REWIND: A brief history of Kenilworth's Augustinian Abbey

By James Smith

3rd Sep 2023 | Local Features

An artist's representation of Kenilworth's priory in 1200 (Image vis HSMP)
An artist's representation of Kenilworth's priory in 1200 (Image vis HSMP)

First published in May 2021 - we have republished our brief history of the Augustinian Abbey in Abbey Fields.

The ruins of the Augustinian Abbey in Abbey Fields stand as a permanent reminder of the town's illustrious history.

Whilst the abbey attracts nowhere near as much attention as Kenilworth Castle, its history is nonetheless an important part of the local narrative.

It is a history that emphasises the importance the town once held within England. Following on from our introductory piece about the Harry Sunley Memorial Project we have revisited the history of the abbey in this month's 'Rewind' piece.

Foundations

The land that now makes up much of Abbey Fields was taken into the possession of the church in 1119 when Geoffrey de Clinton founded the Augustinian Priory in Kenilworth.

The priory was dedicated to St Mary, and was part of the Borough of Kenilworth that de Clinton was forming.

De Clinton himself was the treasurer of Henry I. Later made Sheriff of Warwickshire, he started the construction of Kenilworth Castle to rival both the castle in Warwick as well as the Earl of Warwick Roger de Beaumont, whom the king did not trust.

The priory in Kenilworth was founded under the Augustinian Order; following the Rules of St Augustine and preaching the importance of apostolic living.

The original building was two stories, with an inner court that contained the monastery.

The remains of the Tanatra Gatehouse in Abbey Fields (image by James Smith)

Rebuilding

Throughout the medieval period the priory in Kenilworth saw expansion in both size and importance.

In 1266 Henry III's forces besieged Kenilworth Castle, and the prior was expected to provide for the royal army. Given that this was the longest siege in English history, it is unsurprising that the priory was reportedly left impoverished after the king's army left Warwickshire.

Much rebuilding work was done in the time of Prior Henry Bradway during the 1360's. A new gatehouse was added and the church was extended to become twice as long as the neighbouring parish church.

Gardens and a series of pools were also developed within the priory's grounds.

This was around the same time John of Gaunt was investing heavily in developing the castle which he put Prior Charleton in charge of, as John was fighting in France at the time.

John is also said to have erected a dance floor at the priory in time for Christmas 1379.

Following the 1415 French campaign, Henry V's army also stopped at the priory to worship and recount tales of Agincourt to the canons.

Gradually the priory became one of the richest landowners in Warwickshire; in 1447 Pope Nicholas V recognised its importance, elevating the priory's status to that of an abbey.

In fact, the Valor Ecclesiasticus (census of English monasteries in 1535) found that the abbey had an annual value of £538, 19s, 4d. Considering that the castle was valued at around £10,000 some thirty years later, this sum is striking.

The barn in Abbey Fields (Image via HSMP)

Destruction to now

As with the vast majority of monastic buildings in England, the end of the 1530's saw the dissolution of the abbey in Kenilworth.

In 1538 the last abbot, Simon Jeykes, surrendered the Abbey to Henry VIII following the first Act of Dissolution.

The abbot, prior and 14 canons were all forced to leave.

The abbey was immediately stripped of all assets, including the lead from the roof. It is said that the woodwork and the library books were burned to heat the furnaces that the lead was melted in.

The dissolution also saw the destruction of the upper storey, and the surrounding buildings.

Some of the sandstone was sold and incorporated into other projects in Kenilworth, including developments of Kenilworth Castle in the 1560's. The west door of St Nicholas' Parish Church was rebuilt using sculptured stone from the abbey.

An artist's impression of the gatehouse before the dissolution (Image vis HSMP)

The rest of the abbey continued to deteriorate, with the pools disappearing and the land turning to pasture, as the crown took ownership of the lands during the reign of James I.

The castle and the surrounding lands were then granted by Charles I to Lawrence Hyde, Earl of Rochester in the 1660's. Hyde's decedents owned the abbey until the end of the 19th century as Kenilworth Urban District Council began slowly purchasing the Abbey Fields from the various different owners.

During the First World War the gatehouse was used for drying herbs for the nearby wartime hospital.

Excavations have taken place on a number of occasions over the past century and a half, with underground foundations being discovered in 1989.

However, to date only the Tanatra Gatehouse and the barn remain in any sort of usable condition.

Follow this link to learn more about the Harry Sunley Memorial Project and the attempts to restore the gatehouse to allow visitors in.

     

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