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A Brief History

The history of the Benedictine Priory of St Nicholas began with the Norman Conquest of England at the battle of Hastings in 1066.

There, William the Conqueror fulfilled a vow he had made on the battlefield and founded Battle Abbey in Sussex.

Two year later he was obliged to besiege the rebellious city of Exeter, where Gytha the mother of the slain Saxon King Harold was living. After her hasty departure William gave to Battle Abbey the church of St Olave at Exeter, to which Gytha has bequeathed property and land.

The original monastery

The small group of monks who were sent from Battle to administer the church and its possessions set about building for themselves, on vacant land nearby, a monastery with its own church which was dedicated to St Nicholas in 1087. In the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Priory gathered gifts of land and property, new monastic buildings were erected as funds permitted. Benedictine monks obeyed the rule of life laid down in the 6th century by St Benedict in his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy; a simple life of work and prayer bound by the triple vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Hospitality was built into the monastic rule and a guest house or wing was essential within a monastery. The monks provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers and accommodation for important guests.

The dissolution of the monastery

The Priory had a very important and lively life within the city until the dissolution of the smaller monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1536, when the monks were pensioned off and their church and cloisters were pulled down. The remaining buildings and precinct were then sold by the Crown.

Conversion into an Elizabethan town house

The Hurst family were the occupiers between c.1575 and 1602, turning the building into an impressive Elizabethan town house.  After that the building became subdivided into houses and businesses.

Between 1820 and 1913 the Priory was owned by the Wilcocks, a family of bankers and merchants. During that time the building was divided into 5 lots of premises and all were given entrance doors and new windows. Traces of these may be seen in some of the walls. Among the occupants were a boot maker and an upholsterer.

Restoration and creation of the museum

Exeter Corporation bought the Priory in 1913 in order to restore it to show its original monastic architecture. It was opened to the public as a small museum three years later.  Repairs and reinterpretation were undertaken in 2007 with funding from the HLF and Renaissance.

Painting the Priory parlour

During the 2007 development, the Priory was partially restored to how it may have looked when it was a wealthy Tudor merchant's house. The Parlour was carefully decorated using the same methods, materials and colours used nearly 500 years ago.

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