Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Where was Harrold Priory?

Victorian maps of Harrold show the site of the Priory being to the south west of the main village, on a spot now occupied by Harrold Priory Middle School.  Archaeological work on the site in 2005 found considerable medieval remains here.  It would have been a sound choice for siting the Priory - being on slightly raised ground and so less liable to winter flooding.  In an earlier period than the map, the main east-west road ran along what is shown as an avenue of trees north of the Hall and along Wellocks, shown here as FP (footpath).  This would confirm the complaint of the nuns that being alongside the road was ruinous in terms of the hospitality they had to provide to travelers.

The 1901 Ordnance Survey map, showing the Priory top left, separate from Harrold Hall.
Source Bedford Community Archives


However, this map and others have the location wrong.  We know that the Priory did in fact flood (another of the nuns' compaints) and that it was located to the south side of the church, on the estate occupied in 1901 by Harrold Hall.  Some stone coffins, thought to have belonged to some of Harrold's nuns, was found in the grounds in 1890, and was moved to the porch of St Peter's church.  As the Bedfordshire Mercury reported the finds on 14th May 1887: “A stone coffin, seven feet long and about three wide, has recently been found by some men employed by Mr.G.Osborne, contractor, while digging in a shrubbery at Harrold Hall; and Mr.R.C.Alston has taken charge of it”.

The confusion, according to the Harrold Archaelogical Assessment, was caused in the late 18th century when print makers Samuel and Nathaniel Buck mistakenly labelled a building being used as a barn at Harrold Manor as being the former Priory Refectory.  The confusion here was the assumption that Manor and the Hall were the same property.  However, this print gained authority and was published in the Victoria County History, and the mistake found its way into early editions of the Ordnance Survey.  Even recent publications repeat the mistake - for example Geoffrey Boyer's brief history of Harrold in 1995.  And, of course, Harrold Priory Middle School, built on what was then thought to be the site of the medieval priory.

The engravings are of excellent quality, and to add to the confusion, in the background is a medieval chapel - although the Priory was alongside St Peter's church, the nuns of Harrold had their own separate chapel.  However, we do know that by 1292 the Manor had been granted licence to reopen a separate chapel there.  It is likely that these buildings were demolished in about 1890 and their remains are now under the school grounds, where earthworks are still visible, and where substantial quantities of medieval pottery have been found.

The Bucks' 18th century print, mistakenly describing these buildings as originally being part of Harrold Priory.

  • Harrold Archaeological Assessment (2003) , Document 2000/64, Produced for Bedfordshire County Council and English Heritage, available here
  • Bowyer, Geoffrey A. (1995), A Bedfordshire village, a Bedforshire family, published privately.

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