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Monday 8 April 2013

Woodspring Priory and Tithe Barn. A medieval monastery converted into a Tudor house in North Somerset

Whilst delivering a super-kingsize bed recently (see the previous post!), I had the chance to visit Woodspring Priory. The original monastery on the site was founded in 1210 and housed monks belonging to the Victorine order of the Augustinian Canons. The land would originally have been on an island by the Severn Estuary (although I'm guessing that the ground inland would have been partially if not completely drained by the 13th century). The area is now a National Trust reserve called Middle Hope and is near Weston-super-Mare.

The founding patron of the Woodspring (or Worspring as it was then known) Priory was William de Courtenay. He was a grandson of Reginald FitzUrse, one of the murderers of Thomas à Becket. 

The founding of Woodspring Priory was probably a gesture of penance, especially as de Courtenay is thought by some to have brought his grandfather's remains to the monastery and reinterred them, possibly near the remains of some of the other murderers such as William de Tracey. 
There are regular archeological investigations in the surrounding fields as the grave has still not been found, although other stories claim that FitzUrse was buried in Jerusalem or in Ireland (after founding the MacMahon clan).

Woodspring was converted into a farmhouse in 1536, when king Henry VIII started to break up the monasteries in England during the Dissolution. The house was actually built into the old church. The large monastery windows were filled in with stone walls and smaller mullioned windows as part of this, to reduce their size. 

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith says that some of the misericords (carved wooden rests that folded away, for clergy to lean against during long services) that were originally in the Priory are thought to now be in the nearby church at Worle. They are beautifully carved and one shows a shield bearing the initials PRS, which probably stands for Prior Richard Sprynge who was prior of both Woodspring and Worle in 1443.

You can read more about the history of Woodspring by following this link:

It is interesting to walk around and see architectural features that have been removed or altered during that time, but it's also important to note that the buildings are on private land. The Priory is now owned by the Landmark Trust who hire it out as a place to stay, so their permission is needed to go into the grounds. There is a small museum onsite that the public can visit, but it has very irregular opening times. 
The 15th century Tithe barn is owned by the National Trust but is a working barn, used by the local farmer to store hay and machinery, Potential visitors should bear this in mind. Luckily, friends of mine live next door to the site and know the caretakers and the farmer, so we visited with them.

A carved figure holds a heraldic shield by a doorway into the garden
Corbels and Gargoyles run along a garden wall
The remains of a circular staircase can still be seen in the wall of the Infirmary

There are some interesting decorative woodcarvings inside the Priory, although I don't know if they were originally part of the Tudor house or not:

 The Tithe Barn

Next door to the Priory is the Tithe Barn, which has some beautiful timber work in it's roof, as does the Infirmary (which unfortunately I don't have photos of). It was built during the fifteenth century, when the monastery was at it's busiest.

Tithes were contributions to the church, usually a tenth of whatever the contributor had. This was often paid in a form that wasn't money, such as agricultural produce, so needed a big barn to hold it. My friends got married in the barn, hence the bales covered in red cloths, but it is still a working barn and usually holds hay and tractors.

If you would like to stay in or by Woodspring Priory and explore it further, my friends rent out a shepherd's hut next door. You can find out more by visiting their website:
The Landmark trust's website can be seen here:


  1. Very interesting. Apparently it was suggested in WW2 that the Pope might take refuge in England, and Woodspring was suggested as his residence - in which case it would have been a sort of Vatican on the Wold.

  2. I must admit to liking the thought that the Pope might have taken refuge in a building that was taken from the Catholic church so deliberately by order of Henry VIII. Perhaps the person who first suggested it had a wickedly ironic sense of humour?

  3. Hi, thanks for your interesting story and information. I believe that the misericords you refer to are at St Martin's church in Worle, in the choir stalls. I'm one of the team vicars in Worle and have been told this several times. In fact I've sat in the seats many times, they're beautifully carved.

    1. Thank you very much for taking time to pass on this information. Amazingly, I have still to visit these carvings! Looking forward to seeing them before too long - they have been on the radar for a while, I just need the time...