The Parish Church of St Mary’s, Modbury is recorded in 1084 as holding a hide of land, more than 120 acres, free of tax. This large amount of land was sufficient to support several priests living together and serving the thirteen manors or so of this large parish. It is therefore considered to have been a small Saxon Minster.
By 1135 Reginald de Valletort, lord of Modbury and his brother Ralph had given the church and lands to the Norman Abbey of St Mary of St Pierre sur Dives, and a small conventual priory under a prior and two monks was administering the lands profitably for both abbey and priory. There is no trace of priory buildings today but documentary evidence shows that they lay very close to the church on the north side of the present church path. The north door leading into the church has long been known as the prior’s doorway. Leland between 1534 and 1543 could still see ‘the site of their (the monks’) Mansion the North side of the Chirche’. There was ‘a priory gate with a room above’, a monks’ dormitory and a Chapel of St George, a hall, several unnamed domestic rooms, stabling and closes of land to enable the monks to cater for themselves, their guests and household servants. Priory land extended northwards up to the present Plymouth Road. After the death of the last prior the buildings gradually became obsolete and neglected. The valuable dressed stones were used elsewhere, donated, sold or stolen.
The original hide of church land is considered to have contained part of Ludbrook and the vills of Penquit and Upton which were then part of Modbury Parish. Upton was the priory demesne land. Land in Modbury included the 7.5 acres of glebe land rented to the vicar for 7 shillings p.a., and the mill at Swanbridge with land westward towards Orcheton. The priory flourished, well supported by tenants of de Valletort lands. But in 1204 King John lost Normandy, and the many priories in England, like Modbury, belonging to French abbeys and founded after 1066 by the Norman kings and their Norman lords, became known as the Norman Alien Priories. Despite probable difficulties of contact with France, there is only one recorded instance of falling standards in c.1240 when the then patron, Reginald de Valletort, arbitrarily removed Prior Galfridus because of his dishonest and promiscuous behaviour. Otherwise the monks continued to consolidate their position. The gift of a burgage in the town in c.1250 enabled the monks to trade freely at the market. Both the church and priory lay just outside the borough boundary, and the town with its profitable tolls, rents and court fees had not been part of the original gift.
It was intended that the priory should be small for it was to accommodate only a prior and two monks. As patron, the Lord of Modbury helped the prior in business affairs. He had to approve the abbot’s choice of prior and vicar – for the abbey held the advowson – then present them to the bishop for institution, and remove the prior if his conduct was unsatisfactory. The Bishop of Exeter instituted the vicar and he kept a close watch on the welfare both of vicar and parishioners and guarded his own rights carefully.
In 1294 war broke out with France. The French monks were regarded everywhere as potential spies supporting the enemy financially. In 1324 war was renewed and hostility grew nationally. In 1330, at the prior’s request, the Bishop of Exeter commanded the vicar of Modbury to forbid his parishioners burying their dead illegally on the north side of the churchyard under the priory windows, perhaps in shallow graves in order to pollute the priory air. Over the next eighty years Parliament repeatedly demanded that the alien priories be suppressed, but successive kings, always being short of money, preferred to accept the highest rent offered for the priory land, usually from each desperately poor prior keen to preserve as much as he could. Whoever leased the priory was responsible for any repairs to the buildings, but not the loss of moveable assets.
At last, in 1441 King Henry VI gave the priory and its possessions to his new foundation of the College of the Blessed Mary at Eton. William Benselyn was the prior. He had been instituted in 1430 when he was about twenty-nine years old. Accompanied by one or two monks from his Norman abbey, the prior lived in the priory (as lessee of the priory lands) until 1478. He had died by 1480. Modbury Priory was one of the longest surviving Norman alien priories in England.
In about 1300 the church was rebuilt in the decorated style and was renamed St George. The church tower and broach spire were built soon afterwards. The two transepts were then added. In the south transept there is the effigy of a knight of the Champernowne family, and in the north there is an effigy of a member of the Prideaux family who had occupied the manor of Great Orcheton for thirteen generations from 1224.
The lord’s house, called Modbury House, lay on the east of the church lands, and was rebuilt and castellated in 1334 by royal license. The Black Death 1348-50, was followed by more plagues and a harsh period of recession. In 1377 the population of Modbury had fallen to 300 and building work had stopped in town and church. This could explain why the south aisle of the church extends further to the west than the north aisle.
The town prospered in the next century, a period of recovery from the plague. In 1463 it supported over thirty-five different trades, mostly associated with cloth making, and it had a weekly market and an annual fair on St George’s Day. Church life was active; there were two Chantries and at least four fraternities, each with its own responsibilities for church fabric upkeep and parish welfare.
After the Reformation in 1548 the fraternities and the Chantries were suppressed and the services of their priests and chaplains were lost. The rood was taken down and the church stripped of its images and side altars. Church life had changed. In 1601 a Church house was let and renamed The Bell Inn, now known as no. 3 Broad Street. Before 1548, Church Houses had provided refreshment and entertainment after all church and fraternity festivals. Trade prospered and many houses like Oldaport and Shearlangstone were built and (Old) Traine was rebuilt.
Notable Modbury families were represented by Sir Philip Champernowne, Thomas Fortescu of Whimpston and Thomas Prideaux of Orcheton. All three were of feudal nobility. Robert Hill of Shilston was a newcomer, having risen to the ranks of the landed gentry through the profession of the law. An interesting memorial tombstone to Oliver Hill of Shilston dated 1573 and inscribed with an acrostic verse can be seen in the church.
Author: Jo James