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Royston Priory (1162–1537)

In c.1162, a chapel was built at Royston, on the site of the modern church, and dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was founded by Eustace de Merc, Lord of Newsells manor, who owned the land on which Royston now sits.

The chapel was small and housed three chaplains. There was no significant settlement at Royston at this time, and the chapel was never very powerful or influential, so little has been recorded of its history.

Shortly afterwards, the chapel was enlarged into a priory by Ralph de Rochester, nephew of Eustace de Merc and subsequent Lord of Newsells. The priory housed seven canons and was ruled over by an elected prior, the first of which was called Simon. The priory followed Augustinian rule and its dedication was amended to include St Thomas of Canterbury, who, in 1172, had been made a saint following his assassination in 1170.

Monastic Life

The Order of Augustinian Canons emerged towards the end of the 1000s. They were a Roman Catholic order who followed the rule of St Augustine, a western theologian who died in 430 AD. They were also known as Black Canons because they wore long black cassocks, a black cloak and a black hood. On their head they wore a high crowned soft hat with no brim, that tilted backwards from the forehead. Unlike typical monks, they were allowed to have beards.

They were similar to monks in that they lived in religious communities, shared property and took religious vows, like poverty and obedience, but Augustinian canons were not confined to the priory and went out into the community to preach, teach and care for the sick. They were the first religious order to combine religious duties with community life in this way. Canons worked in the script room copying manuscripts, teaching boys at the town school, managing the refectory and gardens, and keeping financial accounts for the kitchen, farm and market. They also worked with local industry and trade; ploughing, sowing, harvesting and shearing sheep.

Over 200 houses were founded by the Order in England and Wales, but many of them, like Royston, were modest in size. Inside, the priory was adapted to the primary objects of monastic life, described as ‘worship, improvement and work’.

A typical day would have begun with early prayers at 5am followed by study or exercise until 8, and then high mass until 10. After lunch, they studied again until 3. An evening service was held before dinner at 5pm, which was followed by further prayer until 6, and then all retired to their dormitories. At midnight, a bell would ring to call the canons to prayer for the final time.

Although Augustinian priories were not as strict as some Orders, there were rules that canons had to follow. They were not allowed to wander through town alone, enter townhouses without good cause, or miss a service. Women were not to eat within the priory or enter any areas reserved for the canons unless they had an escort, were of good repute and had permission from the prior.

Royston Priory's coat of arms. Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.

Establishment of the Priory

The priory shaped Royston’s history and controlled or influenced many elements of local life. Its establishment was first confirmed in 1184, in an official papal document by Pope Lucius III. It referred to the priory at ‘Crux Roisae’, or Roisia’s Cross, named after either the nearby crossroad or the monument that marked it. This is the earliest known record of Royston.

The Pope also confirmed gifts given to the priory by Eustace de Merc, including land and a church in Chesterton, near Cambridge. These were confirmed again by Pope Celestine III in 1192, with the addition of large stretches of heathland, 140 acres of farmland and pasture for 100 sheep, gifted to the priory by Ralph de Rochester.

The priory and all of its gifts were confirmed a third time on 9th November 1189, in a royal charter by King Richard I. To their possessions had been added a church in Cottenham, Suffolk; 100 acres of land and a church in Oversby, Lincolnshire; 120 acres of land in Essex; 3 acres of land near Royston; 6.5 acres of land in Melbourn; 2 acres of land in Bassingbourn; 6 acres of land in Willington; 2 acres of land in Reed; 2.5 acres of land in Barley; 15 acres of land in Kneesworth; and 20 shillings of rent in Barton.

The King granted the priory all the privileges and liberties that he was able to bestow upon them, including; the right to have tenants, the ability to buy and sell within their land, the right to hold a court to trial and sentence criminals, and exemption from all taxes, market fees and road tolls throughout the land. This charter was confirmed again in 1272 by Henry III, and several more times after that.

Importantly, Richard’s charter also allowed the priory to hold a fair in the week of Pentecost, and a weekly market every Wednesday. This enabled local trade and economy, from which Royston was able to grow and prosper. It became one of the largest and most famous corn and malt markets in England, attracting people from across the country.

Initially, temporary wooden market stalls were erected on land to the west of the priory but these were gradually replaced by permanent buildings. The town’s centre was established at this time too and its streets, crisscrossed by narrow alleys, can still be seen today. Royston’s modern market operates on a Wednesday and a Saturday on Market Hill, but its original location would have been closer to the crossroad, towards the junction of Melbourn Street and Kneesworth Street.

