They were thus able to undertake the duties of parish priest and other work in the community. At the same time they were strongly influenced by the ideals of the Cistercians, whose abbeys had to be built in remote places and for whom manual labour, particularly in agriculture, was a basic requirement. In both of these respects the priory at Woodspring was highly suitable, as it still is today when opportunities for contemplation and the purposeful activity of the farm are happily combined in one place.
The founder of the new priory was one William de Courtenay who gave to it his manors of Woodspring, Worle and Locking to provide it with an income. It was not unusual for medieval landowners to do this, but in William's case a major impulse behind so generous an act must have been that of penitence: his grandfather, from whom he had inherited Woodspring, was Reginald Fitz-Urse one of the assassins of St Thomas Becket. He must have felt a sense of continuing guilt from which his family had to be purged. St Thomas was accordingly chosen as a patron saint of the priory and his martyrdom is depicted on its seal.
Woodspring was not large or wealthy; its buildings were never grand and the community probably had fewer than ten members at any one time. But towards the end of its existence an unknown source of income enabled it to embark on a surprisingly ambitious building programme. To this last great burst of activity in the 15th and early 16th centuries we owe the church with its fine tower, the infirmary and the great barn, and a fragment of the prior's lodging. Work on these was carried on right up till the eve of the priory's suppression by Henry VIII in 1536 - an indication of how little anyone really suspected that he would go through with this immensely destructive policy.
Today Woodspring is perhaps most remarkable for the way in which it was converted after the Dissolution. No qualms were felt about any need to limit the new work to the more secular of the monastic buildings: the confident new Tudor owners put their house right inside the church itself, drawing back only at occupying the chancel, which they pulled down. Chimneys sprouted through the nave roof, and floors were inserted into the north aisle and the crossing beneath the tower. The large windows were prosaically and expertly blocked and smaller mullioned windows inserted in their place.
The Priory continued life as a farmhouse. From time to time over the following centuries it was smartened up, with a new wing built in place of the prior's lodging in 1701, for example, or the creation of a new parlour on the ground floor of the nave in about 1800; and a garden was formed in the outer court in the mid-19th century, which involved moving the 14th-century gatehouse. But none of this work was excessive; the original priory was not engulfed by a great mansion, and although those buildings which could not be put to a useful farming or household purpose were gradually plundered for building stone, enough remains for us to imagine the whole of it without great difficulty.
The Priory’s great Tithe barn also survives (still in farming use and today owned by the National Trust), as does its magnificent Infirmary whose roof is a triumph of the late medieval carpenters’ craft.
For a short history of Woodspring Priory please click here.
To read the full history album for Woodspring Priory please click here.
To download the children's Explorer pack for Woodspring Priory please click here.