From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 49
December 1987- January 1988
The Story of Lenton Priory
In past articles we have had occasion to refer to Lenton Priory but until now we have never given it a feature of its own. Quite a lot has been already been written on the Priory and we wish to add to it only in order to provide readers with a brief digest of what is presently known. (*)
The original map, on which this plan of Lenton Priory is based, first appeared in the Transactions
of the Thoroton Society 1950.
Lenton priory was the most important religious house in medieval Nottinghamshire and one of the wealthiest in the Midlands. For some four hundred years it clearly dominated life in Lenton but following its dissolution in 1538 its spiritual impact ceased and its physical dominance began to diminish as parts of the buildings suffered demolition. Thereafter the Priory ruins were treated as a local quarry by all and sundry and almost everything above ground level was eventually removed. With the passing of the years and the erection of new buildings on the site, people even became uncertain as to quite where the Priory buildings had been situated. Sufficient of the priory's foundations have since been uncovered in excavations to make it fairly clear how the buildings were positioned and also provide clues as to what the Priory must have looked like.
The site plan of the Priory, based on one constructed in 1950, shows that the main church was to be found along and on the north side of Priory Street and stretched from Abbey Street to Old Church Street. This would mean its overall size was comparable to that of Southwell Minster. On the basis of informed conjecture, A.E. Berbank, one of the compilers of the 1950 site plan, constructed the picture on the following page of what Lenton Priory might have looked like. Many will note that he envisaged a building which showed strong similarities with the Minster. Whether Mr Berbank got it substantially correct we shall never know but even if he wasn't quite right it probably helps to have something to picture as one reads on.
The 'stump' and part of the foundations uncovered in 1936. On the right
are houses which once stood on Old Church Street.
In the centuries following the birth of Christianity certain devout Christians felt the need to shut themselves off from the world so that they could study and pray that they might better understand the teachings of Jesus Christ. They became recluses and hermits. As the reputations of particular hermits grew, others turned to them for help and advice and lived alongside them. Their simple communities gradually spread from the Middle East, across North Africa to Italy, France and eventually to Britain. More complex religious communities evolved and these were organised within the various different monastic orders. Prior to the Norman Conquest the Benedictines were the dominant monastic order in Britain. A modified form of the Benedictine Order was launched by the Abbot of Cluny, France in AD 910 which involved more elaborate church ceremonials and added further strictures to monastic life. The Normans brought with them many bishops who had been trained in this Cluniac Order and they set about reforming many of the Benedictine monasteries.
Lenton Priory belonged to the Cluniac order and was founded by William Peveril, the custodian of Nottingham castle, in the early part of the twelfth century. The Cluniacs seem to have delighted in building churches with quite elaborate carvings and covering the walls with rich and beautiful adornments and there is no reason to suspect that the brethren at Lenton took a different line. Certainly they could afford such 'extravagances', as the Priory was extremely well endowed. Apart from the original endowments established by William Peveril, many other benefactors added to its revenues. Its monies rolled in from some seven different counties. The way the Cluniac Order was originally conceived meant that the Abbot of Cluny became the head of all other Cluniac establishments. In charge at Lenton would have been a prior but he was ultimately accountable to the Abbot at Cluny. The Abbot also had the final decision as to who should become the next prior at Lenton. During the thirteen and fourteenth centuries this situation slowly altered chiefly because of the continuing hostilities between England and France. In 1392 Lenton Priory became 'naturalised' which meant it would no longer have to suffer repeated seizure into the King's hands in time of war with France. After 1459 the Abbot of Cluny played no effective role in the appointment of new priors at Lenton.
Four Kings of England are said to have stayed within the walls of Lenton priory. Henry II visited in 1230, Edward I in 1302 and 1303, Edward II in 1307 and 1323, while Edward III came on several occasions including 1336. When Edward II came in 1307 he was accompanied' by the Earls of Lincoln, Hereford and Lancaster. It is suggested that the Prior of Lenton at that time must have been an important and wealthy person, not only to be honoured by such guests but also to have the means of entertaining so distinguished an assemblage. There were obviously many other less illustrious visitors to Lenton. Among the most frequent must undoubtedly have been the many stall holders who came for the Fair held here, granted to Lenton Priory probably during the reign of Henry II. Each year it would begin on November 11th and run for eight days. (For some seventy years in the thirteenth century the fair's duration was extended to twelve days). While Lenton's fair was on, no market could be held in Nottingham and such was its size that many of Nottingham's shopkeepers and traders came to the Fair in order to stock up their own shelves. This Fair continued after the demise of Lenton Priory, though its length was gradually reduced. Its emphasis slowly changed and in the seventeenth century it appears to have acquired a reputation as a great fair for all sorts of horses. In the nineteenth century it was largely frequented by farmers and horse dealers. The Fair finally ceased at the beginning of this century.
