Last Photographed: Sunday 18th September 2022
The priory at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was never in fact a priory, but rather an ecclesiastical college. A college in this context was a collective of canons living as a community, but not under monastic rule. The college at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was founded to house canons serving the Chantry Chapel of St Nicholas. In turn, chantry chapels were funded by endowments from nobles who would expect the associated canons to dedicate their time to singing masses for the souls of their sponsors, helping those souls to attain eternal peace. The Chantry Chapel of St Nicholas is believed to have stood within the grounds of nearby Beauchamp Manor House. All trace of it has now vanished,
The Beauchamp family had held a fortified manor house in Stoke-sub-Hamdon since the 12th Century. A license to crenelate was granted in 1333AD and the house was thereafter referred to as a castle. In 1287AD, Sir John Beauchamp established the chantry chapel of St Nicholas in the castle grounds. By 1304AD, he had obtained a royal license to convert this to a collegiate church. The chapel at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was administered by six 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 unsourced 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 1545AD and 1547AD, the Abolition of the Chantries acts were passed, and by 1549AD, the chantry of St Nicholas had been dissolved.
The buildings that survive today are all that remains of the college. Entering through the 15th-century wall and arched gateway, stables, a cattle shed, and a thatched tithe barn are visible to the right. To the left lies the main college building, fronted by an impressive mediaeval porch. To the left of the porch can be seen the canon's chapel with its small belltower visible on the roof. To the right of the porch is the great hall.
Moving through the porch, a corridor leads through the center of the building. A doorway to the right leads to the great hall, which would have served the canons as a refectory. On the far side of the hall another door leads through to a parlour space.
The main corridor leads through the building to another door, opening onto the provost's garden and lodgings. Previously, this door has remained closed to the public, as the provost's lodgings have been let to a private tenant. However, the current tenant has agreed to provide access to visitors to both the gardens and two first-floor rooms, those being the college's chapel and dormitory. These rooms are entered in a truly quirky and British fashion via the door to the tenant's hallway, up his flight of carpeted stairs, and across the landing from his private home.
Moving back into the courtyard, with the gate to the rear, further remains can be seen beyond the tithe barn. These are no longer accessible as of 2022 but include a 14th Century dovecote and a second ruined barn adjoining it.
As previously mentioned, access to the priory is through a large wooden gate through which carts would once have entered the college courtyard. The extant mediaeval walls help add to the enchanted seclusion of this unusual little site. Once inside, it's incredibly peaceful and tranquil, and it's not unusual to wander around without encountering another soul.
The peaceful atmosphere of these ruins greatly adds to their charm, and the golden-yellow Ham stone means that the buildings positively glow in the late-evening sun. This is an enchanted spot tucked away and hidden from all but the most curious visitor - a rarity in modern England. A very rewarding site to visit.