Witham Priory was located in the county of Somerset, in south-west England. One of only nine Carthusian abbeys ever established in England, Witham was the very first "Charterhouse" to be built in this country, the only one to be built in the 12th century. Somerset also boasts the second oldest priory, at Hinton, founded in the 13th century; the rest date from the 14th or 15th.

An inauspicious start:

The king of England at the time, Henry II, was serving penance for the murder of Sir Thomas Becket by several of his knights in 1170. In relation to this, monks from the Grande Charteuse of the Carthusian order (one of the strictest), located near Grenoble in France, travelled to England in the 1170s. Henry had themm placed near Witham so that a new priory could be built there - the first in England, in recompense for the death of Becket. However, there were major difficulties with the building of the abbey, and the first prior-to-be retired. Although his place was taken by another monk, this man died before any progress could be made with the building. Henry now became desperate, frustrated by the lack of success experienced at Witham. It is probable that he desired a speedy completion to try and appease the religious community which had been so outraged by Becket's death.

Fortunately, a French noble who had been in contact with the Grande Chartreuse in France was visiting England at the time. On hearing of the troubles at Witham, this Frenchman recommended that Henry request Hugh of Avalon, then procurator at the Chartreuse, to come to England to help. The English king therefore sent an envoy to demand this Hugh's services. Although extremely reluctant (Hugh was next in line for the priorship of the Chartreuse, one of the most prostigious religious houses in Europe), the convent allowed Hugh to go.


Hugh arrived at Witham in 1179, and immediately set about improving the situation of the monks living there. They were housed in log huts, and the sites of the priory buildings had not even been planned. Hugh therefore made the appropriate plans, largely by himself, and petitioned the king for the necessary royal consent. It was only in early January 1182 that the charter of foundation and endowment was granted. Hugh became the first prior, and resided until 1186 when he was appointed (eventually) as Bishop of Lincoln due to his dedication and impression upon the king. He was later to become Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

Witham Priory was dedicated to the "Blessed Virgin, St John the Baptist and All Saints". The entire collection of books owned by John Blackman (a confessor of Henry VI) was also granted to the priory, as Blackman joined the Cathusian order late in his life. There is every indication that Witham functioned successfully and efficiently: until the Reformation brought everything to an aprupt halt.

Dissolved and Ruined:

The value of the priory was put at around £215 per year by the Valor Ecclesiasticus (the valuation of religious houses, enforced by Thomas Cromwell for the purposes of Dissolution) in 1539. Unfortunately, it did not escape the second Dissolution act of that year (targeted at all houses valued at over £200 per annum), and the priory was closed. The monks were dismissed, and all assets went into crown coffers.

Almost nothing remains today. The buildings went to ruin due to the dissolution by Henry VIII, and were demolished at some point in history. Excavation in the early 20th century revealed very little; but one building does still stand. Located quarter of a mile from the original site, the church or chapel of the lay-brothers (non-clerical members) now serves the local parish. This too dates for the 12th century, although an annex was added in 1876. Other than this, nothing of the first English Carthusian house, built on the low ground near the River Frome can be seen.

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