Around the year 1080, major changes were initiated in the affairs of the Priory. At the instance of Richard and Rohais de Clare to whom the manor of Eynesbury had been given by William the Conqueror, it was refounded as a dependency of the abbey of Bec in Normandy, thus separating it from the Abbey at Ely. Anselm, Abbot of Bec and soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the town shortly afterwards and took away a small relic of St Neot At the hands of the de Clares, the Priory, which may have been much further west near the Foxbrook, was completely rebuilt near the river by 1110. On her husband’s death, Rohais gave her entire manor to the Priory and its monks at the re-dedication ceremony in 1113. It consisted of a church with the bell tower, a refectory, a dormitory, a chapter house, a central cloister area, as well as kitchens, a cellarium for food storage and outbuildings including stables, storage barns, worskshops and pigsties. The priory remains are very incomplete, but attempts have been made to draw a plan based on what has been found. Apart from foundations and column bases, other finds include glazed floor tiles, painted wall plaster, fragments of stained glass, and pieces of carved masonry. The gatehouse survived until 1814.
Remains of the Norman castle at Eaton Socon
A castle was built on the riverbank at Eaton (modern Eaton Socon) around 1140, apparently without permission of the monarch. It was probably of timber construction and may never have been completed, but the earth mound still exists and can be seen from the path along the opposite bank. The castle was demolished about 15 years later by order of Henry II.
St Neots Priory was now holding a weekly market, a right given by charter around 1130. The market stalls were set out next to the Priory, in the area where today’s Market Square still stands. A wooden bridge was built to replace the old ford, and a system of tolls was set up. By the end of the 12th century, the infant town of St Neots was a busy, prosperous place; almost a twin of the older settlement at Eynesbury.
Around 1200, a new parish church was built in St Neots, possibly on the site of the original Priory, while had moved to a stone structure by the river to the north of the Market. Meanwhile, Eynesbury and Eaton Socon parish churches were rebuilt around the same time. The Priory became highly respected and extremely wealthy during this period, and the settlements of Eynesbury, St Neots, and Eaton Socon were prosperous too. This was partly due to the presence of the Priory and partly due to river and road traffic, especially along the Great North Road between London and central England.
There was a small settlement called Sudbury based around the manor owned by the de Sudbury family (now Crosshall, part of Eaton Ford). The manor fell into disrepair in the early 14th century, but traces of the old fields still remain. These are typical of the open field system of that time, the town was surrounded by field strips and areas of common land, with water meadows and reed beds close to the river. These would have provided most of the food and materials necessary for the local population, timber would have been taken from the abundant woodland on the higher ground.
Because the Priory was an ‘alien house’, that is, it belonged to a French order, it suffered from intermittent confiscations during the Hundred Years’ War from 1338, as well as the payment of an annual fee which amounted to over half their annual income. In addition, it was ostracised by pilgrims and travellers cutting off another source of income.
The Black Death struck St Neots in 1348, spreading very quickly and resulting in the deaths of about 35% of the population. In 1378, only seven monks remained in the Priory, and three of these returned to France. An English Prior was appointed in 1409 and the French connection finally broken. By the 1340s, the Priory was reported to be semi-derelict with lax discipline, but by 1507, it seems that it had been repaired and was once again thriving.
St Neots Parish Church
St Neots parish church was rebuilt in the 15th century, (as was the church at Eaton Socon). This last revival of gothic architecture, which left almost nothing of the previous church, was made possible by Edward IV’s policy of reducing taxation on his returns from exile in Flanders in 1471. It resulted in the town having a uniformly Perpendicular building with a prominent 130 ft tower, built in the Somerset style, which is still visible from miles around. Like many churches of the period it was supported by a local gild, which had a chapel within the building and because of its size and grandeur, it became known as “the cathedral of, Huntingdonshire”. Eynesbury church had already been rebuilt in the 13th century. All three suffered from the depredations of government legislation when their interiors were shorn of their stone altars, rood screens and statuary as part of the Reformation agenda. Eaton Socon church suffered a severe fire in the 1930s and was rebuilt in the same style.
15th century building in St Neots
A few non-ecclesiastical buildings remain from the late mediaeval period, though the timber frames were often covered by more recent “improvements”. One of the best of these buildings was discovered and restored quite recently and is now a jewellery shop.