Plympton Priory


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

City of Plymouth (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SX 53762 56208

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. Some 225 of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their revenue. The Augustinians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Plympton Priory was the wealthiest monastic house in Devon and the fourth wealthiest establishment of the Augustinian Order in England and Wales. A good proportion of the site remains clear of more recent building development and exploratory archaeological excavations have revealed structural remains of high quality. The priory is unusual in appearing to be associated with a river frontage on a tidal creek. The site contains waterlogged deposits, some of which contain refuse from the priory, and which will preserve evidence valuable to an increased understanding of earlier land use and climate. The priory replaced a college of Anglo-Saxon foundation which remained in existence into the early 12th century. This continuity of occupation over at least six centuries adds considerably to the archaeological importance of the site in the potential it contains for an increased understanding of the development of monasticism in the British Isles.


The monument includes much of the surviving remains of Plympton Priory which is situated on the east side of the city of Plymouth and the west side of the medieval town of Plympton. The priory lies within modern suburban development on a river terrace between the Tory Brook and Longbrook, tributaries of the River Plym, the estuary of which lies some 2km to the west. The monument consists of the upstanding remains and part of the buried remains of an Augustinian priory in occupation from 1121 until 1539. The priory occupies the site of a college of secular canons that was in existence by AD 904. The priory conforms to the traditional monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of two storied buildings were grouped around the central open square court of the cloister. The visible remains exist in the form of sections of the ruined walls incorporated into later boundary walls which preserve the outline of part of the layout of the church, cloister, and west range. The upstanding remains of the priory are Listed Grade II. The buried remains within the area of protection include the west range and parts of the east and south ranges. The remainder of the east and south ranges, together with other buried structures extend beyond the area of protection. Details of the church and west range have been recovered from archaeological excavations. The walls are of random-rubble construction utilising local limestone, with moulded stone in green laminated tuff, which would have produced a polychrome effect in the original structure, and in granite. Some worked stone was in Purbeck marble. The 12th century priory church was aligned ESE-WNW and was of cruciform plan. The nave was some 40m in length and 18m wide overall, with walls approximately 1.2m in thickness. It was aisled on both sides, with the bases of the columns of the arcades resting on sleeper walls, and with moulded pilasters in the walls of the nave to support the vaulted ceilings of the aisles. There were ten bays in all. A 20m length of the west end of the north wall of the nave survives up to 1.7m in height, and includes part of one pilaster and the scar of another. A 25m length of the south wall of the nave survives up to 3.2m in height, and contains part of the eastern reveal of one of the two doorways leading into the cloister. To the west of this wall there is an isolated fragment of wall 2.2m in length and 2.6m high with the scar of a pilaster. The west front had a central entrance, deeply recessed in a series of steps indicating that the original doorway was of typically ornate Norman design. Two fragments of the northern half of the west front, up to 1.3m high, remain visible. Within the church there were two phases of tiled flooring, the earliest tiles set in mortar. Two burials were found in the south aisle. The internal walls were rendered with white plaster, painted with a rectangular tracery in black and yellow to create a false ashlar design. To the west of the eastern door leading to the cloister there were the remains of a side chapel with a marble altar and fragmented stone mouldings painted in pink and gold. The interim excavation report outlines five phases of construction between the 12th and 15th centuries, with evidence of a fire in the latest phase. The extent of the presbytery and therefore the overall length of the church is not known, but can be estimated through comparison with similar sites to be some 65m. A pictorial map of Plymouth dated c.1539, which has been found to be accurate in its representation of major buildings, depicts the priory with a square tower at its west end. This could be the `new tower' referred to in documentary sources. The monastic burial ground would have been located to the north and west of the presbytery of the priory church. The cloister stood to the south of the church, at a slightly lower level, and from the excavated foundations measured some 30m east-west, being overlain to the east by the present boundary