St Nicholas' Priory, Tresco


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of St Nicholas' Priory, Tresco
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SV 89459 14246

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.

St Nicholas' Priory survives reasonably well, retaining substantial portions of its church fabric despite some evidence for later rebuilding. The surface profile and recent history of the vicinity of this church, together with the evidence from limited excavation, also indicate that sub-surface remains of other, demolished, parts of the priory will be masked rather than destroyed in areas adjacent to the upstanding remains of the priory church. The historical documentation which confirms the grant of Scilly's churches to Tavistock Abbey and the pivotal role of the Priory in the Abbey's wider ecclesiastical administration of Scilly gives a good example both of the functions of small monastic houses in such remote areas and of some of the secular reasons for their establishment. The importance of the priory is further reinforced by its re-use of the early Christian memorial stone, the earliest datable evidence for Christianity in Scilly. Together with the nearby and broadly contemporary cemetery, it gives evidence that the priory was established on a site already of religious significance. The post medieval use of the priory church for burial, and the reasons for it as documented by Borlase, provide an unusual example of a lingering sanctity which remained associated with such monastic buildings long after the Dissolution. The holed stone near the church is one of four examples from Scilly of this very rare class of prehistoric ritual monument whose distribution is concentrated in the western tip of Cornwall and Scilly; although not in its original position, its present setting near the early Christian memorial slab and the upright gravestones in the church's post medieval cemetery gives a good illustration of the long period over which upright stone slabs have held a strong religious and funerary significance.


The scheduling includes the remains of the medieval Benedictine priory of St Nicholas at the foot of the eastern spur of Abbey Hill on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. The scheduling also includes an early Christian memorial stone reused at the priory church, a small 18th - early-19th century cemetery within the priory church, and a prehistoric ritual holed stone located close to the north west of the church. The priory, memorial stone and post medieval cemetery are Listed Grade II. The upstanding remains of St Nicholas' Priory include the nave and chancel of the priory church, visible as a rectangular roofless building measuring 23.5m WNW-ESE by 7.5m NNE-SSW internally with walling approximately 1m wide, faced by roughly shaped and coursed granite rubble; it varies considerably in surviving height, to a maximum of 4.6m on the south. The walls are pierced by large opposed openings at the centre of the north and south walls, marking crossings to the former north and south transepts. That on the north is infilled by later rubble blocking, to each side of which are lower courses of the arch's stepped and chamfered moulding of imported freestone. The south transept crossing has a broad pointed arch also with a stepped and chamfered moulding which uses two types of imported freestone: the vertical sides in a dark stone, the arch in a pale yellow limestone; each side also rests on a base of white limestone. Close to the west of the south transept crossing is a smaller doorway that originally linked the nave with the cloisters. The doorway has a slightly squatter pointed arch with a similar moulding profile and range of imported freestones as the transept crossings. Its adjacent wall fabric includes a narrow drip moulding of thin slabs over the apex and eastern curve of the doorway's arch moulding. At the base of the doorway are two flat sill slabs; the eastern slab is a reused early Christian memorial stone described below. A second doorway, blocked but shown by the inner face lower dressed slabs of its south jamb, is visible at the centre of the church's west wall. Blocked windows are evident near the eastern end of both north and south walls, with a third blocked window closer to the east of the south transept crossing. The present walling of the church includes some areas of later rebuild including the blockings of openings noted above; other later additions to the medieval fabric include a pair of small buttresses built against the south wall's outer face at its west end and a garden wall abutting the south east corner. Although the visible upstanding remains are limited to the priory church, sub-surface evidence for the ground plan of accompanying parts of the priory precinct, including the church transepts, will extend beneath the deep overburden of garden landscaping deposits raised immediately to the north of the church and beneath the levelled areas adjacent to its other sides, where small excavations have confirmed the survival of early demolition debris. St Nicholas' Priory is first specifically recorded in a charter of c.AD 1176, by when it was already well established and covered by Henry I's grant in c.AD 1120 of all churches in Scilly to the Benedictine Tavistock Abbey in Devon, a grant considered to have been an attempt to enforce the peace in this remote territory. The Abbey also received all the lands those churches had possessed in the early to mid 11th century, a grant later defined to include all the islands in the Scilly archipelago north of St Mary's. A Papal Bull of 1193 confirms the central role of St Nicholas' priory in the Abbey's possessions on Scilly. The few subsequent historical references to the Priory focus on losses and damage from piratical raids, as for example in 1351 and 1367; the difficulty of maintaining the priory against this background seems to have led to its abandonment before the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in 1539 as it does not appear in the list of the Abbey's possessions at that date. Stone-robbing for later buildings nearby had reduced the remains of the priory church to a form resembling that of today by 1752 when it was described and sketched by the antiquary Borlase. The priory's 12th century records imply an earlier Christian establishment at or near the church's present site. The earliest evidence for such activity here, or anywhere else on Scilly, is provided by the early Christian memorial stone now reused as a sill slab in the church's south doorway, but originally intended to stand erect, with an incised inscription of two lines to be read down the stone with the upper line on the right. The slab is 0.81m long by 0.38m wide and partly trapped beneath the east jamb of the doorway; the western half of its upper face bears the lines of incised capitals: the upper line reads `.. (?T)HI FILI' and the lower line reads `..COLINI' or `..COGI' or `..COCI', the wear leaving the final letters difficult to interpret. The inscription uses a standard formula common on such memorial slabs denoting the monument of `[name], son of (fili) [name]'. The use of this formula and the style and disposition of the lettering has been used to indicate a later sixth century date. It is considered that the memorial's original context was an early Christian cemetery in the vicinity of the later Priory; some of the cemetery's slab-lined graves were revealed during 19th century landscaping of the surrounding gardens and three survive beyond this scheduling on the higher slope of the spur 50m to the north. Long after the abandonment of the priory, ongoing respect for its church led to its reuse for burial during the post medieval period. This was first recorded by Borlase in 1752, and surviving grave slabs record burials up to 1811. Seven graves are visible within the church, with stone-edged raised earth surfaces and marked by horizontal or upright slate gravestones. Close to the west of the church's north west corner, the scheduling includes a prehistoric ritual holed stone, visible as an upright slab 1m high and 0.5m wide, roughly shaped to give parallel sides and a flat upper edge; below the top edge, the slab is perforated by two round holes, each approximately 0.08m in diameter and 0.1m apart, one above the other on the slab's midline. The slab was found on Tresco or Bryher at the beginning of the 20th century and was erected in its present location to serve as a feature in the Tresco Abbey Gardens. The modern gravel surfaces and the wooden blocking above the early Christian memorial stone are excluded from the scheduling but the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 10 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


