Thurgarton St Peter


Castle Hill, Thurgarton

Castle Hill lies some 250m south of the present church. Excavations show that it may well be the site of the church mentioned in Domesday.

Anglo-Saxon and early Norman

The place name Thurgarton is a typical Grimston hybrid and suggests that Thorrgeir, a Dane, took over lordship of an existing Anglian estate sometime in the 9-10th centuries. Thurgarton also gave its name to the surrounding wapentake indicating that the village was of some importance in pre-conquest Nottinghamshire.

Domesday indicates that at the time of the conquest there was a church at Thurgarton or Tythby. The most likely site of this is Castle Hill, Thurgarton. After 1066 the lordship passed from the Anglo-Scandinavian thegn, Swein, to the Norman Walter Dayncourt who held extensive lands in the East Midlands.

The Priory


Walter’s son Ralph at the request of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, founded an Augustinian Priory dedicated to Saint Peter at Thurgarton in c1130. The first charter was issued in the presence of the Chapter of Southwell Minster by Thurstan, Archbishop of York and states that:

Ralph Dayncourt, on our advice and counsel, grants to God and the church of St Peter at Thurgarton and the regular canons who serve God there, all the churches of his lands

The second charter was issued by Ralph Dayncourt, again before the Chapter of Southwell Minster but after the death of Archbishop Thurstan. It reads:

I, Ralph de Ayncurt, for the good of my soul, and the souls of my sons and daughters, my parents, my wife Basilia and all our ancestors, have founded a house of religion at Thurgarton, and grant to the regular canons who there serve God and St Peter, on the counsel and entreaty of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, of blessed memory, all my land at Thurgarton and Fiskerton, the park next to Thurgarton and all the churches of my lands.

Early charters from the Thurgarton cartulary indicate that in the early years after its foundation the community lived at St Mary’s Chapel in Fiskerton. An initial inspection of the surviving medieval fabric of St Peter’s reveals a predominantly early 13th century church with later 14th century work but there is also evidence for an earlier building.

12th Century Building

Fragment of 12th
century moulding

A reference to building work occurs in a charter from 1168-73 when land-rent is given, ad operacionem ecclesie Sancti Petri, and a charter of pre-1185 refers to the founding of an altar of St James in the conventual church. A search of the surrounding gardens and rockeries has exposed several twelfth-century architectural fragments from a Romanesque stone church, such as a section of decorated soffit moulding from a large arch which is from the second half of the century and resembles work from the west front of Lincoln of the mid-twelfth century.

13th Century Building

A major building campaign of the first half of the 13th century resulted in an impressive conventual church of Early English Gothic design, but the exact dimensions of the church are as yet uncertain. White Mansfield stone, as at Southwell Minster, was used for the finer carved work but a large amount of local skerry stone was also employed probably quarried from Stone Pit Close which lies a mere 250m to the north of the church. The parish was rich in timber but additional oaks were granted by the crown from Sherwood Forest – three in 1228, twenty in 1236, ten in 1252 and six in 1258.

In addition to the altar to St James, there were others to St Anne, St Nicholas, St Mary, and to St Thomas Becket, with a further altar to the Virgin in the infirmary, and by the fifteenth century there was also an altar to St Katherine. The Valor Ecclesiaticus also mentions a pilgrimage site at Thurgarton to St Ethelburgum.

The majority of the claustral buildings including an infirmary were completed in this 13th century phase of building. The cost of such an ambitious scheme may in part explain the priory’s financial problems recorded in the Archbishop’s Visitations of the late 13th century.

14th Century Building

It seems likely that the east end of the church was reworked in the fourteenth century. A pair of traceried windows from the late thirteenth century had been modified in c1330 to incorporate a beautiful sculptured niche for an image.

The niche can be related to the Southwell pulpitum and to other elaborately decorated work produced by masons from the region in the county and in the north of England. In 1323 Archbishop Melton dedicated new altars possibly including the surviving niche. The windows and the niche are both mentioned in the pre-restoration antiquarian accounts and were re-sited by Hine behind the altar in his new chancel. Further fourteenth-century mouldings, from archways and soffits, are in the stone collection and suggest that the reworking may have been substantial.

Life in the Priory.

Thurgarton Priory became the largest of the county’s Augustinian houses and the second wealthiest Nottinghamshire house. At its height the priory’s estate in the East Midlands controlled extensive farm lands including wealthy manors in the fertile Vale of Belvoir, town property in Nottingham, Newark, Lincoln and Boston, and the livings of over twenty five churches.

