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St Peter, Dunstable, Bedfordshire

(51°53′7″N, 0°31′4″W)
TL 021 218
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Bedfordshire
now Bedfordshire
  • Hazel Gardiner

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The 12thc. Augustinian Priory church was cruciform in plan with a tower at the crossing and two further towers at the W end, flanking the W doorway. Of the original structure, the nave, N and S arcades, triforium, easternmost bays of the vaulted S aisle, parts of the W front, including the W doorway, and the N doorway survive from the 12thc. Nothing now survives of the monastic buildings.

The two W towers collapsed in December 1222, one falling onto the W front and the other falling onto the Prior's house, on the S. The NW tower was rebuilt, along with much of the W front. A lady chapel was built at the E end of the church in 1228, and dedicated in 1231 (and rebuilt in 1324). At the exterior E end of the church on the S is a tall clustered pier of c. 1370 (VCH, 3:365) set against what was the easternmost pier of the S aisle. This suggests that fairly substantial alterations were made to the E end. The W doorway was blocked in in the mid 15thc. and a smaller, square doorway, with niches for statues above, was inserted. The 12thc. clerestory was removed later in the 15thc. A new top was added to the tower, also in the 15thc. Both N and W doorways were protected by porches during the medieval period. In the 1770s the W porch was removed.

Extensive restoration work was carried out from the mid- to late-19thc. under the direction of George Somers Clark. Much of the S aisle was restored in 1851-2, and only the first two bays survive from the 12thc. The restoration of the N aisle capitals was not completed. The N doorway, which had been walled in since the Dissolution, was rediscovered in 1876, when the N wall, then in danger of collapse, was rebuilt.

The sculpture at Dunstable, particularly that on the arches and capitals of the W doorway was of the highest quality and very elaborate. Unfortunately the carving is now extremely weathered and damaged and only a few details may still be clearly seen. It is necessary to refer to early 20thc. photographs to appreciate some of the sculpture, as it is in such a poor state now.

The 19thc. font has incorporated a fragment of the orginal font, which was discovered during the 19thc. restorations, embedded in one of the nave piers.

A number of plaster casts of the capitals from the W doorway survive and there are also a number which correspond in dimensions, style and theme to those surviving on the N doorway. These casts are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Dunstable did not exist at the time of DS although there was a Roman settlement, Durocobrivae, near the eventual site of the town (VCH 3:349). Dunstable was founded by Henry I in the first quarter of the 12thc. at the crossing of the Roman-built Watling Street and the ancient Icknield Way. Henry is also known to have built a palace or lodge, Kingsbury, which stood to the NW of the Priory. The exact location of the palace has not been identified.

The Priory was founded c.1131. The foundation charter of the Priory (Harley Ms. 1885, f.102) was witnessed by Robert, Bishop of Hereford (1131 - 1148), among others. The Priory church was probably completed late in the 12thc. and was consecrated by Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln in 1213 (VCH 3:364).

Dunstable Priory was one of over 40 Augustinian houses founded by Henry I, his wife Matilda and their entourage, who were particularly supportive of the order.The first Prior of Dunstable, Bernard, and his brother, Norman, were instrumental in introducing the Augustinian order into England earlier in the 12thc.

The Priory was granted extensive privileges in the town and held land and churches throughout Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. Henry I's charter was confirmed by Henry II, who also granted the Lordship of Houghton Regis to the Priory. The grants continued to be confirmed, sometimes reluctantly, by successive monarchs up to the Dissolution (VCH 3: 356).

In June 1222 the presbytery roof fell in and in December of the same year the two W towers collapsed, one falling onto the nave roof and the other onto the Prior’s house which stood hard by the SW of the church. The collapse of the towers meant that the W front had to be substantially rebuilt. Only one tower was rebuilt, giving the W front the rather lopsided appearance it has to this day.

The parishioners obtained use of the whole of the nave in 1392, which probably accounts for this part of the church surviving the Dissolution.

After the Dissolution there was a proposal to turn Dunstable into a bishopric with the Priory church as its cathedral. Eventually, when this did not happen, the chancel and monastic buildings were dismantled. It is probable that the N doorway was also blocked at this time. The remains of the monastic buildings and the chancel were used as a quarry for building materials by the town. This continued at Dunstable until the early 20thc.

