Webpage created: September 30, 2021
Webpage updated: October 06, 2021
Part of the old Plympton Priory - or not.
An ecclesiastical college, or Minster, consisting of a dean and four canons, had been founded at Plympton in Anglo Saxon times. It was referred to in a charter of King Edward the Elder (reigned 901 to 925) whereby the King gave 23 hides of land in Wellington, West Buckland and Bishops Lydeard, all in Somerset, to Asser, the Bishop of Sherborne, in exchange for the Minster at Plympton. This charter was used by the Prior of Plympton in 1302 to defend an accusation against him. When King Henry I gave the Honour of Plympton to Richard de Redvers in 1107 it did not include the Priory.
After the Norman Conquest King William is said to have given the churches at Plympton, Braunton and Saint Stephen, Exeter, to William Warelwast, who had been the King's chaplain but was by now the Bishop of Exeter.
But down in Plympton the canons at the Priory had been misbehaving themselves and had taken wives who had distracted them from their work at the Priory. Bishop Warelwast objected to this behaviour and closed the Priory. In its place, in 1121, the Bishop opened an Augustinian Priory on the site, to which he brought canons from the Holy Trinity Priory at Aldgate, in London. It was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The Prior he appointed was called Ralph. In 1124 he confirmed the Priory's freedom from synodals, Paschal custom, and Episcopal exactions. In later life the Bishop became blind and spent his final days at the Priory, where he died on or about September 26th 1137. He was buried in the chapter house there.
It should be mentioned that the Priory was senior Saint Andrew's Church at Sutton, the small fishing village on the shore of Sutton Pool, and it supplied the clergy for the services held there and at Saint Budeaux, that combination becoming the Ancient Parish of Saint Andrew's in due course. The Prior was responsible for appointing the vicars and this caused a great deal of consternation as Plymouth grew in importance.
In fact, the Prior of Plympton held the right to appoint the vicars of the ancient parish churches of Eggbuckland, Plympton Saint Mary, Plympton Saint Maurice, Plymstock, Saint Budeaux, and Tamerton Foliot as well as the country parishes of Brixton, Meavy, Sampford Spiney, Shaugh Prior, Ugborough, Wembury as Maker, which was within the county of Devon at that time. The Valletort's had also granted to the Priory the rights for the estates of Ham, Kinterbury and Cremyll.
So important was the Priory that it fell to the Prior to entertain Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, when he landed at Plymouth in 1348. Plymouth was still a century away from being constituted a borough.
Plympton Priory became very rich - the richest monastic house in Devon, it was said, one report giving its value as £898 0 shillings and 1/8th of a penny. Certainly at the time it was dissolved it had 21 canons and was earning £912 per year.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in sight, the last Prior, John Howe, surrendered to the King's supremacy in 1134. Plympton Priory was closed down in 1139 and its demesne was granted to Mr Arthur Champernowne. He subsequently sold it to the Strode family.
One story, related by the Deputy Mayor of Plymouth, Mr Isaac Foot, at the re-opening of Plympton Grammar School in 1921, was how Plymouth overcame the problem of having to pay Plympton a pension of £120 a year. Apparently, the new Borough 'squared a royal officer with a tun of wine costing £5 6s 8d to speak to the King that he should abolish the pension'. This piece of municipal corruption was successful.
At the end of the nineteenth century the Early English refectory and the Norman under croft plus a fifteenth century kitchen were still in situ within the house and grounds of Lower Priory, which belonged to a Mr Evans.
Referring to the photograph heading this article, this building is now known as the "Tower House", 12 Old Priory, but is not as old as it looks. The building is not shown on the Ordnance Survey large-scale maps of Plympton in the 1860s but does appear on later editions. According to the Devon volume of Pevsner's "Buildings of England", it incorporates remains of a 12th century doorway from the Priory and part of the ground-floor walls are also of that period. Otherwise it is of mid-19th century date. Noye the attic gable and brick chimney stack on the left. The roof is of dry slate. The attic gable lancet is probably from the 13th century while the moulded doorway at ground level is 12th century. "Tower House" is a grade II Listed Building.