A Brief History & Description of
Witham Priory in Somerset
by M.R. James
W I T H A M
P R I O R Y
The first Carthusians in England
There were but nine Carthusian monasteries or 'Charterhouses' in England. The Order, which was one of the strictest, came to England in the twelfth century, but only one house was founded then. The next belongs to the thirteenth and all the others to the fourteenth and fifteenth. Witham was the first and Hinton the second. So Somerset owns the two oldest. This is one of the principal distinctions of Witham. Another is that, rather than the accepted King Henry II, its real founder was the great St. Hugh, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln.
Monks from the Grande Chartreuse (near Grenoble) came to England before 1179 and had been settled by Henry II near Witham in penance for the murder of St. Thomas A'Becket. There were difficulties in advancing the building-works, however, and the Prior who headed the colony, conscious of failure, retired. A second Prior died. Henry II was in despair at the ill-success of his foundation. From a noble of Maurienne, who happened to be in England on an errand touching a Royal marriage, he learned about Hugh, then at the Grande Chartreuse, and sent an influential embassy to demand his services. Most reluctantly, the convent let him go. He came to Witham in 1179 and found the monks in great straits. The brethren had been living in log huts and the sites of the necessary buildings had not even been marked out. Hugh laid his plans for the establishment of a monastery on proper lines, went to see the King, obtained the Royal consent to all he required and, at last, probably on 6th January 1182, the King issued a charter of foundation and endowment for Witham Charterhouse. Hugh presided over the new house till 1186, when he became Bishop of Lincoln. He was one of the greatest and most attractive figures of his time.
The dedication of the house was to the Blessed Virgin, St. John Baptist and All Saints. Little is recorded of its "personnel," but it is known that John Blackman, once Fellow of Eton and confessor to Henry VI (about whom he wrote an interesting tract), joined the Carthusian Order late in life and bequeathed all his books to Witham. The clear annual value of the Priory at its Suppression, in 1539, was £215.
Of the main buildings, nothing at all is left. They were on low ground near the River Frome (and the railway), about a quarter of a mile from the one building which has to be described. Excavation has revealed hardly anything. What is left, is the church or chapel of the Frary - not Friary - that is the lay-brothers' church. It now serves for the parish. It is a very attractive twelfth-century building, small, but of noble conception. It is vaulted and has an apsidal east end. The walls have been thickened to beat the weight of the vault, which has a curious effect on the splay of the windows. The buttresses are notable. On the north is a blocked door. At the west end, a sort of annexe was added in 1876. There is some good modern glass, by Comper, and a little bit of the old screen destroyed in 1832.
Edited from M.R. James' "Abbeys" (1925)