Our West Cork castles, or tower houses, can be impressive, built as they are to be dominant and defensive. But imagine a place where there are not one, but seven tower houses, all connected by a high stone curtain wall with defended gates. A medieval fortress? No – a monastery! Welcome to thirteenth century Kilkenny!
Kells Priory (not the Kells in Meath that Robert is writing about this week) in Kilkenny is a truly awe-inspiring site. A combination of monastery and walled refuge, it speaks directly to the history of Kilkenny in the 12th to the 15th centuries. This was a time when the Anglo-Normans had established themselves as the lords of Ireland, dividing the land between them. They built castles to establish their military dominance and churches and monasteries to receive the tithes that came with ownership of vast tracts of land – and to save their souls. Although there was probably an older smaller church on the site, the current priory was established when Geoffrey fitzRobert invited Augustinian Canons from Cornwall to settle in Kells in 1193. The Augustinians, unlike the enclosed Cistercians, functioned as parish priests who tended to their congregation, hosted travellers, ministered to the sick, and assisted the local economy by providing mills, and sometimes bakeries and breweries.
The initial phase of building included the area now known as the Monastic Precinct. A church, chapter houses, stores, a refectory and a mill were built and added-to over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries. This precinct was surrounded by a wall, which included some mural towers, but it was not primarily defensive.
The construction of the enclosed area known as the Burgess Court dates to the 1460/70s. Warring factions among the Anglo-Normans, constantly invading each other’s territories, sacking and looting, created a climate of turbulence and insecurity. In the absence of a resident and powerful defender of the people of Kells, the Priory took it upon themselves to provide a refuge.
The Fortified Gate, from the outside (note the machicolation above the arch) and the inside (note arrow slits on either side).
The curtain wall and its mural towers constitute an impressive defensive system. Each tower was based on Henry VI’s ‘£10 Castle’ plan, with stores and administration rooms on the lower floors. Living quarters occupied the upper floors which had fireplaces and garderobes. The crenellated battlements supported wall walks, and here and there were machicolations, murder holes and copious arrow slits. We can imagine the townsfolk of Kells flocking to the Burgess Court with whatever they could carry as a succession of marauding knights advanced and retreated. The priory was burned and sacked in 1262, and twice in the 14th century.
The Prior added a fine new tower for himself around this time too – well crafted and recently stabilised. Improvements and enlargements to the church were undertaken and a new belfry was added. When times were peaceful it must have been a bustling and thriving place, a welcome sight to weary travellers.
Left, a sedile (seat) and piscina (for washing vessels) inside the church. Right, some recent reconstruction demonstrates what the church would have looked like.
The monks had a cloister, of course, for prayer and contemplation. Their refectory was above the store house and featured a lavabo, for hand washing, at the entrance. A small canal from the river provided water for the mill and also carried away the waste from the reredoter, or necessarium – the communal latrine.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, under Henry the VIII, spelled the end of Kells Priory as an active monastery. All its lands were confiscated and it gradually fell into ruin. Unlike other religious ruins, the walls and towers remained reasonably intact, indicating that they were probably used as farm buildings and perhaps garrisons, over the centuries.
To learn more about Kells Priory, take a tour through this brilliant website. Written by Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler, and illustrated with his plans and drawings, it is a mine of information and a virtual course in medieval history and architecture. I gratefully acknowledge that this post owes much to the treasure trove of detail it contains.
You’ll find Kells Priory about 10km south of Kilkenny City. It’s well signposted. While you’re there, make a side trip to Jerpoint to see the medieval carvings that Robert illustrates in Medieval Feast. It would make a grand weekend outing from Cork!