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Frithelstock Priory

A Scheduled Monument in Frithelstock, Devon

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Latitude: 50.9551 / 50°57'18"N

Longitude: -4.1884 / 4°11'18"W

OS Eastings: 246389.59696

OS Northings: 119578.534423

OS Grid: SS463195

Mapcode National: GBR KK.N2RR

Mapcode Global: FRA 263L.B2D

Entry Name: Frithelstock Priory

Scheduled Date: 26 November 1928

Last Amended: 22 December 1994

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1009304

English Heritage Legacy ID: 24842

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Frithelstock

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Church of England Parish: Frithelstock

Church of England Diocese: Exeter


The priory is situated on the north side of the village of Frithelstock,
some 2km to the west of the town of Great Torrington. It is set in
agricultural land on the upper north facing slope of a wide valley that drains
eastward into the River Torridge. The monument includes the known extent of
the upstanding and buried remains of a priory of Augustinian canons in
occupation from the early 13th century until 1536.
The visible remains exist in the form of a number of ruined and adapted
stone structures terraced into the natural slope and laid out in the
traditional monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of buildings of
two stories were grouped around the central square open court of the cloister.
They include the substantial remains of the priory church, which abuts the
parish church, and the remains of the cloister ranges incorporated into the
buildings of Cloister Hall Farm. Fields adjacent to the farm contain a series
of low earthworks.
The walls are constructed of random-rubble utilising local slate, with carved
details in a coarse red sandstone and oolitic limestone.
The principal upstanding remains are those of the 13th century priory
church, aligned east-west, and of 39.6m by 14.1m overall size. It consists of
a simple in-line arrangement, 8.95m in width, of nave, choir, presbytery and
Lady chapel, with a single square tower abutting the western end of the nave.
The west gable-end of the nave survives to 13.2m, almost its full original
height, and is of symmetrical, austere and dramatic design, having three tall
lancet windows above a small central doorway. Most of the north wall of the
church survives to a considerable height, as do the buttressed north east and
south east corners of the presbytery, and the south wall of the nave.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the design, details of the fabric of the
church indicate a complex structural history. The western end of the south
wall of the nave has a high pointed arch supported on its eastern side by a 1m
square pier with chamfered ashlar edges on three corners. The presence of this
pier indicates that the church was originally designed with a south aisle, but
that this was abandoned, the arch blocked and the south wall of the church
constructed in line with the proposed arcade. The north and south walls of the
church are not, however, symmetrical in terms of the number, size and location
of the windows. The north wall has a tall lancet window to the nave and four
high windows to the choir and presbytery; the south wall has a tall lancet to
the nave and presbytery with, from the evidence of an 18th century engraving,
four high windows placed between them. The Lady chapel and tower were added in
the 14th century.
By the middle of the 15th century, rebuilding in the parish church resulted
in its north east corner being structurally bonded to the south west corner of
the tower of the priory church. The south wall of the priory church is
terraced into the hillside by some 1.5m and the difference in level between
the two churches is some 2.6m.
The cloister is on the north side of the priory church, lying about 1m lower,
and with sides of about 20m square. This area is now mostly gravelled and
contains flower beds forming the garden of the farm. The west range of the
cloister abutted only the north west corner of the church. The range is for
the most part incorporated into the western half of the present farmhouse, the
rooms at the north end are of 16th-17th century date and form its earliest
part. Traditionally the west range would have included the apartments of the
prior. Abutting the north end of the eastern half of the farmhouse is a large
storage building of some 9.1m width that occupies the position of the north
range of the cloister. The south wall of this building includes medieval
fabric. Traditionally this range would have contained the refectory (dining
hall), with the area between the north and west ranges occupied by the
kitchens. The east range of the cloister is less well defined in terms of the
current structures. The north face of the north wall of the presbytery has
part of the toothing for an external, east wall, and two corbels beneath the
high windows, which together indicate that the east range abutted the
presbytery, and was some 9m in width. The east range extended northwards into
the area now occupied by the stables. Traditionally this range would have
contained the sacristy (vestry) and chapter house, with the canons' dorter
(dormitory) at first floor level. The late 15th century granite doorway
forming the main entrance to the farmhouse would appear to be a reused part of
the priory structure.
In 1976 a well was uncovered in the north west corner of the cloister. It
consisted of a vaulted passage, large enough to walk in, some 2.5m below the
present ground level and some 5m in length, leading south from the north range
of the cloister. At the south end of the passage there was a well over 6m in
depth. The feature remains intact but is no longer visible.
The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a
wall. At Frithelstock part of the line of the precinct can be defined. In the
late 18th century it was reported that the priory gatehouse remained standing
in line with the south wall of the graveyard. The graveyard was extended in
the early 20th century, but its earlier limits are shown by lines of lime
trees. It would therefore appear that the south wall of the precinct was to
the north of the present road. In the pasture to the north of the farm there
is a low bank which follows the top of the natural, steeper, ground slope to
curve around the north west of the farm buildings before becoming lost in
uneven ground. This earthwork probably represents the line of the north wall
of the precinct.
The precinct contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and
cloister, all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial,
associated with the degree of self-sufficiency that the priory was capable of
