Barnwell Priory


Barnwell Priory was founded in 1092 and is the Abbey for which Abbey ward is named! It hosted numerous medieval kings and even a Parliament. But it was not always popular. It survived a revolt launched by angry locals in 1381, however 150 years later it became the target of a more powerful foe, King Henry VIII. Most of the Abbey was dismantled with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, standing as a ruin from 1538 to 1810. Hardly anything now remains of this medieval landmark, except for the storehouse called the Exchequer (for coins, fish and grain), which you can still see on Beche Road. The Abbey is now memorialized by the naming of Abbey Meadows School and by the streets named after Priors from 800 years ago, as in Thorleye Road, Rayson Way, Stanesfield Road, Gerard Road, Rawlyn Road and Peverel Road.

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For more than 400 years, the monastery that once stood on this site was one of the most important buildings in Cambridgeshire. From humble beginnings as a house of just six monks, Barnwell Priory was to play host to medieval kings and their courts, as well as being the centre of local life between the 12th and early 16th centuries. But though it would survive being struck by lightning and a violent riot by Barnwell residents, the Priory could not resist Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. It is thanks to Henry – and those who moved in to loot and clear the land after his officials had left – that hardly anything now remains of this medieval landmark.

The Priory was founded in 1092 by Picot of Cambridge who, as High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, was one of the most important men in the county. Picot’s wife, Hugoline, was critically ill. As she lay in bed, Hugoline vowed to God that if she recovered she would build a monastery. Picot promised his wife that he would support her plan for a foundation to honour her saint, St Giles, the patron saint of – amongst other things – lepers, beggars, and outcasts. Perhaps given new lease of life by this promise, Hugoline recovered in just three days!

Tragically, neither Picot nor Hugoline survived to see their Priory completed, though they did live to see the first generation of monks enter its newly built walls. Construction and expansion continued sporadically after Picot’s death and Pain Peverel, the new patron of Barnwell, moved building works to be nearer the Barnwell spring. The Priory was finally finished in 1112, a decade after its foundation.

The Priory enjoyed enormous wealth and prosperity in the medieval period. The number of monks housed at Barnwell increased from 6 to more than 30. King John, Edward I, Edward II, and Henry II all spent periods at Barnwell – often accompanied by huge entourages from their London courts – and during the reign of Richard II the Priory was chosen as the location for a Parliament held in Cambridge.

But the monks and their neighbours did not always enjoy such good fortune. During a late evening service on 3 February 1287, there was a great storm in which lightning struck the tower of the Priory and set the building ablaze. Sparks – said to be ‘like apples of gold’ – were blown by strong winds into neighbouring houses and, in the absence of the Fire Service we have today, the fire raged for nearly two days. Large parts of the Priory and surrounding buildings were completely destroyed. The damage was so great that it took more than two years to repair.

For the most part, the Priory enjoyed good relations with the local community. In the medieval period, monasteries like Barnwell were an important source of education and charity for those who lived in the local area, as well as offering religious services to a community who would, virtually without exception, have believed in God. The monks were also important landowners and rented farmland and houses to local people.

But things turned sour when the monks began to practice a type of landowning known as ‘enclosure’, meaning that they turned large areas of communal land into private farms. The monks’ greed greatly angered the people of Barnwell. When a huge national uprising known as the Peasants’ Revolt began in 1381, the Priory became a target of popular violence. A crowd of more than 1000 people broke down the gate, door, and walls. They raided the monks’ storehouse for food, including fish, which was very expensive in the medieval period and therefore not something the rioters could normally afford. Later, the monks would claim that they had lost £1000 in the attacks – almost half a million pounds in today’s money!

Unsurprisingly given the scale of the violence, many of the rioters were put on trial by the local authorities. Amongst the rebels had been the mayor of Cambridge, Edmund Redmeadowe. He attempted to convince the court that he had only participated under pressure from the locals. But clearly the court did not believe him – he was found guilty, imprisoned, and removed from office!

The Priory managed to survive the revolt, but worse was yet to come in the early 16th century. King Henry VIII, who is infamous today for having six wives, was in desperate need of money to fight wars in France and Scotland. He wanted the monasteries’ huge wealth for himself. He may also have been genuinely sceptical about the usefulness of monasteries, which were often said to be dens of corruption and immoral behaviour. The government therefore embarked on what is now known as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. In the space of four years, every single religious house in England and Wales was closed and demolished. This included Barnwell, which surrendered to the king in November 1538. Royal officials quickly moved in to strip the Priory of its most valuable possessions. When they had left, the locals took over and – as was also the case at monasteries up and down the country – took anything that wasn’t nailed down. 

Barnwell was left a ruin. Eventually, in 1810, it was decided that the land needed to be cleared. As a result of this, we know very little about the building, despite some attempts at archaeological excavation. All that remains today is the ruin of the cellarer’s checker, where food was counted and stored – this is probably the same storehouse from which the locals stole fish in 1381! The site is now also home to the Church of St Andrew the Less.

But the patrons and monks of the old Priory left a lasting legacy to the community. Many of the most important people connected to the Priory gave their names to streets in the area, with patrons and superiors Thorleye, Gerard, Rawlyn, Rayson, Stanesfield, Norton, and Peverel all represented on the streets of Barnwell.

Discover More


Dugdale, William, Monasticon Anglicanum (1693).

Fullwood, Francis, The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII (1655).

The history of Barnwell Abbey, near Cambridge, with the origin of Sturbridge Fair, taken from ancient manuscripts: to which is added a list of the mayors of Cambridge, from the year 1488 to 1806 (Cambridge: printed by Mary Watson, 1806).

Keynes, Florence Ada, By-Ways of Cambridge (Cambridge, 2009), chapter 4, ‘Barnwell Priory and the Old Abbey House’, pp. 81-108.

Prickett, Marmaduke, Some account of Barnwell Priory, in the parish of St Andrew the Less, Cambridge (Cambridge: T. Stevenson, 1837).

White, William, A jubilee memorial of the consecration of Christ Church, Cambridge, which took place June 27th, 1839. To which is prefixed a short history of Barnwell Priory, from its foundation to the present time (Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1889).

 LOCAL PLACE: Barnwell Priory, Newmarket Rd, Cambridge CB5 8HA


 British History Online, digital edition of A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2 (Victoria County History, London, 1948), pp. 234-249:

Barnwell Priory


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