Priory ruins

Friends of Launceston Priory

At Newport, Launceston, Cornwall














Launceston Priory Information for

Written by Arthur Wills and Terry Faull

Christianity was brought to  Cornwall by the Celtic Saints in the 6th century when a church was  established on the hill to the north of the River Kensey. This was known   in Cornish as Llan-Stefan (holy place dedicated to St. Stephen ).

The  Anglo-Saxons conquered Cornwall in the 8th century and the site at Llan-Stefan was occupied by a small monastery. The settlement had the  the word “ton” added to mark its  Anglo-Saxon allegiance. (Over the centuries
Llan - Stefanton  has changed into the modern word Launceston).

Following the Norman conquest in 1066, a castle was built  at Dunheved on the other side of the River Kensey and  the canons at St Stephens were replaced by others from the Augustinian order based at Holy Trinity, Aldgate in London and answerable to the Pope in Rome.

In 1135 king Henry 1st  died ( he was William the Conqueror’s son ) and the crown was claimed by Henry's daughter Matilda and also by his nephew, Stephen. During the civil war which followed, the tower of the monastery  at  Llanstefanton was destroyed. The canons were granted permission to rebuild and it was decided to move  down the hill  to a new priory site across the Kensey (to the area  now known as Newport).  On 7th February 1155, the new building was ready for occupation.

Building continued for many years after the move and eventually the priory became one of the largest and greatest buildings in the west country. In some ways the marshy site close to the river was not ideal but the Norman builders overcame the problems by sinking foundations to a depth of 3.35m and with walls 1.07m wide.

Local slate and greenstone, granite from Bodmin Moor and fine white limestone from Beer in S. Devon were all used in building the priory. In addition to living quarters for the prior and canons, the priory had a great tower, a number of chapels, a presbytery and choir aisles, a treasury, vaults and a floor covered in decorated and  coloured tiles. The sketch plan shows how the priory would have looked during its greatest period during the 13-14th centuries:
line drawing 1

Life in the Priory
The prior and canons lived under the Rule of St Augutine  which required obedience to a superior. Life was marked by church services and prayers beginning with Matins and Lauds  at and then throughout the day at a further six times ending with Compline at 7.30pm. They were devoted to the religious life  within their community but, unlike monks,  also went out into the community where they had a strong commitment of caring  for  the sick and poor.

In 1257 the prior founded a hospital for lepers at Gillmartin ( now called St Leonards) where they were cared for in reasonable comfort. The lepers were encouraged to come to the chapel of St Thomas within the priory precincts, to watch the service and on occasion, to receive the sacraments through the leper window at the base of the tower. The lepers of Gillmartin were entitled to a daily dole of bread from the priory.
line drawing 2

Over time, the priory received gifts of land and property and by the 13th century, collected dues from 13 churches across Cornwall and Devon. In addition to  religious duties, the prior and canons had to administer their estates including three corn mills and a tucking mill ( where wool was treated )  and which sometimes was allowed water to drive it only at night. Disputes about land and property were common and required considered judgment  with some cases having to be  sent to the King's court for resolution.

The priory also provided education for poor boys who would be taught basic grammar but most importantly had to learn and understand the Lord's Prayer and  the Creed in Latin. The boys would be entitled to meat and drink at the priory table and clothing in the form of one robe a year. Some of these pupils may have gone on to train as novices under a Novice Master with a view to being admitted to the community later. Girls did not receive this education.

The priory also had responsibility for civil and criminal justice within the Borough of Launceston including the right to to call people for trial and to erect gallows. The clothes and belongings of anyone condemned became the property of the prior.

Life in the priory was hard but there  was  sometimes the opportunity for private study, to work in the garden and to meet together to transact business and perhaps provide advice to the prior about some difficult case.  All things were held in common but according to their Rule, the canons would always have to obey  the prior.

line drawing 3

In 1509 Henry 8th  became King of England and during the first 20 years of his reign he had spent much of the wealth he had inherited from his father. At that time almost 30% of the land and wealth of the country was owned by the church and monasteries; Henry and his chancellor, Thomas Cromwell,  were concerned about the influence of the Pope in Rome over the riches and authority of the English church.  They decided that the power and wealth of the church needed to be controlled; Henry declared himself  Supreme Governor and  Head of the English  Church and then set out on a programme to dissolve the monasteries and other religious houses. First the smaller religious establishments were taken over and then in 1539 an Act was passed which required all the monasteries and priories to “agree” to surrender themselves to the king.

Prior John Sheyr accepted royal supremacy over Launceston Priory and on 24th February 1539 a royal commissioner, John Tregonwell, arrived to dissolve the priory. The prior and the 12 canons were given pensions, the gold and silver plate and other treasures were sent to the king and the site was leased to John Carew of London. Carew stripped the valuable building materials and then seemed to have used the site as a bakehouse, piggery and rubbish dump. The building may also have been further destroyed in  retaliation for the march of the Cornish on London during the Western Rebellion of 1549.

In 1650 the site was leased to Sir Francis Drake. From then it became abandoned, overgrown and eventually forgotten.

It was only on 1886 when the railway line was being laid at Newport, that some walls and masonry remains were found and an excavation of the area was carried out. Soon afterwards the railway and the town gas holder were built leaving only a small area of the priory site uncovered; over the years this has had mixed
fortunes. Most recently in 2008, efforts by Launceston Town Council, who now own the site, and English Heritage have restored the parts which remain and The Friends of Launceston Priory was formed  representing all parts of the local community and with the aim of  promoting interest in the Priory.

Today the remains of walls, carved stones and the burial place of some of the priors can still be seen while under-ground,  much more  of Launceston Priory, once one of the greatest and grandest church buildings of England, wait for the time when an  authorised careful excavation can take place.



Questions …..


what was the original Cornish name for the first church which later  became an Anglo-Saxon  monastery ? 
when did the canons leave the original site and move to a new priory over the River Kensey?   
7th February 1155
Name two places from where stone was brought to build the priory?
Bodmin Moor and Beer in S. Devon

Who received education at the priory ? 
Poor boys
Where was the leper hospital located?  
Gilmartin now known as St Leonard
Who was in charge of the priory ?  
The prior
Which king ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries ? 
Henry 8th
Who was the prior who surrendered the priory to the King's Commissioner ? 
John Sheyr

What led to the priory ruins being re-discovered ?
Railway  and a gas holder being built at Newport
Who now owns the priory site ? 
Launceston Town Counc