Street Tales: Lenton Priory

Words: Joe Earp
Illustrations: Eva Brudenell
Friday 03 November 2017
reading time: min, words

What's that coming over the hill... is it a Monastery?


Despite Notts not claiming any of the majestic, monastic ruins of Yorkshire, like Fountaindale and Whitby, we did once have our fair share of monasteries. But, after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, many of the sites passed into private hands, and their buildings were demolished and/or incorporated into grand houses; such places include Newstead Abbey and Rufford Abbey. There was however, a priory that, being close to the city, suffered a different fate.

In the early years of the Norman Conquest (1067), William I ordered the building of a wooden and earth castle on a sandstone promontory high above the River Trent and gave it in to the keeping of William Peverel. This was the beginning of Nottingham Castle. Peverel, with 162 lordships in England, was one of the most powerful Norman knights in the country, and the King’s favourite; it’s been said that he was actually the King’s own son. Some time at the beginning of the twelfth century, Peverel gave money for the founding of a priory of the Cluniac Order, dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

A site was chosen at Lenton, less than one and a half miles from the castle, on the banks of the River Leen. Those walking the wooden ramparts of the castle must have looked in wonder at the stone structure as it began to rise out of the water meadows below them. The castle itself was not rebuilt in stone until 1170, by which time the priory would have been complete. With lands and holdings in both England and France, Lenton Priory became the tenth wealthiest in the country. By 1534, yearly income on land alone was rated at £387 10s 10½d, or £150,000 in today's terms.

We can see why Henry wanted to take over the monasteries. In 1538, under the direct orders of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s commissioners “knocked on the door of the Priory”. Legend has it that the last prior, Nicholas Heath, refused to hand over the keys and was hanged from the gates. This was not the case. Heath, eight of his monks and four labourers were arrested for treason and thrown into prison. Later that year, Heath and several of the others suffered the fate of all traitors: being hung, drawn and quartered. This dreadful punishment may have taken place in front of the priory or in Nottingham’s Market Square.

Certainly, the limbs and various body parts of the executed were displayed above the priory gates. City accounts for 1539 state: “ gave my Lord judges two gallon of wine at the cost of 16d. when the monks suffered their death.” A further 2d was given for the clearing of Cow Lane, the road into Market Square. After the Dissolution, the priory buildings seem to have simply vanished. Proximity to the city had sealed their fate. They were treated as a quarry, a convenient source of stone and in 1801, the city began to expand, with the remaining foundations disappearing under streets and houses.

So, where was Lenton Priory? To the south of the QMC, from Dunkirk island, take Abbey Street towards Nottingham. Past the old fire station, you would be entering the priory precinct. The southern wall of the church would’ve run the entire length of Priory Street, from Abbey Street to Old Church Street. All of the buildings on the north side of Priory Street would have been contained within the body of the church, which was as large as Southwell Minster. All that’s visible today, though, is part of the north wall in Boot Yard and, on a patch of grass at the end of Priory Street, the stump of a pillar from the east end of the church.

For more on Nottingham History check out the Nottingham Hidden History website.

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