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Dover Priory

The originals of the Priory and Dover College

Dover Priory was a renowned feature of the town during the Anglo-Saxon and Norman era. Since the 1860s, The Priory has been incorporated into Dover College, a private co-educational school.

Only a few buildings of the original Priory survive to indicate the original nature and extent of Dover Prior. It was known as the Priory of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Martin of the New Work, or Newark. The Priory's grounds and buildings once covered the area between the present Priory Hill, Priory Road, St. Martin's Hill and Dover Priory Station. Several present-day roads, including Effingham Crescent, Effingham Road, Norman Street and Saxon Street, have since been driven through parts of the Priory's site.

Anglo-Saxon and Norman Foundations

Work began on building the Priory in 1131 and thus the Priory is technically a Norman foundation. The Priory's antecedents, however, might be said to have been Anglo-Saxon. Its previous history is also involved with an earlier church dedicated to St. Martin, the remains of which can now be seen on the western side of Market Square.

Confusingly, this earlier St. Martin's church survived as a parish church there even after the new Priory of St. Martin's, with its own very large church, was built slightly further out of the town in the twelfth century.

The origins of Dover Priory might be said to lie in the early seventh century when a community of secular canons was set up in Dover Castle by King Eadbald of Kent (616-640). Towards the end of the seventh century, King Wihtred of Kent fulfilled a vow to St. Martin by building a church dedicated to him in part of the area of Dover now occupied by Market Square. King Eadbald transferred the 22 secular canons there from the Castle and they took their rights and privileges with them. Their living depended on grants of land and tithes that they held in common. They were also endowed with half of some of the dues levied at the port. The secular canons recognised the authority only of the King, and later the Pope, and were exempt from the control of all bishops.

Wihtred's Saxon church of St. Martin must have been small, but after the Norman Conquest it was rebuilt on a grander scale. It was probably rebuilt on or near the same site by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, into whose hands it had fallen. The Church was thereafter known as St. Martin's Le Grand. Its churchyard covered a good deal of the area of the present market place and it was actually built above the much earlier foundations of Roman baths.

The secular canons of St. Martin's seem to have become vulnerable to criticism by the early twelfth century. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Corbeil, wanted to extend his influence to Dover, in 1130. Corbeil used the behaviour of the Dover canons as a pretext in order to persuade Henry I to give him a charter that allowed him to build a Priory in Dover that would take over the assets of the existing church of St. Martin, while leaving it to be used as a parish church by the people of the town.

Corbeil secured a site and began building there in 1131 on land that probably belonged to the former canons of St. Martin's le Grand. The buildings were partially occupied by 1136 and 12 canons regular were installed there. The Priory was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Martin and was called "St. Martin's of the New Work" or "Newark" in order to distinguish it from the old St. Martin's church. Old St. Martin's was still the principal parish church of the town, but was now ecclesiastically under the control of the new St. Martin's.

Much controversy ensued between the monks of Christ Church Canterbury and the canons of Dover Priory. Archbishop Theobald completed the buildings in about 1140; in 1143 Theobold established that thereafter the Priory church of St. Martin, Dover, would follow the Benedictine Rule and remain in possession of the Cathedral church at Canterbury. The Priory would be a mere "cell" at the disposition of the Archbishop. Theobold also granted the Priory a confirmation of their right to all that had belonged to the old church of St. Martin. Controversy over the Priory continued between Dover and Canterbury for two centuries.

The history of Dover Priory remained eventful: King Stephen was said to have died at Dover Priory in 1154. The Priory was much damaged by fire in 1201, but was repaired and expanded in 1231. 

The Priory was pillaged by the French in a raid in August 1295 during which a monk called Thomas de la Hale was murdered. In the 1480s, many repairs and improvements were made to rectify former damage.


Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 caused the Priory to be suppressed and its monks dispersed. Dover Priory's reputedly impressive library simply vanishes from the records from that date onwards. The inventory made of the Priory's goods just before the suppression suggest that the monks were living in straightened circumstances by then, but that some provision was still made for the entertainment of visitors to the town.

