Southends on sea is a rather built up area today and as far as history goes it is not that old. However not far from Southends town centre lies a park which has been around for 900 years and is the oldest building in Southend which has been continually occupied. Prittlewell Priory has existed since the 12th Century and the land, which now makes up the park, was once all owned and managed by the Clunic monk s who resided there, mainly, in silence.
Only parts of the original priory exist today in the form of a very small but informative museum. The Priory grounds are still accessible to all members of the public including the ponds which the Monks used to fish themselves, the refectory, priory chamber, cellar, a 12th century doorway with chevron and dog tooth ornamentation and parts of the wall.
The Monks were of the Clunic order under the Priory of St Pancreas at Lewes, Sussex and worshipped under the rule of St Benedict. Their existence was to live in prayer, poverty and obedience. The Clunic order was founded at the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy in 910 by William of Aquatine and was one of the most influential in Europe. Priories such as the one at Lewes and Prittlewell were classed as daughter houses and depended on Cluny for support. The Abbey of Cluny itself would have had aristocratic support during the 11th and 12th centuries across all of Europe. Prittlewell Priory was one of three priories established in Essex during the reign of King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135). It is thought to have been founded in 1110 and its first Prior was Robert Fitz Swain.
Although not of great financial standing in the country, the priory, along with its standing in the community and ecccelsiatical patronage would have made it a Dominant power in the South East Essex region. At its height it would have had no more than 18 monks living there. The Clunic Monks would have mainly lived in quiet seclusion from the rest of the world. They would rarely speak and as a result created a very basic form of sign language to help them communicate to one another. They would have had open hearth fires, a chapterhouse and refectory.
At its start the priory would have been built of timber. Eventually over time it would have been enlarged and buildings built of septia stone, flint, Kentish rag stone and Reigate stone, replacing the timber. Along with the ecclesical buildings the priory would also have a church (which would have been dedicated to St John and St Thomas) was 200 foot long in length and houses some of the senior monks who were laid to rest there. As with most monastic houses, Prittlewell also had a cemetery where the lay folk and servants would have been buried.
As Prittlewell was the daughter house of St Pancreas Priory, Lewes, its priors would always come from there. They would usually be nominated the Prior of St Pancreas and then the Kind would have to accept that nomination and accept the new Prior. Most of the time at Prittlewell this happened without disruption or issue however in during the early 1300s things did not run as smoothly. In 1311 William de Auvergnat was appointed Prior of Prittlewell. Three years into his position it was found that he was guilty of inappropriate behaviour during a visit to London. This resulted in the Prior of St Pancreas putting in a request that he be replaced and had even suggested a man – Guichard de Caro Loco, but the King did not accept. Therefore while the issue of Prior was being resolved a man, Adam de Osgodeby, was appointed keeper of the Priory to keep it running and in good order. A prolonged conflict ensued between the two priories. It even involved William appealing to the King attempting to take the Priory by force on two occasions.
In 1321, the Prior of St Pancreas had had enough and sent two monks to Prittlewell with their own armed force and were to take possession of the Priory once and for all. While William was celebrating mass at the high alter he was hit over the head and dragged out of the priory. Along with a few other monks they were imprisoned, bound, at Lewes. William later dying, most likely from the wound he received. His death would, once and for all, bring an end to the issue of Prior at Prittlewell, he was succeeded by James de Cusanicia.
As with most monasteries, Prittlewell priory was dissolved with the coming of the dissolution by the orders of Henry VIII in 1536. It was one of 11 dissolved in Essex under the Act of Suppression, 1536. At the start it was the smaller, lesser monasteries which were closed down. Those on an income of less than £200 were the first to close. Prittlewell Priory had an income of £150 so therefore was one of the first on the list in Essex. All of the buildings with the exception of the refectory, cellar and the 14th century prior’s chamber were pulled down.
In 1537, Thomas Audley brought the Priory for £400. Ten years later Sir Richard Rich then brought it for double the price at £800. Rich owned many properties in Essex already, including g those nearby of Rochford, Rayleigh, Hockley and Sutton. He most likely rented the Priory House out and demolished many of the other buildings that no longer had any use. Usually the materials such as the bricks that could be re used would have been used in nearby building projects.
The last residents of Prittlewell Priory were the Scratton family in the 19th century. Various members and generations of the Scratton family had lived in Prittlewell Priory during the 18th and 19th Century making a number of alterations to the priory. In 1675 D. Scratton of Basltead brought the Priory and most likely lived there. He eventually leased the building to Tenants. In 1842 Daniel Robert Scratton inherited and renovated the building making it into a home, this included adding a library and parlour. In 1887 William Howell Scratton brought the Priory from a family member and made it into a family home for his wife and children, this included a walled garden (over the monks burial ground).
William and his wife Edith had six children who contributed to a series of albums which had photographs, drawings and storied of their life at the former Priory. They called it the Priory Times and the editor was the eldest child Edith Dorothy. Even their pets featured in the Priory times (they had a large number including donkeys, dogs and rabbits). The children clearly had a vivid imagination and it is from their stories and photographs that we can gain an idea of not only their family life but life in Southend during the Victorian era.
In 1917, Robert Jones who had brought the Priory from the Scrattons gave the Priory and the land to Southend on Sea Council. In 1920 the Priory and park were formally opened in July by the Duke of York. In May 1922 it became Southends first museum and still is a museum to this day.
The Museum, though small, is very informative and for all ages. When you first arrive there is a lovely volunteer who greets you and explains what you will be seeing. The museum has rooms highlighting the whole history of the priory, including the cellar explaining the life of the monks there with various artefacts on show and information boards. The hall where the monks had their food stands proud and has within it small puzzles for children of the stained glass windows and more information boards along with a memorial to those who fell in the wars. On the upper floors you can look down on the hall from the false minstrel’s gallery. There are other rooms decorated to look like the rooms the Scratton family lived in, again with information boards and even a board game and a model of what the priory looked like. On the third floor there are displays of stuffed animals and information on the priory as the nature within its grounds. For a building that is free to enter and relies on volunteers and donations it really does offer a lot.
In the Priory grounds there is plenty of space to walk around and enjoy a picnic. There are duck ponds (the same the monks used to fish from), and a large park for children to play in. There are two cafes on site and a band stand which often has events going on. I went to one a few years back of a trio of singers, called the Daisy Bowlers, and were performing songs from WW1 and WW2 for VE day. It was a lovely afternoon spent with my niece and nephew. You could quite easily spend most of the day there if you get the right weather. The museum is not always open however so please check opening days and times if you plan to visit. Please visit http://www.southendmuseums.co.uk for opening times and for more information.
Prittlewell Priory guidebook