This article appeared in the Summer 1970 (Issue #20) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Resulting from the recent Public Inquiry on the preservation of the Priory Outbuildings, at which several members of the local Groups and Societies gave evidence, much interest has been aroused in the history of the Priory itself. As little information seems to have been published on the Priory, it is hoped that this report will remedy the position.
In 1032 AD this valuable Saxon estate was bought for 80 silver marks by King Canute's Chaplain, Eadsy, and presented to Christ Church, Canterbury.
In 1270 AD the building itself is first mentioned in the following Medieval Latin text
"FACTA APUD ORPINTONE CORUM NOBIS OFFICIALI CURIE CANTUARARIENSIS IN AULA RECTORIS," when Chancellor of the Diocese Hugh de Mortuo Mari (of the Dead Sea) held judgement here, "in the Hall," on monks of Horton Priory (which incidentally resembled Orpington in many architectural features).
Canterbury accounts record in 1393 that three apartments were added to the Hall (see plan). All contemporary in date, these rooms have the same stone doorways and newel stairways and compare favourably with similar structures such as "Old Soar" at Plaxtol, Kent.
In 1471, William Selling, Prior of Christ Church made great improvements especially to the Apartments of the Prior of this Manor."
Fine 15th century fireplaces were installed in the Hall, and a range of domestic buildings to the east, whilst the Grand Gateway was provided on the south (with stables attached for the Priory's retinue on journeys between Canterbury and London Courts).
In 1540 King Henry VIII, at the Dissolution, gave Orpington to Percival Hart (of Lullingstone) who within three years built "Barkhart" (abutting the Parish Church) retaining the "Prior's Apartments" as the Rectory.
When the last resident Rector died in 1620, the Canterbury Chapter leased out the Priory property and it became the home of newly-wedded Richard Spencer; second son of Lord Spencer, the richest man in England at that time, from whom the Dukes of Marlborough and the late Sir Winston Spencer Churchill are descended.
Colonel the Hon. Richard Spencer of Orpington joined Charles I with two regiments of horse and £60,000 from Kent in 1642. Later he became Royal Ambassador to the Netherlands. At the Restoration, he returned to Orpington from exile and died soon afterwards in November 1661. His widow, Lady Spencer, was taxed for 13 fireplaces at the Priory in 1664! She lived on until 1675, then she joined her husband in Orpington Church.
From then onwards until 1864, the Priory had a succession of lease-holders. In 1865, Dr Herbert Broom, LL.D., took ownership, recording the fact with his armorial plaque placed upon the Priory Outbuildings. (Incidentally, this plaque dated 1865 was quoted in evidence as the age of the Outbuildings by an "expert" of the Bromley Council, who sought demolition of them in 1967).
The Kent Archaeological Society paid a visit to "Orpington Priory, Chislehurst" in 1878, and a Life Member, Benjamin G Lake, purchased the property in 1882. He produced a pamphlet, "Description of the Priory, Orpington" (1887).
I was fortunate in finding a copy of this rare leaflet in the possession of Mr B N Nunns of Sidcup, who kindly allowed copies to be made. I am also indebted to the late Mr P E W Street, who made available copies of some sixty photographs of the Priory which he took during the period 1928-35 for record purposes.
During August 1959, in order to provide space for the modern library, part of the Priory building was demolished, including a fine 15th Century doorway decorated with fleur-de-lis, and the ancient "alms hatchway" in the eastern wing. Permission being obtained from the Council (the owners), I managed to record many features by sketches and photographs before they were destroyed.
Domestic debris unearthed during the destruction, including pottery of the period 1270 AD when Hugh of the Dead Sea held his Court here. A fine Siegburg Funnel Goblet of 15th Century discovered, may have held the Prior's refreshment in 1471 AD whilst several sherds of "Bellamines" might well have resulted from the celebrations of Colonel Spencer's return from exile in 1660! All these items now rest in the roof loft of the Priory Hall, and it is hoped that they will be placed on permanent display, downstairs in the museum in the near future by the new curator.