, going north, we have the "Tudor Room," mainly of fifteenth century date, with a pretty plaster ceiling bearing the initials of William Hurst, one of those who bought the buildings in 1549. He was a prominent citizen, who sat in Parliament for Exeter and was Mayor five times. The north end of this range is occupied by the kitchen whose walls are of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. A handsome tower was added in the fifteenth century on the weft side of the range.

The first floor of the main building contains the guest hall, prior's rooms and guestroom. In the last-named, some interesting pieces of sixteenth century decorative wall paint are to be seen in the splays the windows. The guest hall has its fine plain original timber roof. Above, on the second floor, are lodgings, per-haps for the guest master and the servants. This part of the building has been the property of the City Council since 1913. It has been carefully restored in modern times and is now open to the public. The north range is still in private hands. In it are the remains of the frater and its undercroft or cellar. It has a pretty oriel and a fine timber roof. Much of the lower part, at any rate, of the walls is of Norman date. Of the cloister itself, nothing is left, but pieces of Purbeck marble shafts and capitals have been found which must have formed part of a very pretty circular lavatorium, at the centre of the cloister. Another interesting object is the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross, carved with characteristic patterns, which must be older than the Priory. At the Dissolution, much of the stonework was carted off and used in the repair of a bridge.

Edited from MR James' "Abbeys" (1925).




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