Priory ruins

Friends of Launceston Priory

At Newport, Launceston, Cornwall












Friends of Launceston Priory



Launceston Priory by Terry Faull

Have you walked around Newport recently? Beyond the ancient packhorse bridge and behind St Thomas’s church, is the site of Launceston Priory which was one of the most important Christian sites in Cornwall.  A   programme of restoration and enhancement supported by the Town Council and English Heritage, has recently been completed and  this has done much to ensure that the Priory ruins are a pleasant place to visit for quiet contemplation  and to be reminded of the fascinating history of this long neglected place.

In Saxon times, and perhaps long before then, there was a priory and market on the hill at St Stephens. However soon after the Normans invaded Cornwall in 1067, they moved the market to the castle at Dunheved probably so that the market dues could be collected by the new overlords. The canons at St Stephen’s suffered further in 1140 when the tower of their church was destroyed during a dispute between two Norman factions and, perhaps, to make amends for this, in 1155a new priory was built for them close to the ford over the river Kensey.

For the next 400 years, the Priory flourished. It accrued land and property locally and in other parts of Cornwall and also in Devon. The prior even had the right to a gallows –hence Gallows Hill. Like many great landowners, the Priory was often in arguments about its rights over its more than 250 holdings. Amongst the many legal disputes we know about are those involving the church at Liskeard, the mayor of Launceston, the parishioners at St Gennys and tenants at North Tamerton.

Despite the wrangling, the Augustinian canons at St Thomas Priory were primarily concerned with the life of the spirit, with healing the sick and of prayer. The priory itself developed into a magnificent building more than 230 feet long and with a chapel, dormitory, infirmary, kitchens and many other facilities associated with it. I was undoubtedly one of the finest large stone structures in Cornwall.

All this all came to an end with Henry the Eight’s dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of most of the great centres of church monastic influence. John Sheyr, the last prior of St Thomas’s together with the eleven other canons, accepted the royal supremacy and on 24 the February 1539 the priory was dissolved.

The buildings were abandoned and over the next few years, much of stonework and timber were taken away and were probably used to build properties in the town- the doorway arch of the White Hart may well have come from the priory. The destruction was so complete that the site became overgrown and then largely forgotten. It was only in 1886 when the North Cornwall Railway cut through the site, that some remains were discovered but then in 1888 more destruction took place when a new gasholder was built on the site.

And so it remained until recently when the Project to preserve and restore what remained of the once great priory was carried out just in time to save a small part of this important corner of Launceston’s history. It is planned to provide information boards at the ruins and to open the site for visitors.  A group- The Friends of Launceston Priory- has been set up to encourage interest in the history of Launceston Priory and hopefully to gather together information, documents, pictures and memories for a permanent exhibition. As part of this, the  Friends are holding an Open Day at St Thomas church on Friday 3 July 2009  between 4pm -8pm when it is hoped as many people as possible will come along to learn more about this long forgotten centre of Cornish history and spiritual life.