The following is taken from a 1909 Cornish and Devon Post Article by Otho Peter .
Some years ago while reading certain ancient writings I noticed several references to a large monastic establishment which was described as having existed on the eastern boundary of the parish of St. Thomas-the Apostle, next Launceston. As after diligent inquiries I could gain no assistance from the folks of the neighbourhood in regard to any traditional site of this building, I determined to personally explore the district, and aided by notes from the above mentioned writings, and by excavations that happened to be making at the time for a local railway cutting, the foundations of its walls were eventually discovered some eight or twelve feet below the surface of the ground. I then managed to so arouse the curiosity of the public by suggestions as to what might be under the sod that the owners of the land willingly gave me permission to dig, and other people liberally subscribed towards the cost of excavating and removing the top soil. I was this enabled to uncover and trace out the lines of what must once have been a magnificent square planned group of buildings standing on a level plot of ground and measuring about 230 feet in length and in width.
One day, not long after my labours had been completed and I had fenced off a portion of what was formerly the choir of the priory church for future generations to see, a stranger was shown into my study. After a few preliminary remarks he said he had some information concerning the monastery which he thought would interest me. He then took a memorandum book and papers from his coat pocket, and continued, — “The notes and manuscripts which I hold in my hand were taken direct from the records of an Abby in Normandy. They give an account of a stirring period in the history of Launceston Priory, but before I place them in your keeping I wish to verify one peculiar item referred to in them. It is that in the masonry of an eastern wall of the church would be found a stone cist containing the bones of Prior Adam De Knolle wrapped in a skin of a black dog. I shall be obliged if you will test the truth of that statement, for if it prove correct both you and I shall then have more faith in the other parts of the story.”
I am not superstitious and yet there was that in the request which I did not like. There was something abhorrent to my mind in disturbing the possible resting place of such a relic, but curiosity prevailed, and I accompanied the stranger to the spot indicated, and obtaining a crow bar, commenced to explore. We had not been long at work when we came upon some hewn stones which seemed to have formed part of a shrine. Under these were two larger blocks resting one on the other. Lifting and placing these on a barrow we conveyed them to a shed near, and on removing the covering stone found that the lower block was hollowed out in a shape of a coffin and contained a few human bones and a portion of the skin of some animal. The stranger was satisfied that this was what he sought, and after supping with me, handed over his notes and papers and departed. I will now try and arrange as concisely as possible some account of one or two events in the life of Adam De Knolle which are narrated in them, but before doing so I should say that the relics were reverently re-buried in the adjoining churchyard.
The most important village referred to in the manuscripts was named Launceston, and the houses and huts forming it were described as situated in a wooded valley on the banks of the Kensey brook near a spot where a picturesque foot-bride spanned that stream. This cluster of dwellings was famous for its monastery dedicated to St. Stephen which had been rebuilt there by Bishop Warelwast, of Exeter in the days of King Henry the first, and the inhabitants appear to have all been vassals of the Convent, who in addition to giving their labour and goods freely to the ecclesiastics who dwelt in the Church house, were also liable to be called to arms whenever the Conventual property was in danger. The priory stood on a spot adjacent to the village and its buildings surrounded an open cloister square which was in their centre; around this cloister were the workrooms of the canons and from it the priory church, the chapter house, and the dining, living and sleeping rooms, were entered. The main entrance from outside was on the East front next to the village street. It was at this gateway that travellers were received and daily doles of charity were appointed to be given away to all who applied. Such institutions then took the place of the modern licensed hotel where all who presented proper credentials had a right to food and shelter for both themselves and their horses.
Adam De Knolle was lord of the Manor and Convent of Launceston, when Edward the third was King and just before the time when the Black Prince was elected as the first Duke of Cornwall. The King and the Prince, together with most of the knights and laylords of this and other districts in England, were very frequently away fighting in foreign lands. This fact gave Knolle and his priests almost a free hand in regard to worldly matters, and they appear to have taken full advantage of the opportunity.
