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Notes on St Botolph's Priory

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History of an Augustinian Priory

Tucked away behind the shop-fronts of one of Colchester's busiest streets lies the town's best-kept secret - the great 12th-century priory church of St Botolph's. To those fortunate enough to discover it, the site offers both a tranquil refuge from the bustle of the town centre and an impressive reminder of an age less secular than our own.

The priory occupies an important place in the history of the medieval church, for it was the first Augustinian house to be founded in this country and as such was granted authority over all later Augustinian establishments, which numbered over 200 priories, abbeys and hospitals at the height of the order's influence. Although dedicated to the communal life of their priory or abbey, the discipline of the Augustinian canons tended to be less austere than other major orders and some had parochial responsibilities, spending much of their time among their local community. St Botolph was an early saint who was especially popular in the south of the country. Over forty churches were dedicated to St Botolph, especially those just outside town gates like Colchester's. He was the son of a Saxon nobleman and became a missionary to England in the 7th century.

St Botolph's stands just outside the south gate of the town in an area which may formerly have been part of a Roman cemetery. Its position is a tantalising one. Could the site contain the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church or even the remains of some kind of Roman predecessor such as a church? The location of the priory and the possibility of an early dedication to St Botolph's has prompted the suggestion that the building stands on the site of a Roman church or 'martyrium' which was a building, tomb or simply a specific spot associated with a saint or Christian martyr.

The foundation of the priory

At the beginning of the 12th century there was at Colchester a community of priests led by a presbyter called Ainulph. They probably served a parish church on or near the site later used for the priory. They decided to embrace a full religious life but were uncertain how to organise themselves. One of their members, Norman, suggested the rule of St Augustine of Hippo, and he and his brother Bernard were chosen to go abroad to study the rule then return to teach it to their fellows.

Norman and Bernard visited the Augustinian houses of Beauvais and Chartres, and on their return sometime between 1100 and 1104 the priory of St Julian and St Botolph was founded. Initially, the priory consisted of thirteen priests. In 1107 or 1108 Norman left Colchester to become prior of Queen Matilda's new house of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, and with this sign of royal patronage, the Augustinian order began to flourish.

St-Botolphs-Priory
St Botolphs Priory

Work raising funds for the new priory church and buildings may have started not long after Norman and Bernard returned to Colchester. The priory was not wealthy, so it took years to complete the church, let alone the other priory buildings. A surviving document notes under the year 1177 that the 'church of St Botolph's was dedicated'. This gives a date for the completion of the church, and one which agrees with architectural details of the west front.

The priory church was built by the same technique used for Colchester's other grand Norman building, the castle. Reused building materials robbed from the Roman town were mostly used, but for the places where decorative carving was needed, such as around doors and windows, good quality stone was brought from Caen in Normandy or Barnack in Northamptonshire. The exterior of the church was rendered with a layer of lime mortar, which gave the impression that better quality materials had been used. Only a few small patches of mortar remain, lodged in some of the deeper recesses of the west front. The rendering was probably brightened up with painted designs.

Augustinian canons

Houses of Augustinian canons were communities of priests following a monastic life, but serving non-monastic (private or parish) churches. They tried by their example to encourage outsiders to attempt to live in a perfect Christian way, and to offer up in their daily services prayer and praise on behalf of the world in general and their benefactors in particular.

An important difference between monks and canons was that all canons were ordained priests and so could conduct a Mass (communion service), while monks were not necessarily also priests.

With only a few exceptions Augustinian houses were small. Thirteen, a prior and twelve canons, was considered the normal minimum, but many houses had fewer. Latton Priory, near Harlow, in Essex was founded for only three canons, and there were only eight at Holy Trinity in Ipswich in 1194.

The canons wore a long cassock lined with sheepskin, over which was a long linen rochet (similar to a surplice) with wide sleeves. Similar style clothes are still worn by parish priests today. They also had an 'amice', a short cape, to go over the shoulders, which could be worn with or without a cloak. A dark-coloured cloak was the most important feature of the canons' dress, for it earned them their nickname of Black Canons . Each canon would have had two, one with a hood for outdoor wear, and one without for use in church. Monks always wore wool, and the use of linen by the canons was an important, sometimes controversial, difference between the two groups. The monks considered linen to be far too comfortable.

St Botolphs Priory
Reconstructing the Priory

The rule of St Augustine

The Augustinian rule was not a detailed series of regulations like those followed by Benedictine monks, but a short document giving useful spiritual advice about obedience, property-holding, and the hours to be spent in prayer. Nonetheless, this advice became a secure working base for many communities of priests.

