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Cornworthy Priory

A Scheduled Monument in Cornworthy, Devon

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Latitude: 50.3885 / 50°23'18"N

Longitude: -3.657 / 3°39'25"W

OS Eastings: 282299.680268

OS Northings: 55605.884761

OS Grid: SX822556

Mapcode National: GBR QP.2VJQ

Mapcode Global: FRA 3870.M3V

Entry Name: Cornworthy Priory

Scheduled Date: 3 November 1958

Last Amended: 11 July 1994

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1008673

English Heritage Legacy ID: 24839

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Cornworthy

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Church of England Parish: Cornworthy St Peter

Church of England Diocese: Exeter


Cornworthy Priory is located at the western end of the village of Cornworthy,
at the head of a small valley to the south of Bow Creek, an inlet on the west
side of the Dart estuary. The monument includes the upstanding and buried
remains of an Augustinian nunnery in occupation from the early 13th century
until 1536.
The visible remains exist in the form of ruined stone structures together with
a series of low earthworks. They include the substantial remains of the
gatehouse and a small section of the precinct wall which encloses a natural
spring on the highest part of the site. The walls are constructed of random
dressed rubble utilising local grey slates and shales, with much of the
architectural detail in contrasting Dartmoor granite.
The most significant upstanding remains are those of the 15th century
gatehouse which stands as an isolated structure of considerable visual impact
at the head of the valley. It is rectangular in plan measuring 9.5m by 6m with
two arched and vaulted passageways aligned east/west. The north wall stands to
almost its full height. The main southern passage for mounted travellers and
wheeled vehicles has a tunnel vault, decorated with chamfered ribs, bosses,
moulded wallplates, and moulded outer arches in granite. The smaller
pedestrian passage has a ribbed vault, with the ribs and decorated bosses in
granite, between outer arches in shale. Both vaults were divided centrally by
arches and jambs, which have been robbed, on which the doors were hung. In the
south east corner of the main passageway a door with a moulded granite arch
opens onto a spiral stair which is in part housed externally in a turret. It
leads to a second storey room furnished with three windows, a fireplace and
garderobe (toilet) closet. The floor was supported by joists, allowing space
in the northern half for an underfloor chamber, above the lower pedestrian
passage, lit by one narrow window to the west. The north gable-end of the
gatehouse has the vestigial remains of a single storey porter's lodge which
has a squint into the pedestrian passage and facility for withdrawing the two
draw-bars of the gate.
The only substantial section of precinct wall has been recently revealed to
the south east of the gatehouse in the area of some ruined farm buildings
which have been cleared of plant growth. The wall survives to some 15m in
length and is 3.9m high at its eastern end. It is stepped down at its
western end, and acts as a partial retaining wall to the land to the south.
Two rows of putlog (scaffolding) holes are visible, and it retains a string
course below a coping of semicircular stones set on edge. Both ends of the
wall have been cut by later structures: by a two storied barn to the east, and
to the west by an archway leading to the road. To the west of the archway the
wall continues for 2.1m, and has then been set back into the hedge. From this
point the alignment of the precinct wall is visible as an earthwork extending
towards the gatehouse which has a wall-scar on its south west corner, 3.6m in
height. The earthwork continues northwards from the porter's lodge towards
the field boundary to the north.
The area of the ruined farm buildings is being allowed to regenerate its
natural flora. Two other sections of walling exist in this area, one is
now completely obscured by plant growth and could not be located, the other
is visible in the field boundary on the north west side of the regenerating
area, being 7m in length and 1.3m high. Near these ruins is a natural
spring which currently remains in use as a piped water supply.
There are extensive low linear earthworks throughout the area to the east
of the gatehouse, extending down the valley as far as Court Prior. There are
also two substantial depressions on the hillside to the south east of the
The date of the foundation of the priory is uncertain as no charters or
cartuleries have survived. Cornworthy was subject to Totnes Priory and was
therefore linked with the Lordship of Totnes. The earliest reference to the
site occurs in 1238. A list of eleven of the prioresses has been
reconstructed from secondary sources, mainly the episcopal registers of the
bishops of Exeter. Some entries give an indication of the range of the
monastic buildings: in 1381 there is a reference to the Chapel of St Mary
Magdalene, in 1421 to the infirmary, in 1461 to the chapter house, in 1521 to
the dorter (dormitory) and frater (dining hall). In 1536 there was a prioress
and seven nuns in residence.
The priory was dissolved in 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII, following an Act
of Parliament which was originally intended to reform the religious houses by
disbanding the smallest and poorest of their number. A condition of the
subsequent sale of the buildings was that they were to be rendered unfit for
monastic use, and this was greatly assisted by the crown's sequestration of
all the roofing lead. Cornworthy remained in crown ownership until 1558-9 when
it was sold to Edward Harris, and it remained with that family for two hundred
years. In 1770 it was recorded in the survey by Dean Milles that only the
gatehouse, an old house, and a barn near the gatehouse survived, the rest of
the site being utilised as orchards. The 1844 Tithe Map shows that farm
buildings had been constructed to the south east of the gateway in the
location of the present ruined structures. The use of the land for orchards
has continued into the present century.
The ruins of the gatehouse are listed Grade I. The earthworks were surveyed
by the Royal Commission in 1992. Some large architectural fragments in granite
from the ruins are built into a curb in front of Court Prior.
Within the designated area the following are excluded: overhead power cable
poles and supports, the sheep dip, and gate and fence posts, although the
ground beneath all these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

A nunnery was a settlement built to sustain a community of religious women.
Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship,
accommodation and subsistence. The main elements are the church and domestic
buildings arranged around a cloister. This central enclosure may be
accompanied by an outer court and gatehouse, the whole bounded by a precinct
wall, earthworks or moat. Outside the enclosure, fishponds, mills, field
systems, stock enclosures and barns may occur. The earliest English nunneries
were founded in the seventh century AD but most of these had fallen out of use
by the ninth century. A small number of these were later refounded. The tenth
century witnessed the foundation of some new houses but the majority of
medieval nunneries were established from the late 11th century onwards.
Nunneries were established by most of the major religious orders of the time,
including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans and
Dominicans. It is known from documentary sources that at least 153 nunneries
existed in England, of which the precise locations of only around 100 sites
are known. Few sites have been examined in detail and as a rare and poorly
understood medieval monument type all examples exhibiting survival of
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Cornworthy Priory was the most westerly and isolated of the houses founded
specifically for nuns in England. Throughout its existence it remained the
poorest of the three nunneries in Devon. The quality of the remains of the
gatehouse at Cornworthy however places it amongst the most important buildings
of this type and does not reflect the poverty of the priory. From the evidence
of the earthworks the buried remains appear to be extensive and unharmed by
subsequent activity.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Wilson-North, R, Cornworthy Priory, (1992)
Watkin, H, Windeatt, E, 'Devon Notes and Queries' in The Priory for Nuns of St Mary Cornworthy Devon, (1923), 1-49
Weddell, P, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Cornworthy Priory, (1987)

Source: Historic England

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