When Sir Hugh Montgomery arrived in the Ards in May 1606 he encountered a landscape devoid of substantial buildings. In 1572 the Gaelic chieftain Sir Brian O’Neill had burned every important building in east Ulster as part of his campaign to prevent an English colonisation of the land he claimed as his own.
Montgomery made his headquarters in the Priory around which the town of Newtownards had been founded. In the 13th century. Established as a Dominican priory by the Anglo Norman Savage family, this building was also burned by O’Neill but Montgomery soon restored it as both a church for the Ulster-Scots settlers he was bringing to the Ards and as a family home. By 1611 it was the centre of a town of some 100 houses. A datestone of 1607 survives to mark this rebuilding phase.
Montgomery’s wife, Lady Elizabeth, is buried here but the most important funeral to take place at the Priory was of Sir Hugh himself in 1636, though, like his wife’s, his burial place is not marked. With the status of a Scottish state funeral it was attended by many lairds and nobles. The building was later bought by Sir Robert Colville, whose tomb can still be seen.
Today you can see the remains of the 13th century church, with some additions from later centuries. The present north aisle and tower date from the early 17th century. The entrance to the tower of the former priory is acknowledged as one of the most striking examples of renaissance architecture from the early 17th century. This was the burial place of the elite but the Priory was a parish church for all until 1817, when St Marks was built. It then served as a courthouse until 1850.
Restricted. Opening by special arrangement through the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency. For more information call 028 9054 0540 or visit www.doeni.gov.uk.