The Augustinians were subject to the authority of their local bishop and underwent regular episcopal visits. The Archbishop’s Visitations from 1276 to 1316 describe a low point in the religious life at Thurgarton; a long list of financial mismanagement, troublesome brothers, horseplay and fighting in choir, vagrancy and sexual incontinence, paint a bleak picture.

In 1359 Robert of Hickling, Prior of Thurgarton, was one of the countless victims of the Black Death. Such a devastating series of epidemics profoundly altered attitudes and challenged accepted religious beliefs. The teachings of Wycliffe and the rise of the Lollards provoked a backlash from the established church; in 1388 the Prior of Thurgarton was part of a council set up to seek out the heretics and their publications in Nottinghamshire.

Representation of
Walter Hilton

The end of the 14th century saw a revival in Thurgarton’s reputation as a seat of learning and spiritual teaching. Walter Hilton became a canon of Thurgarton Priory sometime in the mid-1380s and died there in March 1396. His best known work, The Ladder of Perfection, is a guide to a life of prayer and contemplation. Written in English it became a medieval best seller undergoing repeated reprints up to the Reformation; Thomas More recommended it to his gaoler when in the Tower. Although classified along with Rolle and Julian of Norwich as one of the English mystics, Hilton’s writings have little of heavenly visions but concentrate on practical advice and a step by step journey towards the perfect life.

In 1536 Thurgarton Priory was visited by Henry VIII’s infamous commissioners, Drs Legh and Layton, who reported that:

ten brothers were guilty of unnatural offences, the prior had been incontinent with several women and six others with both married and single women, and eight canons desired to be released from their vows.

On Friday 14th June 1538 Prior John Berwick and eight canons signed the surrender document which stated that they acknowledged Henry VIII’s supremacy in the church and voluntarily transferred Thurgarton Priory with all its lands, property and rights to the king in perpetuity.

The priory buildings and land in the north of the parish were sold in March 1539 to William and Cecilia Cowper for £510 6s 8d. In 1546 the southern half of the parish with the village plots and the advowson and tithes of the parish church were granted by the crown to Trinity College, Cambridge.

John Leland, King Henry VIII’s antiquary, visited Thurgarton in his tour between 1535 and 1543. He wrote simply:

To Thurgoton village and priory of Blak Chanons lately suppressid …

The Post-reformation Church

The Coopers dismantled most of the church and claustral ranges and built a large house immediately to the south of the church. The house was a stone building of three wings around a courtyard; a 17th probate inventory records over thirty rooms and a wide range of outbuildings including a brew-house, a wash-house and a pigeon cote.

Buck’s engraving
dated 1726

The priory kitchen, seen to the far south in Buck’s print, was described by antiquarians as ‘large and magnificent’. It survived up to the 1770s when it was destroyed along with the Tudor house to make way for the Cooper’s new brick-built Georgian mansion.

The western end of the nave of the priory church was retained as the parish church after the Dissolution, together with part of the west facade, while the rest of the church was destroyed. The south tower and upper levels of the nave had been removed before 1726 when Buck drew the west view of the priory. The church

appears to have fallen into disrepair in the 18th century. A rather dismal building is described in 1790 as consisting of ‘one dark aisle’.

Victorian Restoration

In 1820 John Gilbert Cooper Gardiner was obliged to sell his Thurgarton estate to settle his debts. The new owners were the Milward family three generations of which dominated parish life in the 19th century. The second Richard Milward was responsible for the restoration of the church in the 1850s; he paid most of the £3000 bill with a donation of £500 from Trinity College, Cambridge.

The building was enlarged to take on its current appearance by the Nottingham architect, Thomas Chambers Hine, in 1853, at the same time as he extended the house on the south. Hine re-exposed and restored both arcades and created a chancel. He replaced the north aisle wall approximately on the site of the medieval original, built a new porch, into which he installed the medieval north portal, and added the narrow south aisle in the space between the church and the house. Thurgarton was only his second church commission and his first major restoration of a medieval structure; his reworking of Thurgarton is both sympathetic and surprisingly archaeological in its approach.

In 1880 the Thurgarton estate was sold to Sir John Robinson as a home for his son who tragically died in an accident before taking up residence. The house was let to George Ridding, first Bishop of Southwell, who lived there from 1884 to 1904. He described the church as the ‘best episcopal chapel in England’. The church, house and gardens were frequently busy with diocesan conferences and garden parties. Laura Ridding recalls her husband’s fondness for the house and church at Thurgarton and describes morning walks in the grounds, feeding pet chaffinches and playing with his chaplain’s young children. All attempts by diocesan officials to move the Bishop to a Southwell residence were politely resisted.

The Priory estate has changed hands several times in the 20th century. For 50 years from War World II the house and adjoining farms were a research centre for the Boots Pure Drug Company. It is now in private ownership.