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    Construction of the priory

The first priority for the newly arrived canons was the priory church, which they dedicated to St Mary, the Blessed Virgin. A re-issue of Geoffrey's original charter between 1204 and 1206 indicates that church building had already begun under the patronage of former prior Hugh le Rous after he had become Bishop of Ossory in 1202. The original church may well have been completed by the death of Bishop Rous in 1218 and his burial beneath the presbytery.
The first church was smaller than the present one, having a much shorter nave, presbytery and north transept
(Fig. 8). There was no tower over the crossing nor presumably one at the later northwest corner and there were no aisles. The Lady Chapel is a later addition too, but it did have short side chapels along the east wall of both transepts (Fig. 8). According to the findings of a jury in 1541 the priory church appears to have served as the parish church for neighbouring Kells from the beginning.
Construction of a water-mill against the outer face of the Precinct's south wall
(Fig. 8) was begun soon after permission was granted in the 1204-6 charter. Archaeological finds beneath the claustral east range suggest that their construction had commenced by the second quarter of the thirteenth century (claustral: relating to the cloister). The style of fragments recovered from the cloister arcade (a wall of arches and intervening supports) indicates an early fourteenth century date for the remaining claustral ranges and probably also the ranges around the outer court (Fig. 8).
The early fourteenth century also saw extension of the north transept of the church and the addition to it of an east aisle. Enlargement of the nave and the building of Belfry Tower at its northwest corner, a feature of Augustinian churches, followed completion of the west claustral range. Enlargement of the presbytery and construction of the Lady Chapel probably also belong to this period. Thus the essential buildings of the priory, confined to the Precinct, were complete as we see them by the middle of the fourteenth century.
The first century and a half of construction was not without interruption. The town of Kells, and undoubtedly the priory with it, was attacked and burned on three occasions before the middle of the fourteenth century: by Lord William de Bermingham in 1252; by the Scots army of Edward Bruce on Palm Sunday, 1316; and by a second William de Bermingham in 1327. Under constant threat of violent unrest, it is probable that the perimeter of the Precinct was walled from an early date, with the millstream forming a moat on the south side. Belfry Tower, Watergate Tower and Postern Tower
(Fig. 8) may also all date back to the fourteenth century. Additionally there must have been an earlier fore-runner to the fifteenth century gate from the south.
  Priors and bishops

The early canons proved to be a high-flying group, no doubt reflecting the pioneering spirit which brought them to Ireland in the first place. The four original canons were Reginald de Aclond, Hugh le Rous, Alured and Algar. Reginald de Aclond was elected the first prior and he was followed in succession by another two of the founding canons. The second prior, Hugh le Rous, became the first Anglo-Norman Bishop of Ossory (corresponding to the medieval county of Kilkenny). The nearby Austin priory of Inistioge
(Fig. 1C) was founded in 1206 with the assistance of canons Alured and Algar.1 Alured went on to become prior of Inistioge and Algar became prior of Kells sometime between 1193 and 1199. Algar eventually went to Rome on priory business, from where he was appointed to a bishopric in Lombardy.
Geoffrey fitz Robert's charter ordained that after Reginald de Aclond all future priors were to be elected by the canons from amongst their own number or from the mother-house of Bodmin. They were elected for a fixed term but could be re-elected. The average period in office was about eleven years but ranged from one to thirty-three years. Reginald de Aclond was re-elected (probably twice) after Hugh le Rous became Bishop of Ossory in 1202 and held the office for a total of twenty-six years up to 1229. Algar was also prior during this period. Two priors, Nicholas de Ros in the late thirteenth century and Robert Erley in the mid-fourteenth century, also served three terms. The priors of Kells were also lords of Parliament.
Priors continued to be elected from Bodmin until the beginning of the fourteenth century, after which the canons loosened their ties with the mother-house and began to elect local men. Elias of Shortallstown was the first local prior elected. Others were Richard Coterell of Kells or Knocktopher, John Rowe of Stonecarthy, William Daniell of Kells, Robert Erley of Earlstown, William Beg (or Bek) of Kells, John and later Thomas Lacy (or Lahy) of Ballytobin and Mallardstown and Nicholas White or (Withe) of Callan or Knocktopher. Both John and Thomas Lacy were long-serving priors: John for nineteen years around 1427 and Thomas from 1492 until his death in 1507. Carrigan includes a list of priors in the fourth volume of his 'History and Antiquities'.
Periodically canons from Kells continued to achieve prominence. Peter Barret became Bishop of Ferns until his death in 1415 and his remains were returned to the priory for burial. John Mothell was appointed Bishop of Limerick in 1426 until his resignation ten years before his death in 1468. Others were less commendable. In 1303 a prior of Kells (Nicholas de Ros?)1 was fined for the illegal seizure of certain lands and prior Stephen Carlion was arrested and imprisoned in 1355 for robbing prior John Modberry of Inistioge and a Richard Lancy! Prior Carlion was fully pardoned after payment of a fine of twenty shillings (fl).