St Katherine's Priory, Polsloe


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.

Exeter (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SX 94122 93794

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.

St Katherine's Priory is one of only three nunneries in Devon and Cornwall. The two storied standing structure which constitutes the remains of part of the west claustral range has a high state of preservation in which all of the medieval layout either remains visible or can be reconstructed. Within the structure there are two wooden screens, one of which dates to c.1300, and the other contains timber of that date. St Katherine's is one of the few nunneries to have undergone an extensive archaeological excavation and fabric survey, and the information resulting from that work has been used to reconstruct a complex developmental sequence which has added considerably to an understanding of aspects of this class of monument. The history of the priory is closely connected with the history of the City of Exeter and the cathedral, and some of the documentary sources resulting from this relationship provide a more general insight into the location of nunneries and women in medieval thought and society.


The monument includes much of the surviving remains of St Katherine's Priory, Polsloe, a Benedictine nunnery founded before 1159 and dissolved in 1539. Situated in an area of 20th century suburban development on the east side of Exeter, the priory lies approximately 2km outside the medieval walls of the city, on the west side of a south-flowing stream called Mincinglake. The monument consists of the standing remains of the priory and the buried remains of part of the monastic precinct. The priory conforms to the traditional medieval monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of two-storeyed buildings are grouped around the central open square court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings further from the nucleus. The standing remains survive as an adapted structure consisting of a substantial part of the west range of the cloister and a small gateway in a boundary wall to the west of it which represents part of the inner precinct wall. The buried remains are more extensive and have been shown by excavation to include the southern part of the west claustral range, the south and east claustral ranges, including the chapter house, and the foundations of the church which stood on the north side of the cloister. The remains of the kitchens, ancillary buildings, cemetery and water management system have also been identified. Analysis of the excavated remains has indicated that the building complex was substantially altered in about 1300. The standing remains of the west range take the form of a free-standing, rectangular two-storeyed building about 26m long and 8.6m wide divided into five bays, Listed Grade II*. This building represents the extent of the main part of the west range which was in existence until c.1300. The fabric of this structure, mainly local breccia, is visible in the east end of the present north wall, and as a plinth, originally buttressed, along the east face of the building. In c.1300 the west range was rebuilt, mainly in local sandstone, and lengthened to 38m. Most of the fabric of the existing structure, and the layout which includes an extension at the south end, dates to this period. The outer face of the west wall retains a moulded string-course that indicates the position of the roof of the cloister walk. The ground floor of the range was principally occupied by a storeroom with a door opening into the cloister at the south end of its east face. The northern bay formed a parlour with opposed doorways, originally separated from the store by a stone wall. On the first floor the northern bay was partitioned off by a wooden screen, part of which survives, in order to form accommodation, including a carved stone fireplace in the north wall, a garderobe (latrine), and a wall cupboard. There was probably a second-floor chamber in the roofspace above this room. The three central bays were occupied by a hall with open roof trusses, and with an original main entrance through the west wall opening onto an external wooden stair. The hall is divided from the southern bay by the original open wooden screen, the central part of which originally gave direct access to a straight staircase leading down and through the south wall into the extension to connect at ground floor level with a covered passageway to the kitchens. A small room on the west side of the stairwell contained a stair leading to a second-floor chamber in the roofspace above the southern bay. The area of the extension immediately south of the southern wall of the building remained open, with covered passageways connecting the hall, kitchens and south claustral range. The roof of the present structure is modern, the range having been converted to a community centre in 1980. This building is therefore excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath is included. Approximately 35m to the west of the west range the present boundary wall contains a stone gateway with a moulded arch of late 15th-early 16th century date. The gate is set within a short length of ashlar walling which is in turn set in a wall of cob construction over a stone base with modern rendering and capping. This wall represents part of the line of the inner precinct wall which enclosed the claustral buildings and associated structures. The buried remains of the priory church occupy a slightly elevated position terraced into the rising ground at the northern end of the site. This structure is aligned east-west and is about 43m in length, with foundations 3m in width. The remains of the nave indicate that it was approximately 14m in width and devoid of aisles, with an internal division separating nave and presbytery. There was no transept on the south side of the church although a documentary reference of 1347 to a chapel of St Thomas the Martyr (Thomas Beckett) may indicate that there was a transept on the north side which was not excavated. The north west and south east corners of the church were found to be free-standing with angle buttresses, while the south west corner was bonded to the north east corner of the west range with ashlar quoins. The layout of the church remained unaltered throughout its period of use. The buried remains of the cloister garth are located adjacent to the south side of those of the church. It originated as a rectangular area about 17m by 13m; after 1300 it was enlarged to a 17m square and furnished with walled cloister walks. The east range originated as a long narrow building about 41m by 7m. The sacristy and chapter house would have been located in this range with the nuns dorter (dormitory) on the upper floor. The southern end of the west range was progressively extended by a sequence of kitchen buildings, and the area between the east and west ranges, bordered to the north by the south range containing the refectory (dining hall), appears to have been enclosed as a garden. After the reconstruction of c.1300 the east range was widened to 10m, the west range extended with rebuilt kitchens, and the south range moved southwards to accommodate the larger cloister. The area to the north east of the church was traditionally occupied by the monastic burial ground. Part excavation has revealed burials to the east of the church, and within the church, cloister, sacristy, and chapter house. Burials also extend to the north of the east end of the church. The infirmary is likely to have been located to the south east of the east range. The monastic precinct would also have contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and cloister, all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the priory was cabable of sustaining. Documentary sources give some indication of the priory buildings: in 1319-20 there are references to an outer gate, and in 1347 reference was made to the gatehouse chamber. In 1465 repairs to a barn, in 1514 to a new barn, and in 1536 to the guesthouse are recorded. An essential part of the design of all monastic sites was the provision of a supply of fresh running water, and at Polsloe the main water source was the Mincinglake stream, which runs along the east side of the priory. It appears that water was taken off the stream some distance to the north of the priory. From the excavated evidence a well was in use for the kitchens of the earlier phases, and later phases included the use of a cistern and ceramic pipes. The precise date of the foundation of the priory and the name of the founder are not known. The earliest reference to the site occurs in a document of 1159 in which the priory was granted leave to establish a cemetery. After 1232 the priory came under the patronage of the Bishops of Exeter. At its dissolution in 1539 there was a Prioress and thirteen nuns in residence. After its disposal by the Crown the priory passed through a succession of ownerships and leases. It appears that by the later 16th century the church and most of the buildings, excluding the west range and barn, had been demolished. The two ruined structures to the east of the west range are believed to be 19th century gazebos which formed part of a farm which continued in use until the first part of the 20th century. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are the west range of the priory which has been converted into a community centre, the small modern building and outshot to the north west of the west range, the retaining wall of the stream, all post-medieval garden features, all raised flower beds, modern garden furniture including trestle-table emplacements, driveways, paths, hard standing, the made-up surfaces of all roads, floodlight standards, all fencing and gate posts, and the garden sheds and rear garden walls of Nos 127, 128, and 129, St Katherine's Road; 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
Rowe, H, Untitled, (1950)
Allan, J, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Devon: Polsloe Priory, , Vol. XXIII, (1979), 250-1
Blaylock, S, 'Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit Report' in St Katherine's Priory: Polsloe Fabric Survey of the West Range, , Vol. 91.57, (1991)
Everett, A, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Exploration Society' in St Katherine's Priory, Exeter, , Vol. 2 pt 2, (1934), 110-119
Lega-Weeks, E, 'Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in The Pre-reformation History of St Katherine's Priory, Polsloe, , Vol. LXVI, (1934), 181-99


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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