In the 1770s there was a campaign to remove the porch which protected the W doorway. The porch is described in a petition to the Bishop of Lincoln as 'quite useless' and 'spoiling the beauty of the arcade' and it was duly removed (Lincolnshire Archives Office: Diocesan records. Fac. 3/25. Copy held by the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service). Some time afterwards Nichols in his Topographical Survey of 1790 recalls that the 'horrible wooden porch' is now removed but then adds sadly that boys 'in quest of birds who breed in the carved mouldings now destroy the beauties which were before concealed'.

Restoration was begun at Dunstable in 1851 under the direction of George Somers Clark.The restoration process was always rather halting, the church was in fact closed for eleven years, and there were frequent campaigns to raise money from the occasionally reluctant parishioners. In 1876 work was begun on the N aisle, which had been in danger of collapse for some time. It was in this year that the N doorway was rediscovered, The Leighton Buzzard Observer of October 8 1878 gives an account of the restoration and reopening ceremony of the church.


Exterior Features


Exterior Decoration


Interior Features



Wall passages/Gallery arcades


Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

String courses




A number of writers point out the 'giant order' of the nave piers, a feature that Dunstable shares with Romsey, Jedburgh and Oxford Cathedral, and parallels have also been made with Carlisle in both architectural and decorative features (Halsey, 1982; Franklin, 2004).

Similarities between the Byzantine Blossom and chevron at Dunstable and that seen at Jedburgh have been noted (Garton, 1987) , and the feature of alternating figural sculpture and foliage is also paralleled with Jedburgh. The Dunstable carvings have less variety but are more undercut.

The Dunstable sculpture may also be compared with carvings from St Albans Cathedral and St Mary, Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, the so-called 'Aylesbury Fonts' and St Michael and All Angels, Stewkley in Buckinghamshire, and the Temple Church and St Bartholomew, Smithfield, in London (Zarnecki 1975; Thurlby 1982; Thurlby 2001). However there is no exact parallel for the work at Dunstable.

The N and S arcades are usually dated to c.1150 - 1160, and the triforium to the late 12thc. The naturalistic, transitional quality of the carving on W and N doorways had previously led to a date of c.1190 being proposed (Zarnecki 1975, 249). In recent years however, an earlier date is considered to be more likely. Thurlby suggests c.1170 (Thurlby, 2001, 165) and c.1160 has also been proposed (Neil Stratford, pers. comm. 2005).

There are many references to carvings and other artefacts from Dunstable, now lost or destroyed. Smith describes a 'modern rockwork' to the E of the Priory church which consisted of 'flints, stones, sculptured and unsculptured, tiles and old wine and spirit bottles' (Smith 1910, 153). Some of the carved stones were shaft fragments 'ornamented with plait work', which Smith surmised were from the W doorway. There was also a carved head with 'a Norman conical helmet', which may have been 12thc. Sadly, a footnote records that when the rockwork was dismantled in 1910, all of the stone fragments were smashed and used for roadbuilding. Similarly, a number of carved stones were, according to Smith used in a boundary wall (Smith 1910, 154). This wall had been pulled down prior to 1910 and the stones used as above, as hardcore.

Smith also mentions that carved stones from the choir had been collected by a Dunstable schoolmaster and kept in his garden. Allegedly when the schoolmaster died, he requested that the stones be buried on Dunstable Downs. Smith shows the likely point of burial with an 'x' on a map of the Downs! (Smith, 1904, 83)

An edition of The Builder (September 26, 1900) notes that richly carved stones could be found in local gardens and also refers to the buried stones mentioned by Smith. The only survival outside the priory grounds that has been discovered so far is a fragment of chevron built into the wall of the 'Norman King' pub opposite the Priory. This is recorded in a separate entry.

There are many drawings and old photographs surviving of the W doorway and these are invaluable in providing clues to material now lost.

Drawings from Carter’s Ancient Architecture of England , of c.1800 and from Britton's Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, of 1805, are useful but not altogether accurate. The Carter prints do not include the angels which alternate with the foliage in the fourth order; in place of the animal masks of the third order he has inserted cherubim; and in the second order he has inserted Byzantine Blossom within oval medallions but has not included the figure carvings with which the blossom alternated. Britton’s drawing is more convincing, and has more accurate detail, but still leaves much unaccounted for.

