In pre-Reformation times Newtownards was an important religious centre with a Dominican priory that was founded around 1244 under the Anglo-Norman Savage family. When Hugh Montgomery arrived in May 1606 it was probably the only substantial stone building at the head of Strangford Lough. He restored part of the priory as a private residence – he had it re-roofed with Scottish slate and refloored with Norwegian fir. The work continued and around summer 1608 some ‘of the Priory walls were roofed and fitted for his Lady and children and servants to live in.’ Newtown House, as this portion of the former priory became known, was burned in 1664.
When Hugh Montgomery first arrived he initially used the chancel of the priory church as a Protestant place of worship, but eventually the rest of the church was also repaired. The present north aisle and four-storey tower probably correspond with the work carried out in 1636 by Hugh Montgomery’s son in fulfilment of his father’s will. The most striking example of early 17th-century Renaissance architecture in Ulster is the doorway to the tower. This was the burial place of the Montgomerys, though no monuments have survived.
Located a short distance from the priory is the Market Cross, the second to be constructed on the site, the first having been built under Montgomery’s direction as a replica of the Market Cross in Edinburgh. It was described by William Montgomery of Rosemount as: ‘an excellent piece of freestone work of eight squares, called the cross, with a door behind, within are stairs mounting to the towers, over which is a high stone pillar, and proclamations are made thereon; on the floor whereof at each square is an antique spout which vented claret, King Charles the 2d being proclaimed our King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, AD 1649.’
Newtownards Priory, Court Street, Newtownards, BT23 7NY
Northern Ireland Environment Agency www.doeni.gov.uk/niea
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