St Nicholas’s Priory

In the time of Henry II (1154-1189) the Manor became the possession of William-de-Say who founded a priory of Black Canons in 1174 at a place called Barlynch two miles south west of the church near the river Exe. It was known as St Nicholas’s Priory and was established for the Augustinians (also known as the Austin Canons or Black Canons). Their habit consisted of a hooded black cloak over the top of a black cassock. The Priory never had more than nine canons but, apart from one in Dunster, it was the only religious house in West Somerset.

The Augustinians came to England and established themselves in St Botolph’s Priory at Colchester in 1106. They spread rapidly, reaching Scotland by 1120, and at their height had over 200 houses in England and Wales. Each of the houses was governed by a prelate, usually a prior, but sometimes an abbot. The monastic "rule" followed by the Augustinians was not particularly austere. Each of the Austin Canons was a priest and, as such, was not bound to his house but was free to have outside responsibilities, such as to a parish. The Black Canons also ran schools, hospitals and almshouses.

William-de-Say and his daughter, Matilda, endowed the Priory with the Manor and church of Brompton Regis and this endowment, with various others by different benefactors, was ratified in 1220 by Henry III. The original grant may not exist but it was confirmed in 1340 by a charter of Edward III in the words “By gift of the same Matilda the Church of Bruneton or Brunetone with all its appurtenances and the tithes of her expenditure in Bread and in the Kitchen and in the Tithes of all the Skins of wild animals” (Dugdales Monastican Anglicanum Vol II p249).

In 1226 Barlynch Priory benefited under the will of the Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1268, Robert the Prior and his brother Canons agreed to pay the Dean and Chapter of Wells 100 shillings a year towards the stipend of a Chaplain to pray for one of the canons, Huh de Rumenal. In 1291, the Prior is recorded as owning lands and rents in Morebath and Marmelegh in Devon, and receiving a pension of 40 shillings a year out of the Vicarage of Brompton Regis and 10 shillings rent from the parishes of Winsford and Stogumber.

The date of the first-known vicar, William de Hawkedon, was 1270 when the endowment of the vicarage was first recorded. This was confirmed in February 1343.

The Priory was affiliated to Cleeve Abbey but was dissolved in 1537 by Henry VIII when only the Prior and six canons were in residence. Its very last record was in 1535 when it drew £8 13s 4d from Brompton Regis by way of tithes. When it was dissolved the Priory was ransacked and the silver went missing. It is rumoured that it is buried somewhere along the route from the Priory, via Louisa Gate and Hartford, to St James Church Upton where the monks attended service. All that now remains of St James Church is its tower.

After passing out of the hands of the Prior of Barlynch, patronage of the parish was eventually give to Emmanuel College Cambridge in the late 16th Century. They still share patronage with the Bishop of Bath and Wells and Keble College, Oxford.

Barlynch Farmhouse

All that is left of the Priory are some sections of a wall and a window which are incorporated in Barlynch Farmhouse.

According to a report delivered by a Colonel Bramble at the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological & Natural History Society in 1900, ‘the lofty wall running back in the rear of the cottage towards the river appeared to be the south wall of the church, and the thick fence-wall north of it, occupied probably the position of the original north wall of the church. Several of the apertures of windows of the south wall remained; at a considerable height, so as not to interfere with the pent-house alley of the cloister, the remains of which could be distinctly traced in the lower part of the wall, one of the corbels supporting the roof timbers being still in situ. Two large blocks of masonry, running from north to south, parallel with the roof and in line with the cottage, probably represented the east side of the cloister, in which would have been situated the Chapter House and Day-room with the dormitory over. The two sides of the main cloister had disappeared. That on the south side would have contained the refectory, and the one on the west side the workshops and lay-brothers’ quarters. If that reading was correct, the extensive block of buildings between the farm house and river could not have formed any part of the main cloistral buildings, but they must have been part of the lesser or inferior cloister or other adjuncts of the main building. In the gable of the building attached to the farm, there was about the only architectural feature remaining; a small piece of the tracery from one of the windows inserted in the modern wall. It is pierced with two small quatrefoils”

According to a survey carried out in 1985 by English Heritage, the remains of the Priory is described as “random rubble local stone much overgrown with ivy and obscured by vegetation. Walls rising to a maximum of about 5m, with roughly two adjoining L-plan shapes with evidence of buttress and jambs of window opening on south front, in all about 30m in length”. The walls are a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The second bell at the Priory, inscribed ‘Protege Virgo pia quos Santa Maria’ (Holy Virgin St Mary, protect those whom I summon) is in Dulverton Church.

We have one other possible remnant from the Priory. Expert opinion via the National Park is that it is likely to have been a stoup. A stoup held holy water into which monks and worshippers would dip their hands to cross themselves. The decorated front portion shows that it projected from a wall (click on the photo), with the un-worked portion embedded in the wall, and contained in a niche, so open above. The decoration looks medieval, and is probably later medieval (i.e. not 12th century/Norman). The blind-tracery trefoil arrangement of the ornament on the front face suggests this, although the scalloped corners are reminiscent of some later C12th/C13th capitals, e.g. water-leaf. It is probably later C13th-14th on available evidence, but this is very insecure.

The other possibility is that it came from one of the local churches.

For a more detailed history of the Priory of Barlynch, please click on this link to the British History Online website