A canon of Cambridge wrote of St Augustine: 'Like a kind master, he did not drive his disciples with a rod of iron, but invited those who love the beauty of holiness to the door of salvation under a moderate rule'.

Moderation in all things lay at the heart of the Augustinian order, so the canons dressed more comfortably than monks, held shorter services, fasted and kept silent less, and did not abstain from eating the flesh of animals. Each house worked out its own pattern of life and worship, which had to be approved by the local bishop. Two houses were exempt from this approval, Waltham Abbey, which was under royal patronage, and St Botolph's, where the rule was first practised.

There was little real difference, beyond the principle of moderation, between the life of an Augustinian canon and that of a Benedictine monk, for many houses of canons modelled their daily routine on that of a monastery. They rose early, and retired early. In summer they might be up by 1.30 am, and in bed at 8.15 pm. This made for a very long day, so an afternoon siesta was customary, and clearly not a luxury but an essential. The midday meal may have been the only one of the day, though a second one at about 5 p.m. was more usual in winter. On fast days, only a single meal was taken late in the day.

The main offices (services), composed mainly of psalms and short prayers, were Nocturns, Mattins, Prime (sung at dawn), Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and finally Compline. There would also have been a Mass, usually said in the early part of the day. Music played an extremely important part in these services.

Study was also part of daily life. In the 12th century the Augustinian order attracted many learned men. Scholars must have books, and some canons built up libraries by copying manuscripts themselves. Several important early books have survived from the library of Waltham Abbey. Copying involved many tasks other than simply writing out the text, such as preparing parchment, ruling lines, drawing and colouring illustrations, and binding the finished manuscript.

Less scholarly jobs also had to be got through, and were appointed to the canons according to their talents. A canon of Bridlington in Yorkshire, writing in the mid-12th century, suggested the following as suitable tasks: making new clothes and repairing old ones; making wooden spoons, candle- sticks, baskets, nets, beehives and mats; digging and manuring the garden; sowing and planting vegetables and herbs; trimming, pruning and grafting fruit trees; ploughing, sowing, and reaping corn; mowing hay and making haystacks.

Apart from the church, no trace survives above ground of the priory buildings, but early religious houses were built to a common plan, and so we can be sure that the main complex lay to the south of the ruins, largely beneath the present parish church. It may have been built, like the priory church, of reused Roman building materials.

Next to the south wall of the church would have been the cloister, consisting of an open plot, the garth, surrounded by four broad roofed alleys. The north cloister alley would have faced south and received the most sunlight, so it may have been used as a place of study where the canons could work at small desks set close to the garth.

The eastern alley probably led to the chapter house, where daily meetings of the canons were held to discuss both spiritual and business matters, and to a common-room, or parlour, used for relaxation. The upper part of the eastern range would have been used as the dormitory, or dorter, where the canons slept. Dorters were long rooms, running north-south, often divided into small individual cubicles to give some privacy. Also at first-floor level and near the dorter would have been the lavatories, or reredorter. At ground-floor level beneath the reredorter would have been a large drain to carry away the waste water.

An infirmary may have been part of the main eastern block, or may have been a separate building with its own kitchen. Its principal use was for the sick, but elderly canons may also have lived here when they became too old to play an active role in priory life.

Parallel to the church would have been the dining-room, or refectory. It was probably a large rectangular room at first floor level, running east-west, with tall windows in the south wall to catch the sun. So that the canons could wash as they came in for meals, a washroom or laver was often set close to the refectory door, and not far from the dorter. Sometimes the refectory was built over a cellar, a gloomy ground-floor room with only a few narrow windows to keep the temperature cool inside, which was used as a storehouse. The kitchen would not have been far away from the refectory, and there may have been other associated buildings close by, such as a bake-house, or a brew-house.

Later history

In spite of its privileged status, St Botolph's never became a particularly powerful or wealthy house. By the time of the Dissolution there were only seven canons in residence and the priory, with its annual revenue of £134, found itself among the poorer establishments which became the first victims of Tudor suppression in 1534.

In the years that followed the Dissolution, the nave of the priory church was preserved and remained in use for parish and civic services, but had finally to be abandoned when the Royalist town was attacked by General Fairfax during the 1648 Siege of Colchester. During the siege the church was largely destroyed by cannon fire and has never been repaired. The nave was used for burials during the 18th and 19th centuries from which some monuments remain. Beyond the nave, the entire eastern part of the church along with the cloister and all the priory outbuildings have disappeared with practically no record. Most of the priory's grounds, which once extended over many acres, have been built over, the final indignity being the construction of a large engineering works which by the 1940s covered the site of the east end of the church and much of the adjacent grounds.

Source: 'The Colchester Archaeologist', 5 (1992)