Nottingham Hidden History Team

Lenton Priory


by Frank E Earp

Britain has some rather spectacular historical sites. Not least of these are the ruins of the once proud monastic sites, like Fountaindale and Whitby in Yorkshire. When you look at the illustrations in the guide books you realise how truly magnificent these buildings once were, particularly the cathedral size churches. What a legacy we would have today if they had survived intact. It’s not the ravages of time that brought these buildings to ruin, but the ambitions of one man, King Henry VIII and his ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1540). Nottinghamshire once had its fair share monasteries. However, the county does not have any of the majestic ruins of Yorkshire. At the Dissolution, many of the sites in Nottinghamshire 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 as we shell see, 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 beginnings 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, (he is said to have been king’s own son). Some time at the beginning of the 12th 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 1 ½ 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 bellow 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 todays terms. In 1164 the Priory was granted a charter to hold an 11 day ‘Martinmas Fair’ (11th Nov), which, for 70 years was extended to 12 days. Rules of the charter stated that for the period of the fair, no other market could be held in Nottingham.

Reconstruction drawing of Lenton Priory (R H Elliott and A E Berbank, Lenton Priory: Excavations, 1943-1951, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 56, 1952).

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 hung 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, (this was road into Market Square). After the Dissolution, the Priory buildings seem to have simplyvanished. Proximity to the city had sealed their fate. They were treated as a quarry, a convenient source of stone. The fair continued until the early 20th century. In 1801 the city began to expand and the remaining foundations disappeared under streets and houses.

So, where was Lenton Priory? Basically it was to the south of the Q.M.C. From Dunkirk island, take Abbey St. towards Nottingham. Past the old Fire Station you would be entering the Priory precinct. The southern wall of the church would have ran the entire length of Priory St., from Abbey St. to Old Church St. All of the buildings on the north side of Priory St. would have been contained within the body of the church, which was as large as Southwell Minster. All that is visible today is part of the north wall in Boot Yard and on a patch of grass at the end of Priory St. , the stump of a pillar from the east end of the church.

The only remains of the Priory today is this stump of a pillar from the east end of the church