Where today there are just a few ruins and a modest Parish Church there once stood one of the most important religious buildings in Scotland. At the height of its powers, the Priory had a huge business empire and significant political influence.
Thanks to a Heritage Lottery funded restoration project, the Priory remains have been cleaned and consolidated and information panels around the site now help tell the fascinating history.
Opening Hours: Sunday Service 9.45am, Wednesday 2pm-4pm (June to September, Saturday 2pm-4pm (July-August).
There has been Christian worship on the site for over a thousand years and the present Priory Church building includes walls dated to around 1200. What is beyond doubt is that Coldingham was established at a very early date. A monastery, open to both monks and nuns was founded in 635 by a Northumbrian Princess called Aebbe. She later became a saint, St Aebbe. In 683 fire largely destroyed the monastery. At the time some held this to be divine retribution for what was, perhaps euphemistically, called “disorderly behaviour” among the monks and nuns. Whatever the truth of this, the monastery may have been rebuilt on the same site before being destroyed by Vikings in 870.
Coldingham Priory itself was founded in 1098 by Edgar, King of Scots and son of Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret, in gratitude to Almighty God for recovering his kingdom from Donald Bane, his uncle, who had usurped it at his father’s death.
The first monastic community consisted of thirty Benedictine monks from Durham, and the Priory remained a ‘cell’ of Durham down to 1590. Liberally endowed from the outset by Edgar, it received many further gifts and privileges from later Scottish kings and other pious donors, until it became one of the wealthiest religious houses in Scotland. As with other religious houses, its wealth came from land ownership, which brought income from timber management and from the rearing of sheep that produced wool for export.
The original Church, built in Edgar’s time, was destroyed by King John of England in 1216, but was replaced by a greater and more magnificent church, and despite a fire raised at the priory by its own prior, William Drax, in 1430. This was, allegedly, an attempt by him to conceal his theft of a large amount of money being carried by a messenger from the Scottish King to the English King. The priory was largely destroyed in 1545 during the great raid of the Earl of Hertford, which brought ruin also to the abbeys of Kelso, Dryburgh and Melrose.
Even the Reformation in 1560 and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland in 1603 did not end the priory’s role as an attractor of trouble for the village. The Priory was finally destroyed around 1650 when Oliver Cromwell besieged it in an attempt to evict some Royalist sympathisers sheltering inside. After a two-day siege, eventually all that remained were the north and east walls of the choir, which were later incorporated into the present day church.
Outside of the church building the grounds have been transformed into a community garden with a monastic theme, concentrating on plants with culinary, medicinal, and aromatic properties. There are also interpretation boards, explaining the function and history of the Priory.
Extensive archaeological work has been undertaken during 2017 and 2018 to examine the earliest period of the monastery, the results should be known by spring of 2019.
The Luckenbooth is a community owned venture situated near the entrance to the Priory, which houses an ‘interpretation centre’ that has interactive displays to further explain the working of the Priory and history of the village. It also functions as the village Post Office, containing tourist information and a small café.
In 2018, a group of archaeologists found materials which were dated back to between 660 and 880 AD. The archaeologists have suggested that it is likely that the heart of Princess Aebbe’s Anglo-Saxon monastery is underneath Coldingham Priory! Find out more here.