Finchale Priory Benedictine cell: hermitage, monastic precinct and site of priory watermill


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County Durham (Unitary Authority)
Framwellgate Moor
National Grid Reference:
NZ 29607 47097

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Finchale Priory is an important example of a small Benedictine house founded to be a cell of Durham Cathedral. Its standing remains are extremely well-preserved and provide a good illustration of a wide variety of monastic buildings. The prior's house, which is unusually extensive, reflects the monastery's particular function as a retreat for cathedral monks; a role which appears to have been unique to Finchale and which demonstrates the easier life led by monks in the later Middle Ages. In addition to the upstanding remains, field survey and documentary evidence indicate the survival of a wide range of ancillary buildings and features.


Finchale Priory is situated on a bend of the River Wear north of Durham. The monument includes the site of a hermitage established by St Godric in c.AD 1115, the standing remains and precinct of the Benedictine cell founded after St Godric's death in 1170, and the site of the priory mill. A line of three monastic fishponds which formerly existed south of the area of the scheduling is not included in the scheduling as the feature has been filled in and further disturbed by the creation of a static caravan park. Godric's biographers indicate that he lived at Finchale in a simple hut with a turf roof and built a wooden chapel dedicated to St Mary. In c.1150 a stone chapel was built dedicated to St John the Baptist and paid for by offerings left by visitors to the hermitage. This chapel remains as a simple rectangular structure, incorporated into the quire (choir) of the later priory church. The earlier wooden chapel stood east of the north transept of the church and was rebuilt in stone after Godric's death. In the mid-14th century it was demolished, but its stone foundations survive as a buried feature. The remains of the earlier wooden chapel are preserved underneath. The chapel of St John the Baptist contains St Godric's tomb. The earliest monastic remains are those of the temporary accommodation built for the first monks in the late 12th century. These lie east of the later buildings and include the upstanding remains of a hall with a central hearth, a garderobe or privy and a separate room or solar to the north. The dorter or sleeping quarters would have been on the first floor and the hall may also have served as a refectory. Additional buildings lay to the south and their foundations survive beneath the later prior's house. Further rooms were built onto the north and east sides of the hall during the 13th century. The function of this group of buildings, after the canons' permanent accommodation was built, is uncertain but it may have been used as an infirmary. The priory church and other cloister buildings were laid out in the period between 1170 and 1237, and building-work continued into the 14th century. The church was the first building to be constructed and its nave, which forms the north range of the cloister, includes at its west end an original 13th century doorway with three lancet windows above. It is cruciform in plan and formerly had a low tower with a spire over the crossing. The crossing, where the nave, transepts and quire intersect, was the only part of the church to be vaulted. The north and south transepts contained chapels dedicated to St Cuthbert and St Mary, and the latter has a large east window datable to c.1300. The east arm of the church contains the quire and, at the east end, the presbytery. The latter contained the high altar dedicated in 1239 to St John the Baptist. Originally, the nave and quire had both north and south aisles. However, to offset the cost of repairs and reduce the size of the church, all but the south aisle of the nave were demolished and their arches blocked to create new walls. Windows inserted into the blocked arches accurately date this work to 1364 and 1365. In the case of the south aisle of the nave, although the rear of the aisle was blocked up, the aisle itself was not destroyed but was reused as the north walk of the cloister, replacing the existing north walk which was demolished. At about the same time, the open arcades enclosing the rest of the cloister were rebuilt with buttresses and traceried windows. Only on the south side do the original bases remain, showing the arches to have had twin-shafted columns. The east cloister range, extending south from the south transept of the church, dates to the 13th century with internal alterations carried out in the 15th century. The upper storey contained the monks' dorter or dormitory and was served by a day stair in the south west corner and a night stair that led down into the south transept. On the ground floor was the chapter house, another chamber which may have been a storeroom, and, between the two, three narrow rooms of uncertain function which became incorporated into the prior's house