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  • Writer's pictureWellbeing Exeter

Guided Tour of St Nicholas Priory

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

We were fortunate enough to be able to take a group of Connectors and Connectees on a private tour of St Nicholas Priory, allegedly the oldest building in Exeter!

In 1068, William The Conqueror laid siege to Exeter, where the mother of Harold Godwinson, whom he had just defeated in the Battle of Hastings, was living. After her hasty departure William gave the church of St Olave at Exeter to Battle Abbey. Monks, who were sent from Battle to administer the church and its possessions, set about building a monastery with its own church, which was dedicated to Saint Nicholas in 1087.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. He had a legendary habit of secret gift-giving, which gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Clause.

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. Some of the stone was used to repair the nearby Exe Bridge. The remaining buildings and precinct were then sold by the Crown. Between 1575 and 1602, the building was turned into an impressive Elizabethan town house. After that the building became subdivided into houses and businesses. Between 1820 and 1913, the Priory was divided into five lots of premises and all were given entrance doors and new windows. 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.

Our very knowledgeable guide, one of the many volunteers at the Priory, showed us many original features in the priory including Tudor and Elizabethan. We saw an Elizabethan bed chamber and there were even costumes you could try on.

The original kitchen was fascinating and there was the remains of an old well in the back courtyard. You could almost smell the cooking and imagine the kitchen hubbub.

One of the most fascinating tales was about the first curator of the St Nicholas Priory Museum from 1916 to 1938, Miss Maud Tothill (1872-1959). Born locally in Heavitree, she was paid £65 a year and opened the building on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday afternoons. She raised the donations necessary to have a statue of St Nicholas made. This statue, which still lives on the spiral staircase, was unveiled on the 6th December 1921 (St Nicholas’ Day).

Miss Tothill kept numerous pets at the Priory, the most famous of which were ravens, including one called Martha. She used to do tours of the building with one of her ravens on her shoulder, and at the end it took her hat in its beak and offered it up for donations. Martha was very well loved, as shown by her obituary from one of the local papers where it notes she was to be stuffed to remain at the Priory – and where you can see her to this day!

St Nicholas Priory is a fascinating part of Exeter’s history and the staff and volunteers are knowledgeable and informative. It is well worth a visit – all of our group found the visit fascinating. And don’t forget to check out the St Nicholas Priory website here for any forthcoming events. St Nicholas Priory is open to the public for FREE on Sundays and Mondays from 10 am until 4 pm.


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Wat Tyler House

3 King William Street, Exeter


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