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St Nicholas' Priory, Tresco

A Scheduled Monument in Tresco, Isles of Scilly

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Latitude: 49.9475 / 49°56'50"N

Longitude: -6.3303 / 6°19'49"W

OS Eastings: 89459.66966

OS Northings: 14245.627254

OS Grid: SV894142

Mapcode National: GBR BXRT.H7G

Mapcode Global: VGYBY.7L84

Entry Name: St Nicholas' Priory, Tresco

Scheduled Date: 25 July 1997

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1016184

English Heritage Legacy ID: 15507

County: Isles of Scilly

Civil Parish: Tresco

Traditional County: Cornwall

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cornwall

Church of England Parish: Isles of Scilly

Church of England Diocese: Truro


The scheduling includes the remains of the medieval Benedictine priory of St
Nicholas at the foot of the eastern spur of Abbey Hill on Tresco in the Isles
of Scilly. The scheduling also includes an early Christian memorial stone
reused at the priory church, a small 18th - early-19th century cemetery within
the priory church, and a prehistoric ritual holed stone located close to the
north west of the church. The priory, memorial stone and post medieval
cemetery are Listed Grade II.
The upstanding remains of St Nicholas' Priory include the nave and chancel of
the priory church, visible as a rectangular roofless building measuring 23.5m
WNW-ESE by 7.5m NNE-SSW internally with walling approximately 1m wide, faced
by roughly shaped and coursed granite rubble; it varies considerably in
surviving height, to a maximum of 4.6m on the south.
The walls are pierced by large opposed openings at the centre of the north and
south walls, marking crossings to the former north and south transepts. That
on the north is infilled by later rubble blocking, to each side of which are
lower courses of the arch's stepped and chamfered moulding of imported
freestone. The south transept crossing has a broad pointed arch also with a
stepped and chamfered moulding which uses two types of imported freestone: the
vertical sides in a dark stone, the arch in a pale yellow limestone; each side
also rests on a base of white limestone. Close to the west of the south
transept crossing is a smaller doorway that originally linked the nave with
the cloisters. The doorway has a slightly squatter pointed arch with a similar
moulding profile and range of imported freestones as the transept crossings.
Its adjacent wall fabric includes a narrow drip moulding of thin slabs over
the apex and eastern curve of the doorway's arch moulding. At the base of the
doorway are two flat sill slabs; the eastern slab is a reused early Christian
memorial stone described below. A second doorway, blocked but shown by the
inner face lower dressed slabs of its south jamb, is visible at the centre of
the church's west wall. Blocked windows are evident near the eastern end of
both north and south walls, with a third blocked window closer to the east of
the south transept crossing. The present walling of the church includes some
areas of later rebuild including the blockings of openings noted above; other
later additions to the medieval fabric include a pair of small buttresses
built against the south wall's outer face at its west end and a garden wall
abutting the south east corner.
Although the visible upstanding remains are limited to the priory church,
sub-surface evidence for the ground plan of accompanying parts of the priory
precinct, including the church transepts, will extend beneath the deep
overburden of garden landscaping deposits raised immediately to the north of
the church and beneath the levelled areas adjacent to its other sides, where
small excavations have confirmed the survival of early demolition debris.
St Nicholas' Priory is first specifically recorded in a charter of c.AD 1176,
by when it was already well established and covered by Henry I's grant in c.AD
1120 of all churches in Scilly to the Benedictine Tavistock Abbey in Devon, a
grant considered to have been an attempt to enforce the peace in this remote
territory. The Abbey also received all the lands those churches had possessed
in the early to mid 11th century, a grant later defined to include all the
islands in the Scilly archipelago north of St Mary's. A Papal Bull of 1193
confirms the central role of St Nicholas' priory in the Abbey's possessions on
Scilly. The few subsequent historical references to the Priory focus on losses
and damage from piratical raids, as for example in 1351 and 1367; the
difficulty of maintaining the priory against this background seems to have led
to its abandonment before the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in 1539 as it
does not appear in the list of the Abbey's possessions at that date.
Stone-robbing for later buildings nearby had reduced the remains of the priory
church to a form resembling that of today by 1752 when it was described and
sketched by the antiquary Borlase.
The priory's 12th century records imply an earlier Christian establishment at
or near the church's present site. The earliest evidence for such activity
here, or anywhere else on Scilly, is provided by the early Christian memorial
stone now reused as a sill slab in the church's south doorway, but originally
intended to stand erect, with an incised inscription of two lines to be read
down the stone with the upper line on the right. The slab is 0.81m long by
0.38m wide and partly trapped beneath the east jamb of the doorway; the
western half of its upper face bears the lines of incised capitals: the upper
line reads `.. (?T)HI FILI' and the lower line reads `..COLINI' or `..COGI' or
`..COCI', the wear leaving the final letters difficult to interpret. The
inscription uses a standard formula common on such memorial slabs denoting the
monument of `[name], son of (fili) [name]'. The use of this formula and the
style and disposition of the lettering has been used to indicate a later
sixth century date. It is considered that the memorial's original context was
an early Christian cemetery in the vicinity of the later Priory; some of the
cemetery's slab-lined graves were revealed during 19th century landscaping of
the surrounding gardens and three survive beyond this scheduling on the higher
slope of the spur 50m to the north.
Long after the abandonment of the priory, ongoing respect for its church led
to its reuse for burial during the post medieval period. This was first
recorded by Borlase in 1752, and surviving grave slabs record burials up to
1811. Seven graves are visible within the church, with stone-edged raised
earth surfaces and marked by horizontal or upright slate gravestones.
Close to the west of the church's north west corner, the scheduling includes a
prehistoric ritual holed stone, visible as an upright slab 1m high and 0.5m
wide, roughly shaped to give parallel sides and a flat upper edge; below the
top edge, the slab is perforated by two round holes, each approximately 0.08m
in diameter and 0.1m apart, one above the other on the slab's midline. The
slab was found on Tresco or Bryher at the beginning of the 20th century and
was erected in its present location to serve as a feature in the Tresco Abbey
The modern gravel surfaces and the wooden blocking above the early Christian
memorial stone are excluded from the scheduling but the ground beneath them is

