The Priory was founded in 1127 as a house of Augustinian canons, dedicated to St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr and consecrated in 1155. In the mid 1500’s, Launceston Priory was the wealthiest and largest religious house in Cornwall. Monastic life came to an abrupt end on 24th February 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries. The priory buildings were subsequently acquired by Garen Carew and used as stables, bake-houses and piggeries, but by the end of the 16th century were ruinous and were then extensively robbed for their stone, much of it being used to build elsewhere in Launceston. Reused stonework includes the Norman font and tympanum at St Thomas’ Church and reputedly the Norman doorway incorporated into the White Hart Hotel.
The site was rediscovered by Launceston architect Otho Peter between 1886 and 1892 during the construction of the London and South Western Railway to the south and gasholders to the east. In a series of excavations Peter revealed walls, floors and masonry of a church over 200 feet long. The remains visible today represent only a small proportion of the whole priory. Recent interpretation shows that the standing walls represent building work carried out between circa 1290 and 1345. Different window designs were present in each bay and similarities can be drawn with Thomas Witney’s designs at Exeter Cathedral. The work is expensive and probably the grandest in Cornwall, with its only rival being Glasney College in Penryn. The high altar screen was an elaborate and delicate carving in Devon ‘Beer stone’, with a vault front suspended in mid-air.
A successful initiative by Launceston Town Council in 2008 led to the long term conservation of the Grade II* Listed Launceston Priory site for the benefit of local people and visitors. The work involved the consolidation, interpretation and celebration of the above ground remains of the priory, ensuring the future of the site whilst retaining its character as a peaceful and reflective place.
A Friends of Launceston Priory Group looks after Launceston Priory in partnership with the Town Council. New Friends are always welcome.
The surviving walls of this Priory comprise the choir and choir aisles, altar, altar steps, and porch tower. Four tombs are also apparent, including those of priors Roger de Horton and Stephen Tredydan. The large mound to the north of the priory ruins is thought to be a spoil heap resulting from Peter’s excavations.