At any one time there would rarely have been more than thirty monks in residence at Lenton. Their cloisters and living quarters are believed to have been all situated on the land which is now occupied by Nazareth House. Monks in the Cluniac Order spent much of their time at devotions and many everyday chores were carried out by paid servants. The records rarely tell us how many such servants were employed at Lenton. As was the case with many other monasteries in the sixteenth century, the number of monks at Lenton fell away. In records relating to the Dissolution, only ten monks plus the prior and four labourers are mentioned. It has been suggested that the ascetic life of the monks was no longer generally admired or practised. Certainly at Lenton it seems the Priory appears to have failed to attract fresh recruits Nicholas Heath, its last prior, had occasion to write that all his brethren except four were 'very impotent and of great age'.
The Priory font now to be found in Holy Trinity Church.
Photograph by Paul Bexon.
Henry VIII and the need to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon is one of the more well-known stories in history. His adoption of the title 'supreme head of the Church of England' offered a way round his problem an paved the way for many changes in English society no least the dissolution of the monasteries. Many monk surrendered their buildings and possessions without fight and were often rewarded with pensions. Lenton appears not to have gone down that road. In 1538 Nicholas Heath, the prior, was thrown into prison and with eight of his monks and four labourers indicted for treason. The prior was subsequently executed later that year. Many have pondered quite what the case against Heath consisted of. Various suggestions have been made -his complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the sale of monastic plate, certain indiscrete conversations reported to Thomas Cromwell, Henry's Vicar-General. It is not likely we shall ever know what the true story was, nor the exact place of his execution. Some suggest that he was hung from the Priory gatehouse, others that the execution tool place in the town of Nottingham.
The Priory and its possessions passed to the King. In 1539 one Michael Stanhope acquired the site of the Priory and certain lands in Lenton and Radford for a period of forty-one years. How long it was before the demolition of the Priory was begun is not, however, known. It is clear that in 1551 lead removed from the Priory roof was taken off to London for the King's use. Sir Francis Willoughby had a lot of stone from the Priory taken away for use on his Wollaton estate. Wollaton Hall was built between 1580 and 1588 so the stone may well have been used in the foundations of the Hall. We learn from Dr. Thoroton in his History of Nottinghamshire (1677) that there had been one square steeple left standing, but that this had recently fallen down. He reported that the stone was then used in the construction of a causeway through Lenton. Part of the Priory gatehouse is said to have survived into the early years of the nineteenth century. One small portion of the Priory buildings still stands and now forms the chancel of the present Priory church. Originally this was a hospital chapel for sufferers of St. Anthony's Fire, whom the monks cared for. St. Anthony's Fire was a horrible disease, caused by eating bread made from ergot infested rye. It was erroneously believed to be contagious so sufferers had to be kept isolated and therefore could not worship in the main Priory church - hence the need for their own chapel. Until the demise of the Priory the ordinary folk of Lenton would have used the nave of the Priory church for their own services, but undoubtedly converted the hospital chapel for their own use sometime after 1538.
Photograph of Lenton Priory glass courtesy
of Nuthall Local History Society.
In the early nineteenth century William Stretton bought much of the land on which the Priory had once stood and built himself a house which he called 'Lenton Priory', now part of Nazareth House. Stretton was a keen antiquarian and excavated many of the priory's foundations, uncovering and removing many thousand monastic tiles. (A few of these tiles have since found their way to the Castle Museum) .He is supposed to have made notes of his excavations and drawn up a ground plan of the Priory but these were never found with the rest of papers and so the results of his investigations can never be imparted to a wider public. William Stretton is either the hero or the villain of the piece with regard to the former Priory font, which is now to be found in Holy Trinity church in New Lenton. One story has it that he found it during excavations of the priory site. A second tale is that the font was already resident in the 'new' priory church; Stretton took a fancy to it and persuaded the churchwardens to give it to him in exchange for a new wooden one. After Stretton's death the font was discovered being used as a flowerpot in his garden. The vicar had it brought back and installed in the recently opened Holy Trinity church. The carving on it is among some of the finest seen on any Norman font in the country. It provides us with a hint as to all the other examples of the skills of medieval craftsmen, which were lost with the priory's demise. One other sample of priory handiwork can still be seen, but no longer in Lenton. A small portion of its stained glass is now in one of the windows of Nuthall church. It is presumed that the glass was removed to Nuthall for safekeeping at the time of the Dissolution and has remained there ever since.
More recent excavations have failed to produce any major finds but details of the Priory layout have slowly been uncovered and this will continue to take place in the future. The City Council has a long term policy of acquiring the properties which stand on the Priory site and once they are demolished investigate what lies beneath. The Priory Park, at the corner of Abbey and Gregory Street, is expected to open to the public sometime in the Spring and is part of the Council's efforts to give permanent protection to the site and provide a focus for interpreting the history of the Priory to the general public something this article has also tried to do.
(*)Those who wish to learn more are directed towards The History of the Parish and Priory of Lenton (1884) by John T. Godfrey, The Parish and Priory of Lenton (1930) by Edwin D. Ginever, and various articles in The Transactions of the Thoroton Society to be found in Vol.40 (1936), Vol.56 (1952) and Vol.70 (1966).