The history of Modbury church is inseparable from that of the small priory which was established in the early part of the twelfth century. The original church of St. Mary of Modbury and its lands, as mentioned in the 1084 Geld Roll, were given to an abbey in Normandy: a deed of c.1140 states that Roger de Valletort ‘confirmed the gift which Radulf, his paternal uncle, and Rainald, his father, made to the Abbey and the monks of Modbury concerning the church of Modbury and all things pertaining to that same church’. The patronage passed by marriage from the Valletorts through the Okestons to the Champernownes.
The priory, normally consisting of a prior and two monks, was a cell of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Pierre-sur-Dives. Its main function was to administer the lands and revenues belonging to Modbury church, and to send the proceeds to the mother-house. Such priories came to be known as ‘alien’ priories. Local landowners gave gifts of money and land, timber for building, and permission to construct a sluice for the priory mill at Swanbridge. In 1275 the prior was granted the water from a spring now known as Silverwell. The monks diverted it to the priory through a series of channels and culverts.
During the time of the priory religious worship at Modbury involved two communities and two ecclesiastical buildings. The parishioners attended services in the church of St. Mary, and were cared for by a vicar. Elsewhere in the churchyard, perhaps linked to the parish church, was the priory chapel of St. George. The parishioners were only allowed to enter this to present their offerings on St. George’s Day. The priory was also responsible for the upkeep of the chancel of the parish church.
In 1188-90 the Bishop of Exeter, John the Chanter, allowed the monks to have a chaplain. He was to be maintained wholly by them, and they were responsible for his living arrangements. The first reference to a vicar is in Modbury Charter No.11, dated 1250, in which Yves, Vicar of Modbury, gives a burgage in the town to the priory. This property could be the site of the Church House, which later became the Bell Inn, now No.3. Broad Street. It was not until 1269, following the edict of Bishop Bronescombe, that the living of the vicar was regularised, as set out in Modbury Charter No.14:
…by assigning to him [the vicar]…all the greater and lesser tithes of the vill of Leigh, and besides, a third part of the proceeds and incomes of the greater and lesser tithes of the whole parish, with the exception of the greater and lesser tithes of the vill of Pencoyt – also with the exception of the offerings of St. George’s Day, also the offerings and wax candles from the churching of women. And with the exception of the mill and the prior’s consecrated ground which he cultivates with his own hands – provided that the same vicar possesses as habitation a certain croft next to the prior’s garden towards the west containing seven and a half acres, and for his he pays annually 7 shillings to the said prior and is responsible for all the ordinary burdens of the church that are due and customary.
In 1331 a declaration by John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, pronounced the Abbots of St. Pierre-sur-Dives ‘the rightful possessors of the parish church, saving always the bishop’s right of appointing the vicar’, following nomination by the prior.
Domestic chapels associated with the church at the time of the priory were St. Leonard’s at Little Modbury, St. Margaret’s at Penquit, and St. Mary’s at Ludbrook. In the church itself were the transept chapel of St. Peter and, in the south part of the building, a chantry chapel or chapels, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist.
The earliest cartographic representation is contained in the Ordnance Survey Surveyor’s Draft map of c.1804. This is followed by the Modbury tithe map of 1841 (Devon Records Office (DRO) 6969A/P8/4/1). The Ordnance Survey First Edition 1:2500 map, surveyed in 1884 and published in 1889 indicates the presence of a Priory and it is thought to be in the vicinity of the now demolished Modbury House. In addition it has been speculated that the area around Modbury Church may fall within a Prehistoric or Dark Age enclosure.
There is little change shown on the Second Edition 1:2500 published in 1904. In 1952 the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 reveals that the churchyard has been extended towards the north and the Priory is now designated as Benedictine.