Found on the edge of Colchester town centre, St Botolph’s Priory is a ruined Augustinian priory that stands on the site of a Saxon church. It was built in the years immediately preceding 1100 out of flint and recycled Roman brick and tile, similar materials to those found in the town’s Norman castle on the opposite side of the High Street. It was officially founded as the Priory of St Julian and St Botolph in 1103, St Botolph being a Saxon abbot who had died over four hundred years before.
It was never quite as important as nearby St John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1895. There was quite a rivalry between the two institutions which manifested itself in several violent altercations. In one, following a dispute over who had the right to control another church, St Peter’s, a small riot broke out after the Prior and some of his men headed over to the monastery and attacked some of the monks with a sword and dagger.
These days, the ruins and the small park which encircles it offer a quiet retreat from the busy shopping area around the corner. One of the most unusual architectural features of what remains is the style of the towers, which are cylindrical in shape. There is also an elaborate façade which survives, with plenty of windows and archways adorning it. The largest, half a circular window, is thought to be the first of its kind in the country, but it’s the multi-layered doorway that offers the greatest wow-factor to present day visitors.
St Botolph’s Priory was dissolved in 1536 and its possessions granted to Sir Thomas Audley who was the Lord Chancellor of England at the time. He’d been instrumental in helping King Henry VIII split from Papal Authority. It remained in use as a parish church for a time, but its location was to prove disastrous in 1648. During the English Civil War, Colchester was placed under siege for eleven weeks after Royalists who had sought a resting place inside the town’s walls came under attack from their adversaries, the Parliamentarians. The town was bombarded with cannons, and as the Priory was located such a short distance from the town’s gates, it suffered significant damage. To this day, it has not been repaired.
In the 19th century, a church was constructed alongside the ruined priory and this is still in use today. Part of the footprint of the old priory contains tombs and graves associated with that church.