The west front of Thurgarton Priory. The Augustinian priory was founded 1119-39 but Pevsner describes its remains as "a terribly mangled fragment of a building of about 1230". The house was built in 1777 over the undercroft of the west range of the priory (photo: Andrew Nicholson, 2005).
THURGARTON Priory retains its monastic title, but there is very little else to remind one of its early history. For many years, I do not know exactly how many, it has been the residence of a succession of country gentlemen who have furnished its bright amid ample rooms with taste, and perhaps with a certain luxuriousness, and have enjoyed the pleasantest side of village life, in the retirement of a small, but picturesque, park, whose gates open from the road. But the Priory, though it is in the village, possesses a seclusion as complete as if it were further removed from the quiet cottage life of a rustic hamlet. It is guarded by big trees, and the rising character of the ground helps to keep it private. If the canons of Thurgarton selected this admirable site for the original Priory, it is possible that they may have had something more in view than that privacy which was considered necessary for the proper performance of the monkish ceremonies. For those old cenobites who held Thurgarton, knew how to look after their own interests, and they perhaps had their house in this particular locality in order that they might have direct and immediate control over their dues. In the twelfth century, when Thurgarton Priory was founded, strange customs prevailed in some of these out-of-the-way places. Let the dwellers by the side of the brook which runs through Thurgarton to-day, who are inclined to grumble when the water gets into their small cottages at flood times, reflect upon the calls that were made upon their rural ancestors, of the dues that were filched from their scanty and hardly-won stores— of the extraordinary tithe that was exacted from their small belongings by those cowled vampires who held the Priory in the reign of the First Henry, and plundered the villager’s in the name of their tutelar saint. Listen, ye damsels who hope to be led to the village altar, and to become the hard-working wives of hard-working husbands, to the tale of extortion which the history of those dark times furnishes in connection with that bright village of Thurgarton, through which the brook ripples pleasantly, and in whose centre the leaves of the horse chestnuts "spread into a perfect fan." When these holy friars held Thurgarton, a female inhabitant who took a husband, or who sinned, bad to give to the monks a fee of 5s. 4d., or half that amount, according to her quality, " for the redemption of her blood." In the one case the fee stamped the union as felicitous ; in the other, a so-called religion profited through the medium of sin amid shame. But this is not the only interesting custom which was enforced by the holy brotherhood who lived at the Priory, and the Thurgarton tenants of that day may be forgiven if they grumbled at the demands that were made upon them. Not only were these worthy husbandmen contemptuously described as villains, but they were expected to contribute in kind to the Christmas feast at the Priory. Nor does this represent the despotism to which the unfortunate Thurgartonians were subjected by these grasping friars. They were compelled to put into the Abbot’s fold, all the sheep they had in their possession or custody during the winter, except their own, and if any were sold they had to make good the number in order that my lord Abbot’s fold might not lose anything. This abominable system of extortion was carried to a still lower and more miserable level, for it is on record that the Thurgarton tenants were compelled to house and feed their sheep in the Abbot’s fold during the winter months, in order that the monastic dunghill might be enriched, and if a cottager sold one of the folded sheep to pay his rent, or to get food for his household, he had to procure another, by fair means or foul, in order that the Abbot’s supply of manure might not be permitted to dwindle. From these historical facts, it will he gathered that village life, as far back as the period to which such facts refer, had its drawbacks, and the occupiers of land and cottages of to-day will hardly be reluctant to admit that it is better to beam the tightness which comes of agricultural depression, than to live under the control of an arbitrary and exacting brotherhood, who practised despotism in the name of religion.
Engraving of the west prospect of Thurgarton by Samuel Buck, 1726. The impressive priory kitchen on the far right was demolished in 1777; it was described as "vast and magnificent, almost beyond parallel or comparison ... [a] noble monument of ancient grandeur."
Thurgarton Priory was founded in 1130, in the reign of Henry the First, by Ralph de Ayncourt, at the request of Thurstan, Archbishop of York. It was built for the accommodation of canons of the order of St. Augustine, dedicated to St. Peter, and was endowed with all Thurgarton and Fiskerton. The resourses of the Priory were supplemented in the succeeding reign by additional grants of land, and the Sheriff of Nottingham was commanded by the reigning monarch to see that the canons of Thurgarton held their mills on the river Treat "peaceably and without let or molestation from the men of the See of Durham." Other kings granted additional property and privileges to these Thurgarton monks, who seem to have been able to possess themselves of whatever took their fancy in the neighbourhood. The head of their order claimed a seat of honour in the church at Southwell, above the heads of all others, and the Priory acquired a territorial consequence and a monastic power which were known throughout the length and breadth of the county.
The west front of Thurgaton Priory, c.1900. What remains of the Priory Church of St Peter dates from c.1230; originally, there was another tower on the west front. The church was restored in 1852-3 by T C Hine of Nottingham.
In 1537, Thurgarton Priory ceased to exist as a religious institution. It was then valued at £259 per annum, and was granted with appurtenances and other hereditaments, to William Cooper, one of a Derbyshire family, who was, or had been, in the service of the King, Henry the Eighth, and to his heirs, From these descended Sir Roger Cooper, who played a prominent part in the wars of Charles the First’s time, espousing the interest of the King, and swearing lasting allegiance to his Sovereign. Like other rash enthusiasts of the time, he spent his patrimony, not in riotous living, but in the service of the King, and so ruined the prospects and fortunes of his family, which at one time was of leading consequence in this county. However, his descendant was made carver to his Majesty, and receiver of certain royal dues in recognition of the services rendered by the family to the King’s cause. From this family descended Colonel Cooper-Gardner, who died in 1832, shortly after the close of the first election under the provisions of the Reform Act, on which occasion he was a candidate for the northern division of the county. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the rectory of Thurgarton, together with a considerable portion of the village, was granted to Trinity College, Cambridge, then a new foundation. In 1794, this land was sold to Sir Richard Sutton, Bart., of Norwood Park.