wall. The boundary wall on the west side of the cloister appears to be roughly on the alignment of the wall of the cloister walk, about 4.6m to the east of the west range. The west range abutted the south side of the nave and was of some 9.6m overall width. The northern end had a floor of slate flags set in mortar, with a drain or conduit running east-west beneath the floor. The south end extends into the area to the west of No 11 Old Priory, and wall foundations have been revealed in this area in a sewer trench in c.1959, and an evaluation excavation in 1994. On the west side of the property boundary forming the west side of the west range, some 6m to the south of the Old Malt House, there is a fragment of wall aligned east-west, 1.2m in width and 1.4m high. The west range would have contained ground floor storage space, with a hall and the apartments of the prior above. On the assumption that the cloister was square, the south range now lies beneath the access road and beneath the Tower House in Old Priory to the south of the church. The Tower House, which is Listed Grade II, is a later structure incorporating Norman architectural fragments from a priory building that stood to the south east of the priory church but which was destroyed in the late 19th century. The precise location and form of the Saxon college is not known, it has been presumed that the priory overlies the college. The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a wall, and contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and cloister, the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the priory was capable of sustaining. At Plympton the extent of the precinct is not known although its boundaries appear to have been delimited by a number of features: the Ridgeway to the north, an ancient east-west route; Market Road to the west; by the natural barrier of the Longbrook to the south; and by a long straight property boundary to the east. It would appear that the lower reaches of the Longbrook formed a tidal creek in the medieval period, and the west wall of the precinct appears to have contained a quay. The low lying ground on the north side of the Longbrook was a marsh, delimited to the north and north west by a low natural scarp. These features lie outside the area of protection. The earliest known reference to Plympton is a Saxon charter of 904 in which King Edward the Elder of Wessex (899-924) exchanged land with the Bishop of Sherborne in return for the monastery at Plympton. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the college consisted of a Dean and four prebendaries, and was attributed with four land holdings in south west Devon. In 1121 the college was disbanded by Warelwast, Bishop of Exeter, who granted the site to the Augustinian canons. The church was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. In 1311 the canons constructed a chapel to the north of the priory which later developed into the parish church of St Mary. In 1355 the Black Prince (the eldest son of Edward III) stayed at the priory for six weeks. By the end of the 13th century a substantial village had become established on priory lands along the Ridgeway. At the Dissolution there was a prior and 19 canons in residence. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and surrendered to Henry VIII. 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 crowns sequestration of the roofing lead. In 1541 the site was granted by the Crown to Sir Philip Champernowne who immediately sold parts of the site for demolition. Payments in this context provide a partial inventory of the monastic buildings: in 1545 reference is made to `five chambers forming the west part of the night chamber', and in 1547 to `a house called court gate'. In 1562 some buildings were specifically excluded from demolition: `the new tower, mill, poundhouse, great dorter and little dorter, houses called little chapel and little court gate, and all the outer walls'. In 1638 the site was sold to John Fownes of Whitleigh, and thence to the Luttrells of Dunster Castle. The site was not developed as a major residence and appears to have been extensively robbed of stone and also to have become liable to flooding. Carved stones from the priory have been recorded in a number of buildings and locations in Plympton. Excluded from the scheduling are all modern structures including canopies, garages, store sheds, garden sheds, bee hives, a vehicle inspection ramp, the Old Furniture Depository (21-23 Market Street) and the tank to its rear, all made-up road surfaces, driveways, and hard standings, all gates, fencing, and telegraph poles, 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.

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Books and journals
Ledger, V, Excavations of Plympton Priory, Near Plymouth, (1959)
Stuart, E, Lost Landscapes of Plymouth, (1991), Pl 1
Brown, S, 'Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings' in Excavations at Plympton Priory in 1988, , Vol. 47, (1989), 71-78
Gaskell-Brown, C, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Plympton Priory Devon, (1987)
21/23 Market Road, Plympton, Devon, Archaeological Evaluation, 1993,


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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