No one could buy or sell at the market without a license from the prior and traders were charged a fee for the right to sell their produce there. It became a valuable source of income for the priory and a toll collector was employed to enforce payment.

The Knights Templar from Baldock, who had a stall at Royston, were technically exempt from these fees but were forced to pay every Wednesday anyway, until their exemption could be proven. It was the basis of a longstanding dispute in which the Templars continued to pay under protest until they appealed the decision and King John ruled that the priory should refund all money taken from the Templars to date, to the sum of 37 shillings.

The priory would have sold their own produce at the market, and probably took stalls out to neighbouring markets as well. They obtained a second fair in 1242, to be held on the feast day of St Thomas of Canterbury, and, in 1254, a weekly market and annual fair at Chesterton.

The priory was relatively well off compared with most religious houses in the country and, as well as market revenue, received substantial income from wills, rent, taxes and burial fees.

For the next 300 years, the priory also received a steady stream of land, gifts and money from pious benefactors including Michael de Spayne and his wife Margerie, who, in 1355, gave the priory 70 acres of land, 2 acres of meadow, 12 acres of pasture and 1 acre of wood in Cockenhatch. Alice de Scales, Ralph de Rochester’s daughter, gifted the priory 40 acres of land between Barley and Royston, with pasture for a 100 sheep, and her brother, William de Rochester, granted the priory land in Ashwell and a further 40 acres, confirmed in a charter by Henry III. The same charter listed 50 acres of land with buildings in West Reed, gifted by a lady called Elen, plus a a water mill in Barton, and tenements and farmland in Lakenham, gifted by Peter de Rochester. In 1290, The Clerk of the Exchequer gave the priory a house in Fleet Street for the canons to found a chantry at the priory for ‘the welfare of his soul’, and Edmund Earl of March, the priory’s patron, donated over 9kg of silver in 1382, so that his soul could be celebrated in mass every day for a year. This generosity reflected local sentiment, the influence of the priory and the power of faith in the Middle Ages.

Besides the original founders, the most generous benefactor was Thomas Palfreyman, chaplain of Roys Cross, who gave the priory 34 acres of land in west Reed and Royston in 1358; a mill and 40 acres of land in Royston and Buckland in 1363, for a lamp to be burnt at the priory every day; 40 acres of land, 1 acre of meadows, 40 acres of pasture and 1 acre of wood in Buckland, in 1364; and further land in 1366 and 1368, for the priory to celebrate his anniversary every year forever. The license for Palfreyman's 1366 gifts is the earliest record of the name Roys Cross being contracted to Royston.

The Priory Building

Very few records or plans of the original priory buildings exist, so it is difficult to establish exactly what it looked like. The buildings took the form of a quadrangle. The chapter house, cloisters and church were on the north side, with the domestic offices on the west and south sides, with a porter’s lodge and gate in the south-west corner, and an opening onto the cloister gardens in the east.

It was modest in size and probably varied little over the years. It escaped the Great Fire of Royston in 1324, which destroyed most of the town, and it continued to flourish until its dissolution. The priory was frequented by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury or St Albans, as well as others traveling the North Road seeking hospitality. It was also used to entertain notable visitors to the area including Cardinal Wolsey, who rested at Royston on his final journey north in 1530.

Attached to the priory was a church which was also for the benefit of the town and functioned somewhat like a public assembly hall, where inhabitants could go to hear music and sermons, witness ceremonies and exchange gossip. Court days were held to solve community problems and were opportunities for townspeople to ask for their child to attend the priory school, ask permission to marry and solve disputes. It could also be a place for issuing justice, punishing criminals and offender, supporting the poor and sick, and regulating trade. A bailiff was employed to prevent infringements and issue the sentences and rulings of the prior.

Burials, marriages and baptisms were performed by the churches of the respective parishes across which Royston was split; Barkway, Therfield, Bassingbourn and Melbourn. As such, the these parishes were very often a part of Royston’s history too. However, the inconvenience of attending worship in neighbouring villages, probably led to the priory becoming an informal parish church.

There is thought to have been a burial ground in Royston, by Mill Road, where a large number of skeleton remains were found, as well as some Saxon relics, with its own little chapel by an area aptly named Chapel Fields. This was probably closed after the dissolution of the monastery, when the provision of a burial ground attached to the new parish church was made as part of the arrangements for the formation of the new parish of Royston.

Burials were held within the the priory grounds too, seen from excavations, but these were likely kept for priors, canons, local nobility, wealthy families and influential people. One of these was William Lee, whose will in 1527, called for his body to be buried ‘in the church of the monastery of Royston by the sepulture of Elizabeth’, his late wife. William Lee owned a number of holdings in Royston, including the buildings above Royston Cave’s entrance. The money from his estates is still used by The William Lee charity to benefit the poor.