in the 15th century. The chapter house retains the stone benches lining its walls, and also the prior's seat set beneath three original windows of which the centre one was blocked in the 15th century and the others replaced. Built onto the south east corner of the range is the re-redorter or latrine which would have been flushed by a drain fed from the river. The same drain would have flushed the monks' kitchen which lay to the south west, adjoining the south cloister range. The south range was built in the early 14th century and includes, on the ground floor, a vaulted undercroft used for cellarage, and, on the second floor, the monks' frater or refectory. To the west is a separate suite with a vaulted ground floor and a room, above which was altered in the 15th century and may have been a guest house. Unusually, there is no west cloister range, merely a 13th century screen wall pierced, in the 14th century, by a doorway. Also in the 14th century, a square building with a vaulted ground floor was built against the outside of the screen wall at its north end. To the east of the cloister are the remains of a separate range of buildings which formed the two-storey prior's house. Originally built in the 13th century, they included a vaulted ground floor and an upper floor with separate rooms representing the prior's hall, private room, offices and chapel. In the 15th century, an entrance hall and kitchen was built onto the west end, joining it to the east range of the cloister and incorporating part of it. What appears to have been an entirely new building was built to the east and is interpreted as a brewhouse and bakehouse. The house itself was greatly altered in the 15th century, with the addition of fireplaces and new windows. According to the priory's inventories, one room was given over to visiting monks and was known as the Player Chamber; a reference to Finchale's special function as a retreat for the monks of Durham cathedral. In addition to the main buildings, there was a wide range of ancillary structures and features, all recorded in the inventories. These included an orchard, a west and a south gate, a gate- chapel, a byre, a granary, a smithy, a henhouse and a piggery, a farm and a slaughterhouse. In addition there was a mill with a mill-dam across the River Wear. The farmhouse and a barn of Finchale Abbey Farm, whilst altered and added to in the 17th century, are medieval in origin and occupy the sites of two of these buildings. The remains of others survive beneath the later farm buildings and in the enclosure south of the ruins which also contains a filled-in pond of probable modern date. Although the wall surrounding this enclosure is also relatively modern, it is believed to occupy the line of a monastic wall as medieval architectural features have been observed in the L- shaped section at the south east corner where a building formerly stood. At the north east corner, abutting the south cloister range, a rectangular depression and the remains of a wall mark the position of a monastic courtyard. In addition, the earthwork remains of medieval ridge and furrow ploughing can be seen within the enclosure. After St Godric's death, Finchale came under the control of the Prior and Convent of Durham. It continued as a hermitage till 1196, occupied by two monks from Durham. In that year, however, it was settled by Benedictine monks and became a cell of the cathedral priory. It was a wealthy monastery due to being a place of pilgrimage. However, the community was always small and, during the 14th century, it became a retreat for the monks of Durham, four of whom, in strict rota, would spend three weeks leave there in the company of its five permanent inmates. This practice continued until the priory's dissolution in 1538 and it is thought that most of the buidings fell out of use in the 15th and 16th centuries. The site has been in State care since 1916 and the standing remains are a Grade I Listed Building. The farmhouse of Finchale Abbey Farm is Listed Grade II* and the barn to the west is Grade II Listed. A number of features within the area are excluded from the scheduling. These are all existing roofed buildings, including those of Finchale Abbey Farm and the chalets on the south side of the precinct, the fixtures and fittings of the caravan site occupying the southern half of the precinct, the surfaces of all paths, carparks and tracks, the silage pit in the farmyard, all railings and modern fencing, the footings of the footbridge over the river and all English Heritage fixtures and fittings, although the ground underneath all these exclusions is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Peers, C, Finchale Priory, (1933)
Peers, C, Finchale Priory, (1933)
'Publications of the Surtees Society' in The Charters of Endowment, Inventories and Account Rolls..., , Vol. 2, (1837)
Hawkins, Rodney, F Priory Co.Durham: a study of the remains..outside (the GAM).., 1989, Dissertation project, Univ. Durham


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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