Hidden in plain sight: have you seen the ruins of St Botolph's Priory?
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The ruins of St Botolph’s Priory are hidden in plain sight just off Priory Street in Colchester. Here Sybilla Hart takes us on a journey through its tumultuous past
The Priory of St Julian and St Botolph’s of Colchester was founded between 1093 and 1100. It was an Augustinian priory and was given the papal bull in 1116. This meant that St Botolph's had authority over all other Augustinian foundations in England. According to a book written by Sir Charles Reed Peers in 1917, St Botolph’s was allowed ‘to correct abuses and inflict punishments, to prescribe regulations and to appoint agents to see that their authority was maintained.’ St Botolph’s was the very first religious house in England to adopt the Augustinian rule and was the mother church of the religious order. St Augustine of Hippo was a Christian convert who lived in North Africa in the 4th century. He is described as a theologian, philosopher and doctor of the church, as well as contributing to the development of just war theory, something that politicians still factor into crucial decision-making today.
Around 225 monasteries in England were Augustinian. The Augustinian priests were known as the ‘black canons’ because of the black robes they wore, unlike the Cistercians at Coggeshall Abbey, for example, who wore white robes. The Augustinians were not all monks per se, but rather priests and canons. They were extremely community minded, like St Augustine himself, establishing poor houses (also known as alms houses), schools and hospitals as well as running their churches.
They followed the Augustinian Rule, which makes interesting reading as set out by Peers in his book on St Botolph’s:
‘The brethren are exhorted to live at peace with each other, forgetting what their social position had been in the world; to keep the appointed hours of prayer scrupulously; to fast as much as is consistent with good health, and not to envy those who are too weakly to endure austerities, for it is better to want less than to have more. No brother is to go outside the bounds of the house alone, but must have a companion, and is to be careful to have nothing to do with women, though he is not forbidden to look at them. Brethren are to admonish each other about such faults, and even to report them to the convent. No one is to receive letters or gifts. All clothes are to be kept in one place, and if any one receives clothes belonging to another he is not to complain, as everything is to be in common. Clothes are only to be washed as the superior decides, and baths are to be allowed in case of need. On the other hand when a bath is ordered it is to be taken without grumbling. When a brother says that he is in pain he is to be believed, but for his treatment a physician is to be consulted. Books are only to be given out at a particular hour, but garments and shoes when they are needed. There are to be no quarrels; but if they occur they must be ended at once, forgiveness being granted and amends made. The head of the house is to be obeyed as a father, and is himself to be a pattern of good works, not considering himself fortunate in power that governs, but in charity that obeys. Let him be more anxious to be loved than feared, so that the brethren may feel compassion not only for themselves but for him, for the loftier his station the greater his danger.’
St Botolph’s was not nearly as powerful as neighbouring St John’s Abbey, which had much wealthier patrons. As English Heritage describes the situation, ‘Its relative poverty means construction would have been a slow process, and the details of the west front indicate a completion date of around 1150.’ During the Reformation, when St Botolph’s was dissolved on King Henry VIII’s orders alongside around 700 other monasteries, it was given to the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley. Audley was born in Earls Colne and also built his mansion, Audley End, in Essex. Sir Thomas Audley was involved in drawing up the Act of Supremacy that saw King Henry VIII replace the Pope as head of the Church of England so that he was free to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn.
St Botolph’s remained as a parish church until the late 17th century when Colchester, a Royalist town, was attacked by the Parliamentarians led by General Fairfax. St Botolph’s suffered terrible blows by cannon fire and was never repaired. Some of the damage made during the siege is still visible to this day. In the 18th and 19th centuries, St Botolph’s was used as a burial site.
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The ruins we see today only formed the nave of the church (where the congregation sit). According to Historic England, ‘The nave of the church remained in use as a parish church while the east end of the church and the claustral buildings were probably dismantled for building stone.’ English Heritage, which oversees St Botolph’s site on Priory Street, describe this national treasure as, ‘though simple in design the massive piers and arches of the nave are stunning in effect.’
The west front is a particularly fine example of Norman architecture and is built from flint and reused Roman bricks. The massive circular pillars and round arches are quite spectacular. As historian David Ross of Britain Express says, ‘Frankly, I am amazed that St Botolph's is not better known; it is easily the equal of many more famous mediaeval monastic ruins. The wonderful Romanesque columns of the abbey church still stand to their full height, and there are remnants of mediaeval tracery in several of the windows. The west front is particularly impressive, with empty niches for statues that have long since disappeared.’
It is not surprising that Historic England has classified St Botolph’s as a scheduled monument, and here it is on our doorstep, completely free and easy to view at any time during daylight hours.