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

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Books and journals
Barnatt, J, Prehistoric Cornwall: The Ceremonial Monuments, (1982)
Borlase, W, Observations on Ancient and Present State of the Isles of Scilly, (1756)
Borlase, W, Observations on Ancient and Present State of the Isles of Scilly, (1756)
Gibson, A G, H J, , The Isles of Scilly The Visitors Companion, (1932)
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971)
Okasha, E, Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-west Britain, (1993)
O'Neil, BH St J, Ancient Monuments of the Isles of Scilly, (1949)
O'Neil, BH St J, Ancient Monuments of the Isles of Scilly, (1949)
Ratcliffe, J, Sharpe, A CAU, Fieldwork in Scilly Autumn 1990, (1991)
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993), 19-26
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993), 130-133
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993)
Ratcliffe, J, Fieldwork in Scilly 1991 and 1992, (1993)
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly's Archaeological Heritage, (1992)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, (1986)
Thomas, C, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, (1994)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, (1986)
Whitfield, H J, Scilly and its Legends, (1852)
Woodhall, P, The Book of the Church on Scilly, (1985)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-0/7/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural & Historic Interest, (1992)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-0/7/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, (1992)
Isles of Scilly; 1358-07/123, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, (1992)
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7324.01, (1988)
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly SMR entry for PRN 7733, (1992)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; Cornwall sheet LXXXVII: 2 Source Date: 1888 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; Cornwall sheet LXXXVII: 2 Source Date: 1908 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8914 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:


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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