St. Neots is the largest town in the Huntingdonshire district. Its birth, history and identity is intrinsically linked to the Priory of St. Neot. The Priory itself was incredibly unfortunate, being attacked, neglected and refounded at least twice, but it has left a legacy of a thriving town, which remembers the saint for which it is named… Speaking of which, just who was St. Neot?
The man himself is documented in several texts. Born in the the ninth century to a minor branch of Saxon royalty, he was a soldier in the ongoing wars against the Danes before quitting military life for an ecclesiastical career. His ordination as a priest at Glastonbury was promptly followed by a desire to live a quieter life, and so he became a hermit on Bodmin moor. Over time, followers appeared and he formed a monastery, which later became a small settlement. He was visited several times by King Alfred seeking spiritual guidance and seems to have been something of a confessor or advisor for the king. It is in a “Life of St Neot” that the famous story of Alfred and the burning cakes is recorded.
St. Neot died in 877AD, and after his death pilgrims reported miraculous healing occurring at his tomb. Based on this and several miracles during his life (mostly pertaining to fish! – add more info) he was deemed to be a saint and canonised as the Patron Saint of Fish. His feast day is July 31st.
A daring heist?
A century later and Earl Leofric and his wife Ethelfleda have just established a monastery at Eynesbury, the new incumbents taken from the monastery at Thorney, further north in the county. The new monastery was completed in 972AD and with a monastic house, full complement of monks and wealthy patron, they just needed some relics to venerate…
Depending on what you read they got these relics by various means; according to some sources Earl Leofric had “acquired” the saints bones and was looking for a home for them. According to others, Bishop Oswald of Worcester redistributed some of the saints remains from Cornwall to Huntingdonshire. Others maintain that a party of monks on pilgrimage to the tomb in Cornwall stole some of the bones from the grave and brought them back, pursued by an angry mob of Cornishmen! Whatever the truth of the matter, within a few short years of being founded, the monastery had its patron and its name. Unfortunately for the monks, it would not be long until disaster struck…
“From the Fury of the Northmen, Deliver us O Lord.”
In the year 1010, a large Danish warhost burnt a bloody swathe across England. With fire and sword they attacked Ipswich, Northampton, Oxford and Bedford, with raids reaching as far as Wiltshire. In some cases, settlements were captured; in others, they were burnt to the ground. By the winter of 1010 the raids had spread into over 16 counties with differing levels of success. The violence only ended with the promise of a payment of unprecedented scale; £48,000 of Danegeld (approximately £230 million in modern day currency!)
During this year of terror and bloodshed the fledgling monastery of St. Neots (barely 40 years old) was utterly destroyed. At this time there was no town around the priory with a militia to see off marauders and so the hapless monks would have been utterly helpless against the “fury of the northmen”. The remains of the Priory were left to sink into the fens, attended by the last few surviving monks, and it seems that the best laid plans of Earls and monks were for naught.
The Archbishop of Canterbury personally instructed the priory to be rebuilt in 1086, and the monastic house was linked to Bec, a Benedictine abbey in France. According to legend, the archbishop, another saint (Anselm of Bec), also verified that the remains found on the site of the old monastery were those of St Neot, although how he knew is not revealed.
The new priory was a Benedictine house; Benedictine monks vow Obedience, Chastity and Stability – they stay in one monastery for life (unless this is impossible). These black robed monks quickly built up an impressive monastery, helped no doubt by bequests and donations from such worthies as King Malcolm and King William of Scotland.
Growth of a Town, Decline of a Priory.
Outside the priory, a small settlement began to grow, a market charter was granted in 1130. In 1180 a bridge across the Ouse was installed to allow the villagers and market traders to cross in safety. By 1204 St. Neots parish was split from Eynesbury Parish and presumably by this point a parish church had been built. The village swiftly grew into a thriving town, but whilst it grew the priory declined.
A series of lacklustre priors appointed from abroad saw the value of the priory diminish; many of these foreign priors had very short tenures. In the forty years from 1222 to 1262 the priory had seven priors, of whom three lasted less than two years. The priory also suffered from financial mismanagement by the mother house at Bec who saw its English holdings as “cash-cows”, and such revenue as they made was swiftly exported.
The situation was worsened due to the ongoing conflict with France throughout most of the Medieval period. At these times the priory was effectively seized by the crown to prevent its funds being appropriated by the French, this income of course proved very helpful for successive monarchs, as war is a very expensive past time. Additionally, flooding on the Ouse in the 1370’s destroyed three valuable watermills belonging to the Priory, rendering their fiscal situation worse yet; the priory’s debts were stacking up whilst the building was falling down.
By 1412 the priory had just twelve monks within its walls, divine service was neglected and “the revenues diminished by maladministration”. Blaming the French for this, the priory was declared independent of Bec and a new prior (Edward Salisbury) appointed. His tenure did not start well, as the remaining French monks immediately quit to return to Bec leaving him just two monks!
Despite some modest changes, it seems the rot had set in. Thirty years later, a damning report from Bishop Alnwick found the priory in such bad repair that rain came in through the roof; the priories debts so serious the monks feared leaving the monastery and running into creditors. Additionally there were concerns that Matins (said at between midnight and 2am) was not regularly held, and suspicions of “unchaste living”.
In 1506, the liturgy of woe continues with the brethren “not cheerful in their obedience”, not wearing their habits and with some concern of the legitimacy of their deeds. Perhaps it was for the best that the priory’s days were numbered – as a smaller monastic house, it was not until the second wave of dissolutions in 1539 that the priory finally closed. By this point, there were just 7 monks and the prior left, all of whom were pensioned off into secular life.
As seems to have been fairly common when monastic buildings were dissolved, the monastery was taken apart by locals. Being in such poor repair, it would have been of no value for anything other than the land it stood on and its contents. Several of the older houses in the town today are thought to have some of the priory stones in their cellars or foundations.
The land itself, next to the river, could have housed warehouses or other industrial buildings. In the 18th century, a brewery was built atop the priory, by which time the only remnant was the ancient gatehouse. A local brewer, John Day, acquired the brewery in 1814, demolishing this gateway, the last extant part of the priory, to improve access.s
The priory site now is “The Priory Centre”, and it is still possible to see some of the defunct brewery buildings there, though of the priory itself there is no sign…
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Catholic Online, “St. Neot”, 2020, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=4817
Howards, I, “Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017”, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, First Edition, 2003
Jarret, S., Griffiths C & Thompson, J, “Trails Around The Town: The Lost Priory of St. Neots”, XL Press, St. Neots, 3rd Edition, 2017
Lapa, D, “Venerable Neot of Cornwall“, 2015, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: https://orthochristian.com/81326.html
Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of St Neots”, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1, Victoria County History, London, 1926
Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Parishes: St Neots”, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932
St. Neot Parish Council, “The Saint Neot and Alfred the Great”, 2012, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: http://www.stneot.org.uk/the_saint_neot_.html
St. Neots Town Information, “The Priory of St Neots”, 2018, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: http://www.stneots-town.info/history/priory.asp
Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1st Edition, 1985