Last Photographed: Sunday 1st April 2012
The priory at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was originally built as accommodation for the priests of the chantry chapel of St Nicholas, all trace of which has now vanished. Chantry chapels were funded by nobles, who would expect the priests to dedicate time to singing masses for their souls, thus insuring themselves ready for the afterlife.
The Beauchamp family had held a fortified manor house in Stoke-sub-Hamdon since the 12th Century. A license to crenelate was granted in 1333, and the house was thereafter referred to as a castle.
In 1287, Sir John Beauchamp established the chantry chapel of St Nicholas in the castle grounds. By 1304, he had obtained a royal license to convert this to a "collegiate" church - a church administered by a 'college' of canons rather than a single priest, and often supported by church lands. The chapel at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was administered by five canons, one of whom acted as their provost. It would appear to have grown to a significant size, since The Somerset Archaeological report describes it as follows:
"...it had a nave large enough to hold seven tombs on the SW side, five of them with recumbent effigies. There was also a wall tomb on the N side of the nave. The choir, separated from the nave by a screen, had a tomb on its W side and at the entrance to the choir was the brass over the tomb of Sir Matthew Gournay (d1406). The windows were filled with heraldic glass, and the floor decorated with heraldic tiles."
The description is un-sourced, but may refer to the report of the King's Visitors at the time of the dissolution.By the 1540s, the Beauchamp residence would appear to have been abandoned. John Leland (the king's antiquarian) makes reference to "very notable ruins of a great manor place or castle" at Stoke-sub-Hamdon.
In 1545 and 1547, the Abolition of the Chantries acts were passed, and by 1549, the chantry of St Nicholas had been dissolved.
The buildings that survive are all that remains of the priory attached to the chantry chapel. Much of the complex is in private hands, but the Great Hall is open and accessible to the public, with a surviving medieval porch, dividing screens and passage. The remains of a period dovecote can be seen further back from the road, and the ruins of other buildings exist as low-standing walls.
Access to the priory is through a massive wooden gate, which is delightfully left closed, helping to add to the enchanted seclusion of this unusual little site. Once inside, the isolation is absolute. Whilst there, I didn't see hide nor hair of another living soul (apart from a very sociable cat).
The peaceful atmosphere of these ruins greatly adds to their charm, and the golden-yellow Ham stone lends the buildings a soft, warm quality, that perfectly complements the late evening light on a balmy summer's day. The site sprawls sufficiently to lend a little mystery and to encourage exploration, and the solitude allows the imagination a little space to breathe. This is an enchanted spot tucked away and hidden from all but the most determined visitor. If you make the effort to find it, you will be well rewarded.