After the Monastery's suppression, some leading townsmen plundered the buildings for stone, lead and other building materials. Within a few years only a few buildings remained standing. By 1565 some fishermen, speaking in court, said that they had in the past taken their tithes of fish to the Priory "whiles it stood."(Canterbury Cathedral Library X.10.12)

Perhaps the greatest architectural loss to the town was the Priory church itself, which seems to have been a very large abbey church, once described in a sixteenth century letter to Cromwell as "the fairest church in all that quarter of Kent." Historian Haines believes the Priory Church was probably three times as long as St. Mary's church in Dover and nearly eight times the size of the refectory, which still stands. Haines believes there is much to suggest that the Church's general plan might have been compared with those of Repton Priory or of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire. The whole edifice probably covered about 25,000 square feet. Its tower would have stood almost at the present junction of Effingham and Saxon Streets. Its cloisters would have been about 110 feet square and its chapter house would have been joined to the north wall of the transept. (C.R. Haines Dover Priory: A history of the priory of St.Mary the Virgin and St. Martin of the New Work (Cambridge 1910)

The lands belonging to the Priory were granted first to an apparently unscrupulous cleric called Richard Thornden or Thornton. They were later passed on to Archbishop Cranmer who, in December 1538, leased them out to Henry Bingham of Wingham, gentleman, on a 999 year lease. Bingham, in turn, leased the Priory lands out to other men, just as the Archbishop had always done with some of them. It seems likely that some active, entrepreneurial men who were later very influential in the town came to Dover at that time explicitly to exploit the lands and tithes released by religious houses at the suppression.

The Move to Agriculture

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, certain Priory buildings were adapted to agricultural use and left standing: two barns, the gate-house, the refectory and a large hall. 

 The town records show that one of these buildings, known as the "Priory Barn" was frequently used as a refuge by the transient poor, or vagrants, particularly in the 1590s and 1620s when harvests were bad, sickness rife, and work in short supply. Due to the demands of the new poor law, such homeless wanderers were rounded up there periodically by the mayor and his officers to be questioned and then sent out of the town in most cases. It seems likely that a memory remained of a time when the Priory, like other religious houses, had been a place of refuge and hospitality.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century illustrations of the Priory Farm suggest that its decaying Norman buildings and its two ponds were perceived as a picturesque ruin, a pleasant spot on the edge of the town. In August 1839 when the Duke of Wellington became Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports a grand fete was held in the Priory meadow.

During the first part of the nineteenth century the Priory site was owned by a farmer called John Coleman, but in 1840 the south-eastern parts of the enclosed site came into the hands of builders when it was let on a building lease to Parker Ayres. Fortunately, between 1845-47 a local cleric, Dr. F.C.Plumptre, noted all he could about the foundations of the original buildings.

According to historian Haines, Plumptre's reconstruction suggests that the builders probably created Effingham Street along the site of the monks' former dormitory, the chapter house and the transepts of the church. Effingham Crescent, meanwhile, was created along what might have been the rere-dorter. Saxon Street and the houses and gardens of of the north side of St. Martin's Hill are situated on what was probably once the nave of the church.

Soon after this, Steriker Finnis, a Dover timber merchant, leased or bought the western portion of the Priory site. He gave up this lease in 1868, when the ponds were drained and his portion of the grounds became Priory Gate Road and part of the yard of Dover Priory Station. During the first half of the nineteenth century the two barns were also demolished, one in the north-west corner of the grounds some time after 1850, and one in the south-west corner in 1868.

Dover College

In 1869 Robert Chignell, who had a private school at Westmount leased part of the Priory buildings for a new private school. He passed on his interest, however, to a group of leading citizens in Dover who had formed the Dover College Company to promote the foundation of a public school on what remained of the Priory site with the dual intention of providing a public school education for local boys and of using and thus preserving the Priory's remaining ancient buildings.

Dover College opened modestly in 1871. It acquired the large hall, or guest-house, in 1879 and converted it into a chapel for the school by enlarging the east end into an apse. In time, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners made over the whole property to the College Trustees. The refectory was restored and an important but damaged fresco was found there. The gatehouse was restored in 1881 to mark a charitable act by Sir Richard Dickenson, the then mayor of Dover. Part of the Gatehouse is currently used as the school's library.




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