History - Later Mediaeval

Minster to Priory

by James Lloyd

Folkestone Minster was never a particularly large or wealthy house and it left very few traces in the historical record, especially during the Anglo-Saxon period. There are sporadic references to the minster as a landowner and some of the abbesses who (very occasionally) attested royal charters might have been mistress of the minster but the period is mainly a blank that historians have attempted to fill with a mixture of ingenious speculation and sheer guesswork. Analogy with other Anglo-Saxon religious houses suggests that Folkestone would have been a double minster, a tradition that the kingdom of Kent adopted from Merovingian France. A community of nuns was supported by a community of male clerics (housed separately), who performed religious services for the sisters and ministered to people of the surrounding countryside.

It is not clear for how long this arrangement was maintained. Double minsters were supposed to keep the sexes strictly segregated but this had ceased to be enforced by the latter half of the tenth century, when, in the so-called Benedictine Reform, Saint Dunstan (archbishop of Canterbury 959–88), supported by Edgar the Peaceable (king of England 959–75), led a campaign of rigorously tightening monastic discipline, restricting each minster to one sex and replacing secular (and often married) clerics with monks. It is unknown how this affected Folkestone but it may have been at this time that the minster shed its nuns and became an exclusively male house, which it certainly was by the end of the eleventh century.

According to her Vita, Eanswythe chose Folkestone because of its remoteness from civilization but over the centuries a town grew up around the minster. This town was raided by the Danes in 991 but Frerth, ‘priest of Folkestone’, was recorded as a witness at a wedding early in Cnut’s reign and the minster is referred to as a landowner in the area in a charter of Edward the Confessor, so it must have survived. (This attack may have inspired a tradition that the minster was destroyed in the ninth century and re-founded by King Æthelstan, for which the only evidence is a much later forged charter.) It was not, however, its own master. Like many other smaller churches, the minster had its own landlord, Earl Godwine, whose vast property portfolio included Folkestone. On his death in 1053, his possessions passed to his son, the unlucky King Harold II and, after his death in the Battle of Hastings, Folkestone was among the royal estates seized and granted to Odo, bishop of Bayeux, earl of Kent and half-brother of William I.

Odo subinfeuded Folkestone to Norman baron William d’Arques. He died in the early 1090s and the barony passed to his younger daughter Emma and her husband Nigel de Monville and in 1095 they granted the minster as a priory to Lonlay Abbey in Normandy. At around the same time a castle was built on the cliff, enclosing the minster. This is the area known since as the Bayle.

Nigel’s and Emma’s daughter Matilda married Rualon d’Avrenches and the barony of Folkestone passed to their son William. In 1137, William d’Avrenches relocated the monks, at their own request, to a new church outside the Bayle, on the site of the present parish church, bringing Eanswythe’s relics with them. The oldest parts of the parish church date from the end of the twelfth century. The remains of the old priory in the Bayle were still visible as late as 1698 but are now long disappeared owing to cliff erosion.

Beginning with one Prior Peter in 1296, what appears to be a complete list of priors can be pieced together from the sporadic records. Since Folkestone Priory was the cell of a foreign house, Lonlay Abbey, it was temporarily taken into royal hands when England and France were at war. As the Hundred Years’ War dragged on, most alien priories were either suppressed or farmed out to landlords but some were ‘made denizen’, i.e. legally detached from their mother house in France. This seems to have been the case with Folkestone, for even after the War the house was not returned to Lonlay but continued to pay rent to the king.