Churches / Devon

Cromwell’s Arch, A Forgotten Priory & A Secret Slice of Bovey Tracey History

Last Updated on 5th August 2018 by Sophie Nadeau

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Bovey Tracey is the gateway to the moor. A town which lies below the windswept moors above and a place populated by independent delicatessens and quaint coffee shops. Inhabited since time immemorial, Bovey Tracey is home to plenty of secret history, including that of Cromwell’s Arch, all that remains of a long forgotten priory.

Close to the iconic Haytor Rocks, and not far from many other Dartmoor attractions such as the rocks of Rippon Tor (including the Rifle Range) and the Cathedral of the moor at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, it’s somewhat impossible to explore the Eastern side of Dartmoor without first passing through Bovey market town.

Cromwell's Arch, A Forgotten Priory & A Secret Slice of Bovey Tracey History

Cromwell’s Arch & A Forgotten Monastery in Bovey Tracey

Halfway up the high street, on a turn of the road which leads to the library, there’s a grand archway in the very centre of the lane. Nearby, a smaller arch is set into a later-built stone wall. These two medieval structures are all that remain of a once thriving monastery.

During the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the priory was decommissioned as part of a larger campaign which eventually led to the formation of the Church of England. The Norman built monastery was constructed in around 1170 and was in continual use up to 1535.

At one point, the priory was thriving and its size rivalled that of a modern-day monastery. However, by 1822, the building had fallen out of favour and it was demolished. The land was purchased by Bovey Tracey Baptist Church, who have since constructed a chapel on site.

Cromwell's Arch, A Forgotten Priory & A Secret Slice of Bovey Tracey History

Norman Roots, The Civil War & Bovey Tracey

Though little, the tiny settlement of Bovey has long played a vital role in the history of England. The earliest attestation of inhabitation in the town can be found as far back as 500AD when a Saxon Settlement by the name of ‘Boffa’ was located where modern day Bovey Tracey now sits.

The town’s current name draws its name from two different sources; the first part ‘Bovey’ finds its roots in ‘Buui,’ a river which meanders its way through the town. The second part ‘Tracey’ derives from William de Tracey, a Norman Knight who was one of those to murder Thomas à Becket in Canterbury.

While the arch is often referred to locally as ‘Cromwell’s Arch,’ this structure clearly dates back much before the Cromwellian era and so the name is a bit of a misnomer. However, with this being said, the town has strong connections to Cromwell.

In January of 1646, Cromwell’s troops (the Roundheads) surprised Royalist troops who were playing cards within a house in the middle of Bovey Tracey. While the Royalist troops managed to get away, some say by allegedly throwing coins out the window to distract the Roundheads, the Royalists were significantly defeated the following day during the battle of Bovey Heath.

Today, close to Cromwell’s Church, the Baptist graveyard sits behind a wrought iron gate. And yes, the route is barred to the public by a large padlock. Luckily, the grassy patch can still be spied when passing by on foot. The exact location of the smaller archway is located within the boundary wall of the Baptist Church.

Cromwell's Arch, A Forgotten Priory & A Secret Slice of Bovey Tracey History

About Author

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, Paris, pizza, and history, though not necessarily in that order. A fan of all things France related, she runs when she's not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming her weight in sweet food. Currently based in Paris after studies in London, she's spent most of her life living in the beautiful Devonian countryside in South West England!

1 Comment

  • Peter Kessler
    26th May 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Your article on the history of the monastery will be very useful in my own research of the town’s churches and chapels, so thanks for that.

    Ascribing the foundation around AD 500 of Bovey Tracey to a Saxon named Boffa is impossible though. The Saxons of Wessex didn’t reach Dartmoor until AD 710. They may have renamed the town, but its foundation must be British (kingdom of Dumnonia).

    See my map series for details of Saxon advances:


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