As was common by major highways in the middle ages, there were two hospitals established in Royston at a very early date too, founded shortly after the priory. They were both leper hospitals, founded by the crossroads to care for and isolate people suffering with leprosy. The hospital of St Nicholas lay on the Cambridgeshire side of Royston, while the hospital of St John and James sat in Hertfordshire, on the south side of Baldock Street, where the Jolly Post pub now sits. These hospitals had their own priests, chaplains and chapel attached.

Inside the church, the choir or east end was for the clergy and canons, and the nave or west end for the townspeople. Churches of this period did not usually have permanent seats installed so it could remain multi-functional. Instead, temporary seats were brought in or hired and this evolved into the modern pew system.

In 1224, the grounds of the priory were enlarged to accommodate the building of a new chamber for the prior, authorised by Henry III, but the majority of the priory was constructed between 1250-1280.

In addition to the religious buildings were the secular ones including the dairy, brewery and granary. Higher up the hill were the homestead buildings for farm work, and on the top of the hill, to the left of Barkway Road, stood the priory mill, which ground their own corn and the corn of their tenants. Fish Hill, lying to the west of the priory, was probably a continuation of the rabbit warren.

St John the Baptist Church, Royston. © Royston Museum

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Prior White died on 1st April 1534 and was succeeded by Richard Bretton. By now, there were ten canons at the priory, all of whom, except Bretton, assembled in the chapter house on 1st July 1534 and signed the deed accepting the Act of Supremacy. The Act, issued by King Henry VIII, called on all canons throughout the country to renounce the authority of the Pope, acknowledge the supremacy of the king as head of the Church and accept the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. This would shape Britain’s national and foreign politics forever.

John Mantyre was first to sign, followed by Alexander Stokes, John Wellys, Richard Allanson, Thomas Sykes, William Harrison, Henry Worllond, a second Thomas Sykes and Thomas Wade.

The deed, currently held in the Public Record Office, was stamped with a wax impression of the Priory seal, the only surviving depiction of it. The seal, introduced in the 1400s, shows Roisia’s Cross in the centre, placed between the figures of St John the Baptist on the left and St Thomas of Canterbury, holding a mitre and crozier, on the right. Beneath them, under an arch, is a little figure of a prior praying.

The seal of Royston Priory. Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.

The priory was subsequently dissolved on 9th April 1537, following the Act of Suppression in 1536. At the time of its dissolution there were only 7 canons, including the prior Bretten who received an annual pension of £16. The other six canons were dismissed with very little.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry appointed commissioners to visit smaller religious houses. He ordered that any that made less than £200 a year were to be given to the Crown. Royston’s priory was said to be of good reputation and the building in good repair, and its gross revenue in 1537 was valued at at least £133.

The priory building was dismantled almost immediately and all of its possessions were sold, including its silver and the bells in its steeple. The townspeople purchased the building for approximately £800 and, in 1540, an Act of Parliament created the new parish of Royston, previously divided between the parishes of Barkway, Therfield, Bassingbourn and Melbourn. Alexander Stokes, a canon of the old priory, was its first vicar and a burial ground was established for the new parish.

Very little of the original priory survived. The nave and aisle of the former and larger church were pulled down and the present west tower stands where the old nave ended. There were traces of the old building incorporated in the new nave and south aisle.

Since Henry VIII had denounced St Thomas of Canterbury as a traitor, and ordered all imagery of him to be destroyed, the new church was dedicated to St John the Baptist only. Royston’s feast day is held annually on 24th June, on the feast day of St John.

The loss of the priory was a religious and industrial upheaval for the town and yet, despite the changes, Royston’s market remained relatively unaffected. Queen Elizabeth I supposedly once referenced ‘Royston Hill’ and its abundance of ‘good malts’.

In 1540, the Priory House, manor, land and market were sold to Robert Chester, gentlemen usher of the King’s Chamber, for £1761. Many of the properties remained in the Chester family for the next 200 years.



Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.

Royston Parish Church. (1990s). The Priory and Parish Church of St John the Baptist Royston: A Short History and Guide. Lincoln: Yard Publishing Services.

Royston Parish Church. (1985). St John the Baptist, Royston, Herts. Ramsgate: The Church Publishers.

Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.

British History Online. 'Houses of Austin canons: Royston priory', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4, ed. William Page (London, 1971), pp. 436-440. British History Online [accessed 30 April 2022].


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