Both Britton and Nichols record that Dunstable had signs of the zodiac in linked ovals in the second arch order of the W doorway and Nichols states that 'Pisces and Capricorn', and 'a spread eagle' may be seen in this order – neither have attempted to depict these however. Samuel and Nathanial Buck also record that the arch had signs of the zodiac.

Smith notes that in the 19thc. two busts, one male, one female sat over the outermost capitals of the W doorway (Smith 1904, 73) . He suggests that they were of Henry I and his queen, Matilda. Drawings by Rev. D. T. Powell of c.1810-12 in the British Library, show the male head, above the fourth order L capital, wearing a crown (BL Add, Ms. 17456, ff. 66-69).

Carter's print shows three figures on the panel to the R of the W doorway. The L figure stands, holding a harp; the central figure is seated and also playing a harp; the R figure is also seated and holds a stringed instrument.

The Priory church has never been the subject of a full archaeological investigation, although excavations were carried out to the E of the church in 1948, in order to confirm a conjectural plan made by Smith (Smith, 1904, 96). The base of one of the four tower supports was discovered 4.6 m from the present E wall (Hitchcock, 1993, 2-3).

In the 12thc. and 13thc. the N doorway had been protected by a porch. Repairs to this are mentioned in the Dunstable Annals of 1289. It is possible that the porch was removed not long before the doorway was blocked as the deterioration of the surviving capitals is not particularly advanced. But this could be owing to the doorway being in a less exposed position than the W front, where the carvings are in a much poorer state.

The deterioration of the carved stonework on the exterior of the church has accelerated in the course of the last century, probably owing to the effects of airbourne pollutants in rainwater. Totternhoe Stone, the fine, soft, pale grey limestone which was used for all the 12thc. sculpture does not weather well under any circumstances.

We are grateful to Hugh Garrod for his information about the local traditions regarding the font.

J. Britton, Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain I, London, 1807.
J. Carter, Ancient Architecture of England, 1795–1814
Domesday Book: Bedfordshire, Ed. J. Morris, Chichester, 1977, 1, 2 (note).
T. Fisher, Collections, Historical, Genealogical and Topographical for Bedfordshire, London, 1812–1836.
J. A. Franklin, 'Augustinian architecture in the twelfth century : the context for Carlisle'. In M. McCarthy; D. Weston, (eds), Carlisle and Cumbria : Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, British Archaeological Association, Conference Transactions, 27. Leeds: BAA, 2004, 73-88.
T. Garton, 'The Transitional Sculpture of Jedburgh Abbey', in Romanesque and Gothic. Essays for George Zarnecki. London: Boydell Press, 1987, 69-81.
The Gentleman's Magazine 118, 1848, 529.
R. Halsey, 'Proceedings of the Summer Meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute at Bedford in 1982: Dunstable Priory', The Archaeological Journal,1982, 139, 46–47.
J. J. Hitchcock 'Excavations around Dunstable Priory, 1948 - 1992' Manshead Magazine, 33, 1993, 2-3.
Lincolnshire Archives Office: Diocesan records. Fac. 3/25
D. Lyson, S. Lyson, Magna Britannia 1:1, London, 1813, (plan and illustration of nave arcades)
N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Bedfordshire and the County of Huntingdon and Peterborough, London, 1968, 75.
W. G. Smith, 'Notes on (1) The old belfry doors at the Church of St, Peter, Dunstable; (2) The Sanctus Bell at the Church of St, Peter, Dunstable; (3) Rockery with sculptured stones at Dunstable; (4) The stone screen in the Priory Church of St, Peter, Dunstable.', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London 23, London, 1910, 151-157.
W. G. Smith, Dunstable: Its History and Surroundings, London, 1904, 71-83.
The Builder, September 26 1900.
M. Thurlby 'Fluted and Chalice-Shaped: The Aylesbury Group of Fonts', Country Life, January 28 1982, 228-29.
M. Thurlby, 'The Place of St Albans in Regional Sculpture and Architecture in the Second Half of the Twelfth Century'. In M. Henig; P. Lindley (eds), British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 24, Leeds: BAA, 2001, 162-175.
The Victoria County History: A History of the County of Bedford. 3, 1912, 349-368.
G. Zarnecki. 'The West Doorway of the Temple Church in London', Beiträge zur Kunst des Mittlealters, Festschrift für Hans Wentzel zum 60 Geburtstag. Berlin, 1975. 246-53. reprinted in Studies in Romanesque Sculpture, 1979. London: Pindar Press. 245-253.