It’s difficult for members of our modern society to imagine the widespread importance that religion played in the lives of our forefathers. Comedian George Carlin famously dismissed God as ‘an invisible man who lives in the sky’ in 2009, and this line is often repeated by cynical modern atheists. In medieval times, Christianity that we would now consider Catholicism was the predominant creed, with worshippers considering the Pope as the ultimate earthly authority on spirituality. It was most mortal person’s desire to be admitted into Heaven once their life on Earth had concluded, and this is where organised religion held sway; it ‘knew’ what needed to be done on Earth for a person to be granted heavenly admission, and was therefore able to dictate how the population ‘should’ live.
Monks were reclusive Christians who lived a largely secluded and deeply disciplined life that would lead to acceptance in Heaven. Whilst most of the population was illiterate, British medieval monks were able not only to read, write and speak their native language, but also Latin, the language of Rome and the Pope. With their secluded lives, scrolls and books adorned with cryptic symbols, exotic spoken language, and sacred rituals, they were considered ‘closer to God’ than lay people, but frequently lived alongside lay communities, and willingly spread the ways of true Christianity. Most villagers in medieval Britain stood little chance of ever meeting the Pope, whereas local monks were more readily available. The Church seemed to model itself on the Roman Empire’s tactics; leaving a fort (in the form of a monastery, priory or abbey) in conquered lands (those than had been converted from nature worship or paganism) to ensure the defeated locals stayed ‘on message’.
In medieval Nottingham, a large and influential order of monks lived in Lenton Priory, which stood from the early 1100s until 1536. Sadly, no definitive plan or illustration of the Priory exists from medieval times, and so our physical sense of the long forgotten building (and its location) are reliant on archaeological digs in the area. Do a little research on the matter and you’ll come across the same words repeatedly; speculative, conjectural, and probable. Little is clear about the Priory’s physical structure, which I guess is why we don’t hear much about it. Let’s take a little walk around the site of the old Lenton Priory and get an idea of the lay of the land.
You can get to the site by taking the tram out to Gregory Street tram stop (1), which — confusingly — isn’t on Gregory Street, but Lenton Lane. If you walk a minute or so towards the QMC site, you’ll see the Priory Church of St Anthony (2). The ‘back’ section is thought to be constructed from blocks from Lenton Priory. The Priory Church of St Anthony is thought to be built roughly on the site of the Priory’s hospital chapel. All of the streets around St Anthony’s church allude to the Priory tradition; Old Church Street, Priory Street, Friar Street, the Friary, Nazareth Court, Nazareth Road, Cloister Street, Abbey Bridge.
More building material rumoured to be from Lenton Priory can be seen on actual Gregory Street (3). The garden walls of number 18a (Rose Cottage) contain a top layer of red bricks but a lower layer of variably-sized rocks, rumoured to have once formed the Priory walls.
The River Leen wends its way and forms a southern border to the site, and this is thought to be significant to the Priory. In the days before domestic plumbing, a natural source of running water was essential to everyday life, so it’s reasonable to think the large Priory may have been built here to utilise the river. One Priory outhouse was thought to bridge the Leen, and is assumed to have been the monk’s communal lavatory! On Priory Street is the Boat Inn (4). I like to think this may mark the location of a jetty or mooring for the monks, but in truth I suppose any pub near a waterway is likely to have a multitude of reasons for adopting the name.
Further along Priory Street is a fenced-off area (5) containing the base of a column that once supported the structure of the Priory. The column base was unearthed during excavations by William Stretton, architect and antiquarian, in 1885, but is not thought to be in its original location. In Holy Trinity Church (NG7 2FF) you can see the original font that once sat within Lenton Priory.
I found a speculative/conjectural/probable footprint of the Priory online, and using Trimble’s Sketchup software, created a speculative/conjectural/probable model of the building. I emailed Doctor Chris Brooke at the University of Nottingham’s Department of History to get an idea of what each area was likely to have been. The photographic textures and features (such as windows, doors, shutters and the like) are from the superb Textures.com, a site that should be of interest to anyone interested in digital modelling.
There are more knowledgable local historians than me, more authoritative experts in religious architecture, and better digital modellers, but I hope my representation of Nottingham’s long-forgotten Lenton Priory is interesting for you.