Cornworthy Priory, Devon

★★

East side of the gatehouse
South side of the gatehouse

Ruined but mostly complete gatehouse from a minor 14th century nunnery, abandoned in 1536; in a rural location near the River Dart
Management
Privately owned
Entry
Free
Location
Along Abbey Road on the west side of Cornworthy
Cornworthy is a small village of several dozen houses, on the south side of the tidal lower section of the River Dart in south Devon, and was the chosen location for a small Augustinian priory, founded around 1238 by Eva de Braose in memory of her husband William de Braose. He was a Marcher Lord, involved in campaigns against the Welsh insurgencies, but was publicly hanged in 1230 after being captured by the Welsh prince Llewellyn the Great. The priory was managed entirely by nuns, initially 13 though the number gradually decreased over the 200 years of its existence, up until the closure as part of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. After the Dissolution the priory buildings were converted to a residence, by the local Harris family, and the surrounding land was later used as an orchard.

The priory buildings were correspondingly limited in scale, and although in general little is known, they are known to have included at least a church (Chapel of St Mary Magdalene), infirmary, chapter house, dormitory, refectory and cloister. No trace remains above ground of any of these, though the unexcavated foundations are believed to be extensive, however the one visible remnant is substantial; larger and better constructed than might be expected for this relatively insignificant institution, for much of its existence lacking a major source of funds. The surviving component is the gatehouse, a two story structure containing one large and one small passageway, beneath arched, vaulted ceilings. This stands, rather hidden from view, at one side of a field enclosed by high hedges; an incongruous site in this quiet, agricultural neighbourhood. The place, which is not signposted, is accessed via a small gate in the hedge, and while all can be seen in just a few minutes, the building is impressive and well preserved.



Location


Cornworthy Priory is situated just beyond the west end of the village, at the junction of two minor roads, with limited parking available on nearby verges. The building can be seen rising above the hedgerow, and lies just inside the western edge of the sizeable field, often used by cattle. The land is privately owned, though the public are allowed to enter, and the ruin is not obviously managed by any organisation. The area occupied by the priory would have included fields, orchards and other outbuildings, and is believed to have extended over 1000 feet eastwards and 500 feet north to south, but the only other remains are some low wall remnants southeast of the gatehouse, liable to be obscured by vegetation.

The Gatehouse


The gatehouse, largely from the 15th century, is a rectangular building containing two passageways of different heights, the taller intended for wheeled vehicles, the other for pedestrians. The ceiling of the former is supported by a tunnel vault, and that of the latter by a rib vault. Both feature decorative bosses and ribs, constructed from granite. The larger passageway has an opening at one side, closed by a (locked) modern iron door, leading to a spiral staircase, mostly contained within an adjacent rectangular turret, that accesses the upper, roofless floor, not publicly reachable. Steps from here lead down to a small chamber above the roof of the lower, pedestrian passageway. More of the stairway can be viewed through a breach in the southeast wall, also closed by iron bars.