Adam was evidently a jolly old soul, healthy and light hearted, active and always in good humour, but unfitted for his position as head of church. One bright St. Stephen’s day, the feast day of his priory, he arose early to kill a few partridges with his falcons, designating the customary eulogium upon the Saint. He whistled for his favourite black hound and hawks and started up the valley. The sport was good and the hours flew fast, and as, when he got back and had handed over the birds to the cook and donned his robes, there were only a few minutes left for his sermon before meal time, he determined to be brief, and for lack of better — hurriedly delivered it in these simple words: “My brethren, it is only a year since I told you all I knew about St. Stephen. As I have heard nothing new with regard to him since, I shall add nothing to what I have already said before.” When he had got thus far, writes the chronicler, he happened to look at the congregation to note the effect of his address and was greatly shocked by catching sight of his patron, Bishop Grandisson, sitting with the canons in the choir. On this discovery he hastily made the sigh of the cross and descending from the pulpit slipped into the presbytery behind the altar in order that he might regain his usual unblushing countenance. Meanwhile the Bishop had arisen to protest against such a short sermon, and the bad Latin in which it had been delivered, but losing sight of the preacher he excitedly exclaimed “Adam where art thou?” The prior on hearing the call presently came forward, and smilingly greeted his lordship asked him to join him at dinner. Now the Bishop had intended to make some stern remarks, but as he had walked in from his local seat at Lawhitton and was hungry, he gave way. The cooked partridges proved to be browned to a turn and to have a wonderfully softening effect. After grace the two lords retired to the chapter house for toddy and a chat, and it was there that the Bishop noticed the Prior’s hound stretched before the fire and asked why such an animal was allowed to be in the room. “You would find a good excuse for being so fond of this dog as I am” said the prior “if you only knew his remarkable qualities. It was only this morning while I was taking a stroll up the valley with it as my companion that the brute began scratching at a spot under a bush, and on my going up to see what it was marking at, I found this bag of gold, which” he cunningly continued, “I have great pleasure in handing to your lordship for your cathedral.” Knolle got off with such a mild chiding on this occasion that it is no wonder they he and those under him continued on the downward track and said in their hearts, “we will be merry as we were before, for the people little think what a little folly governs the world.”
We next read of Prior de Knolle as being in the habit of frequently living outside the precincts of the convent at the table of Johanne, the wife of Henry Colyn, where he was said to join in games of chance and drink too much ale. His canons are also reported to have followed the example of their superior, and to have freely admitted to the cloister suspected women, and other persons of bad repute, and to have appropriated for themselves the funds of the priory and daily doles for the poor. In fact such grave and infamous reports continued to the Bishop from various sources that he felt it his duty to visit the priory again, and on his finding that that there was truth in them, he, after due warning, issued a command that if the rule of the establishment was not reformed forthwith he should excommunicate the Prior. But Knolle was too far gone in sin to reform, and he imprudently answered that he would listen to no orders except those which came direct from the Pope of Rome. Some few weeks after this notable affair, which by the way happened in the same year that the Black Prince was elected Duke of Cornwall, Adam while hunting in the neighbourhood of Trelaske was thrown from his horse and killed. He had only a lad and his black hound with him at the time. The lad hurried back, and in reporting the sad event to the sub-prior, said that the last words he heard his master utter were — “Tell my children that I sent my resignations to the Bishop yesterday, and that I am sure that they will not weep so heartily at my funeral as I have made them laugh while I was alive.”
Those who went to bring home the corpse on reaching the spot where it lay are said to have found the faithful black hound lying dead close to the body of the Prior. It had apparently died from grief. The canons were so touched by this incident that they decided to take the dog;s skin and to wrap it around the remains of their late lord and bury it with him. But the requiem they sung over the remains at the funeral was not sufficient to lay the spirit of either Adam or his hound, for they were doomed to dwell in purgatory, and some folks say may still occasionally be seen swiftly crossing the highways and byeways in the neighbourhood of this fatal accident, especially on misty moonlight nights.
Like his namesake, the first man Adam had fallen. He was the first of the priors of Launceston to flout the authority of the bishops of the Church of England, and as his example was followed by some of his successors, he may be considered as the original sinner through whose bad example the priory of the blessed Stephen at Launceston had eventually to be dissolved, and its princely buildings to be so utterly destroyed, and even buried, by angry zealots, that previously to the re-discovery of their site described at the beginning of this story they believed to be “the baseless fabric of a vision.”