sustaining. Many of these structures would have been of timber or cob
construction. A number of low linear earthworks are visible to the south east
of the priory church forming three terraces in the natural ground slope. The
middle terrace contains a rectangular depression some 35m by 12m which may
indicate the site of a building or small fishpond. To the immediate west of
this feature is a curvilinear depression which may be a hollow way. The
canons' graveyard would traditionally have been located to the south of the
priory church in the area that has since been partially encroached upon by the
graveyard of the parish church. A linear earthwork extends southwards from the
south east corner of the Lady chapel which may define the east side of the
monastic graveyard. There are areas of more pronounced earthworks in this
field outside the south east corner of the graveyard and along the east side
of the east range of the cloister.
The priory was founded in the early 13th century by Robert Beauchamp following
his grant of the manor of Frithelstock to the Augustinian order. It was
colonised by canons from Hartland Abbey in Devon and dedicated to St Gregory.
Events in the history of the priory and details of a number of the priors have
been reconstructed from secondary sources, mainly the episcopal registers of
the Bishops of Exeter. Some entries give an indication of the range of
monastic buildings; in 1333 there is a reference to the sacristry (vestry); in
1340 to the refectory (dining hall), dormitory and kitchen; in 1347 to the
mill; in 1351 to the Lady chapel; in 1378 to the dormitory; in 1400 there are
references to the prior's hall (great hall), prior's room, and a room called
`Hevytre'; in 1434 to the chapter house, and a high chamber in the north part
of the court. The parish church was in existence before the priory and in
1333 was appropriated by the canons. In 1536 there were only four canons and
the prior in residence.
The priory was dissolved in 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII, following an Act
of Parliament which 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. Following their disposal by the Crown, parts of the
buildings were often converted to habitable use, usually the apartments
occupied by the prior which were of a more domestic nature, and this pattern
was followed at Frithelstock.
In 1537 the priory was acquired by Viscount Lisle, by which time the cloister
ranges had largely been destroyed, apart from a house used by the tenant
farmer which has been identified with part of the present farmhouse. In the
18th century there were several references to old walls remaining in the
vicinity of the farmhouse.
Excavations were undertaken within the priory church in 1929. The recorded
finds were architectural fragments, including seven small grotesque heads,
15th-16th century stained glass, ceramic ridge tiles of a rare type that are
both moulded and glazed, and decorated floor tiles. Sections of the landscaped
excavation cuts remain on the south side of the church. At the time of the
excavations parts of the fabric were consolidated and detailed plans of the
parish and priory churches were made.
Cloister Hall farmhouse and the buildings on the northern side of the cloister
are together Listed Grade II. The parish church is Listed Grade I, as are the
ruins of the priory church. The wall to the west of the tower is Listed Grade
II along with the vicarage, also Listed Grade II.
The scheduling comprises what is currently recognised as the extent of the
priory. Within the designated area the following are excluded from the
scheduling: the parish church and the graveyard extension; all dwellings and
modern farm buildings; the made-up farm track and hard-standing; all fence and
gate posts, although the ground beneath all these features, with the exception
of the graveyard extension, is included.

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

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597
to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both
religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious
communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks,
canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of
religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated
from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England.
These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to
tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide
variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a
result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout,
although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for
the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into
the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship,
learning, and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some
orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were
established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest
of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish
churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 225
of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The
Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of
canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they
came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to
distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th
century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running
almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in
parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their
revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval
life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

The rural location of Frithelstock has meant that the layout of the priory
has been preserved and that its essential design can be determined from the
existing structures and earthworks. The close proximity of the priory and
parish churches is an unusual feature. The buried remains appear to be
extensive and relatively unharmed by subsequent activity. Frithelstock is the
only monastic site in north Devon to retain parts of its standing structure.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Chope, R, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Exploration Committee' in History of Frithelstock Priory, , Vol. 2 Pt 1, (1933), 5-19
Radford, C, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Exploration Committee' in Frithelstock Priory and the Parish Church, , Vol. 2 Pt 1, (1933), 20-27
Weddell, P, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Frithelstock Priory, , Vol. 4, (1986)

Source: Historic England

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