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 10 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

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.
Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St
Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not
intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule
came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came
only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as
`black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who
became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over
150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly
successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and
influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance
of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many
facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

St Nicholas' Priory survives reasonably well, retaining substantial portions
of its church fabric despite some evidence for later rebuilding. The surface
profile and recent history of the vicinity of this church, together with the
evidence from limited excavation, also indicate that sub-surface remains of
other, demolished, parts of the priory will be masked rather than destroyed in
areas adjacent to the upstanding remains of the priory church. The historical
documentation which confirms the grant of Scilly's churches to Tavistock Abbey
and the pivotal role of the Priory in the Abbey's wider ecclesiastical
administration of Scilly gives a good example both of the functions of small
monastic houses in such remote areas and of some of the secular reasons for
their establishment. The importance of the priory is further reinforced by its
re-use of the early Christian memorial stone, the earliest datable evidence
for Christianity in Scilly. Together with the nearby and broadly contemporary
cemetery, it gives evidence that the priory was established on a site already
of religious significance. The post medieval use of the priory church for
burial, and the reasons for it as documented by Borlase, provide an unusual
example of a lingering sanctity which remained associated with such monastic
buildings long after the Dissolution. The holed stone near the church is one
of four examples from Scilly of this very rare class of prehistoric ritual
monument whose distribution is concentrated in the western tip of Cornwall and
Scilly; although not in its original position, its present setting near the
early Christian memorial slab and the upright gravestones in the church's post
medieval cemetery gives a good illustration of the long period over which
upright stone slabs have held a strong religious and funerary significance.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Barnatt, J, Prehistoric Cornwall: The Ceremonial Monuments, (1982)
Borlase, W, Observations on Ancient and Present State of the Isles of Scilly, (1756)
Borlase, W, Observations on Ancient and Present State of the Isles of Scilly, (1756)
Gibson, A G, H J, , The Isles of Scilly The Visitors Companion, (1932)
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971)
Okasha, E, Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-west Britain, (1993)
O'Neil, BH St J, Ancient Monuments of the Isles of Scilly, (1949)
O'Neil, BH St J, Ancient Monuments of the Isles of Scilly, (1949)
Ratcliffe, J, Sharpe, A CAU, Fieldwork in Scilly Autumn 1990, (1991)
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993), 19-26
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993), 130-133
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993)
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993)
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly's Archaeological Heritage, (1992)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, (1986)
Thomas, C, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, (1994)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, (1986)
Whitfield, H J, Scilly and its Legends, (1852)
Woodhall, P, The Book of the Church on Scilly, (1985)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-0/7/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural & Historic Interest, (1992)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-0/7/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, (1992)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-07/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, (1992)
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7324.01, (1988)
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly SMR entry for PRN 7733, (1992)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; Cornwall sheet LXXXVII: 2
Source Date: 1888

Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; Cornwall sheet LXXXVII: 2
Source Date: 1908

Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8914
Source Date: 1980

Source: Historic England

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