Survival against the odds: Canterbury’s medieval guest-house

DominicanPriory3Medieval pilgrims have featured prominently in my writing this year.
First, there was William of Perth, the mysterious Scottish baker who shot to fame as Rochester’s patron saint and provided the inspiration for my story The Baker’s Boy. The research for this story also provided material for my first blog on medieval pilgrims.
Now, with a sense of déjà vu, I am about to give a talk on writing historical fiction in Canterbury’s Dominican Priory.
The building currently known as the Dominican Priory sits on the west bank of the River Stour. It represents only a fragment of what was once an extensive complex of monastic buildings, the greater part of which was situated on the opposite river bank.
Today’s ‘Dominican Priory’ was originally a guest-house. Run by the Dominicans, it served the needs of pilgrims who travelled to Canterbury from both Britain and Europe in order to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket in the Cathedral.
It is ironic that the means to build the Priory was provided by the grandson of Henry II, the king responsible for Becket’s demise.
Young Henry III came to the throne when he was nine. Like other child-monarchs who emerged from the shadow of multiple regencies, he had to contend with powerful nobles who had thrived in the absence of royal authority.
Having taken the reins of power in 1234, Henry soon ran into trouble with the nobility. From 1237, objections were expressed, first to the influence of Henry’s Savoyard relatives, then to his sister’s marriage to the man who would become the king’s fiercest opponent, Simon de Montfort.
Perhaps it was this atmosphere of increasing tension and unease that prompted Henry to make a generous gift to the Dominicans: a large plot of land within the safety of Canterbury’s city walls and £500 to build a church and priory.
The Dominican guest-house was originally located on an island with two small wooden bridges spanning the River Stour which provided access to the Priory’s refectory on the opposite bank.
However, following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 – which also resulted in the destruction of Becket’s shrine – the guest-house suffered a drastic decline in fortune.
Without pilgrims, it no longer had a purpose. The former guest-hall, once a haven for the faithful and penitent and, no doubt, a lucrative source of income for the Priory, was stripped of its identity. Even its unique island status was lost when the small, encircling branch of the river was in-filled.
Over succeeding centuries, it has fulfilled a variety of functions. Having served Canterbury’s Huguenot weavers, it became a private home in the 18th century then, in 1905, a furniture store. Gradually, it declined and fell into ruin.
It is thanks to the dedication and generosity of Donald and Poppy Beerling that this unique building was saved and restored – a work that began in 1969.
By this time, most of the original Dominican Priory had disappeared, with the exception of the guest-house and the refectory on the opposite bank.
The Beerlings’ vision and tireless hard-work rescued the guest-house from certain oblivion and the fate originally intended for it by Henry VIII in 1538.
The flint-covered building with its leaded windows and steep, sloping roof sits beside the river, a timeless and tranquil spot which contrasts with straight-edged modernism of the new Marlowe theatre. Inside, the old guest-house retains some of its original stained glass as well as its massive oak beams, dyed black by the smoke from medieval fires.
Although privately run, the old guest-house has been put to public use, serving as a community hall and events venue for a variety of functions, including two Saturdays of creative writing workshops arranged by the SaveAs Writers group as part of this year’s Canterbury Festival Umbrella.
Sadly, Donald Beerling passed away in August, some 18 months before the old guest-house’s 700th anniversary celebration. From December, the building will close indefinitely while the charity that now runs it considers its future.
Hopefully, that future will once more be one of public service: the original function of the guest-house that the Beerlings understood so well.
This wonderful building is a tribute to an extraordinary couple who devoted themselves whole-heartedly to the rescue of a unique piece of British history.
All those of us who love our heritage owe them a huge debt.

Additional Information
The creative writing workshops taking place on Saturday 26th October include: poetry, historical fiction, technology for writers, and blogging. For more information, click here
For more information about SaveAs Writers group, click here
For more information about T.Thurai’s books The Devil Dancers and Barley Bread and Cheese, click here

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