Cornworthy Priory


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1008673

Date first listed: 03-Nov-1958

Date of most recent amendment: 11-Jul-1994


Ordnance survey map of Cornworthy Priory
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Devon

District: South Hams (District Authority)

Parish: Cornworthy

National Grid Reference: SX 82307 55601


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

A nunnery was a settlement built to sustain a community of religious women. Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship, accommodation and subsistence. The main elements are the church and domestic buildings arranged around a cloister. This central enclosure may be accompanied by an outer court and gatehouse, the whole bounded by a precinct wall, earthworks or moat. Outside the enclosure, fishponds, mills, field systems, stock enclosures and barns may occur. The earliest English nunneries were founded in the seventh century AD but most of these had fallen out of use by the ninth century. A small number of these were later refounded. The tenth century witnessed the foundation of some new houses but the majority of medieval nunneries were established from the late 11th century onwards. Nunneries were established by most of the major religious orders of the time, including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans. It is known from documentary sources that at least 153 nunneries existed in England, of which the precise locations of only around 100 sites are known. Few sites have been examined in detail and as a rare and poorly understood medieval monument type all examples exhibiting survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Cornworthy Priory was the most westerly and isolated of the houses founded specifically for nuns in England. Throughout its existence it remained the poorest of the three nunneries in Devon. The quality of the remains of the gatehouse at Cornworthy however places it amongst the most important buildings of this type and does not reflect the poverty of the priory. From the evidence of the earthworks the buried remains appear to be extensive and unharmed by subsequent activity.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


Cornworthy Priory is located at the western end of the village of Cornworthy, at the head of a small valley to the south of Bow Creek, an inlet on the west side of the Dart estuary. The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of an Augustinian nunnery in occupation from the early 13th century until 1536. The visible remains exist in the form of ruined stone structures together with a series of low earthworks. They include the substantial remains of the gatehouse and a small section of the precinct wall which encloses a natural spring on the highest part of the site. The walls are constructed of random dressed rubble utilising local grey slates and shales, with much of the architectural detail in contrasting Dartmoor granite. The most significant upstanding remains are those of the 15th century gatehouse which stands as an isolated structure of considerable visual impact at the head of the valley. It is rectangular in plan measuring 9.5m by 6m with two arched and vaulted passageways aligned east/west. The north wall stands to almost its full height. The main southern passage for mounted travellers and wheeled vehicles has a tunnel vault, decorated with chamfered ribs, bosses, moulded wallplates, and moulded outer arches in granite. The smaller pedestrian passage has a ribbed vault, with the ribs and decorated bosses in granite, between outer arches in shale. Both vaults were divided centrally by arches and jambs, which have been robbed, on which the doors were hung. In the south east corner of the main passageway a door with a moulded granite arch opens onto a spiral stair which is in part housed externally in a turret. It leads to a second storey room furnished with three windows, a fireplace and garderobe (toilet) closet. The floor was supported by joists, allowing space in the northern half for an underfloor chamber, above the lower pedestrian passage, lit by one narrow window to the west. The north gable-end of the gatehouse has the vestigial remains of a single storey porter's lodge which has a squint into the pedestrian passage and facility for withdrawing the two draw-bars of the gate. The only substantial section of precinct wall has been recently revealed to the south east of the gatehouse in the area of some ruined farm buildings which have been cleared of plant growth. The wall survives to some 15m in length and is 3.9m high at its eastern end. It is stepped down at its western end, and acts as a partial retaining wall to the land to the south. Two rows of putlog (scaffolding) holes are visible, and it retains a string course below a coping of semicircular stones set on edge. Both ends of the wall have been cut by later structures: by a two storied barn to the east, and to the west by an archway leading to the road. To the west of the archway the wall continues for 2.1m, and has then been set back into the hedge. From this point the alignment of the precinct wall is visible as an earthwork extending towards the gatehouse which has a wall-scar on its south west corner, 3.6m in height. The earthwork continues northwards from the porter's lodge towards the field boundary to the north. The area of the ruined farm buildings is being allowed to regenerate its natural flora. Two other sections of walling exist in this area, one is now completely obscured by plant growth and could not be located, the other is visible in the field boundary on the north west side of the regenerating area, being 7m in length and 1.3m high. Near these ruins is a natural spring which currently remains in use as a piped water supply. There are extensive low linear earthworks throughout the area to the east of the gatehouse, extending down the valley as far as Court Prior. There are also two substantial depressions on the hillside to the south east of the gateway. The date of the foundation of the priory is uncertain as no charters or cartuleries have survived. Cornworthy was subject to Totnes Priory and was therefore linked with the Lordship of Totnes. The earliest reference to the site occurs in 1238. A list of eleven of the prioresses has been reconstructed from secondary sources, mainly the episcopal registers of the bishops of Exeter. Some entries give an indication of the range of the monastic buildings: in 1381 there is a reference to the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, in 1421 to the infirmary, in 1461 to the chapter house, in 1521 to the dorter (dormitory) and frater (dining hall). In 1536 there was a prioress and seven nuns in residence. The priory was dissolved in 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII, following an Act of Parliament which was originally intended to reform the religious houses by disbanding the smallest and poorest of their number. A condition of the subsequent sale of the buildings was that they were to be rendered unfit for monastic use, and this was greatly assisted by the crown's sequestration of all the roofing lead. Cornworthy remained in crown ownership until 1558-9 when it was sold to Edward Harris, and it remained with that family for two hundred years. In 1770 it was recorded in the survey by Dean Milles that only the gatehouse, an old house, and a barn near the gatehouse survived, the rest of the site being utilised as orchards. The 1844 Tithe Map shows that farm buildings had been constructed to the south east of the gateway in the location of the present ruined structures. The use of the land for orchards has continued into the present century. The ruins of the gatehouse are listed Grade I. The earthworks were surveyed by the Royal Commission in 1992. Some large architectural fragments in granite from the ruins are built into a curb in front of Court Prior. Within the designated area the following are excluded: overhead power cable poles and supports, the sheep dip, and gate and fence posts, although the ground beneath all these features 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.

Legacy System number: 24839

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Wilson-North, R, Cornworthy Priory, (1992)
Watkin, H, Windeatt, E, 'Devon Notes and Queries' in The Priory for Nuns of St Mary Cornworthy Devon, (1923), 1-49
Weddell, P, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Cornworthy Priory, (1987)

End of official listing