PRITTLEWELL Priory is one of Southend’s museums today, but this historic former medieval monks’ home still has plenty of secrets to share.

Built during the 12th century, it was established as a home for monks from the Cluniac priory of St Pancras.

It was almost obliterated on the orders of Henry VIII during the Reformation in the 16th century and eventually became home to a wealthy family, making it Southend’s oldest continuously occupied building.

Founded in 1110 by Robert FitzSuen, the original “Preterwelle priory” of St Mary was home to 18 monks, who followed the rule of St Benedict.

As such, they were supposed to live a humble and peaceful life, promoting pilgrimage to the Holy Land and remaining celibate.

They also had to abstain from eating meat. Although they were not under a vow of silence, for long periods during the day, the monks were forbidden to speak, so were said to have invented a special sign language in order to communicate with each other.

The priory survived some 400 years before it being dissolved in 1536 during monastic suppression as part of the Reformation.

At this time, much of the building was destroyed, though the surviving house and monastary foundations stand in a beautiful park of about 45 acres.

Legend has it the priory is haunted by a ghostly monk, who is seen gliding up the path leading to the old cloisters, and particularly the former minstrel’s gallery.

In the Sixties, an archaeological dig is said to have found the skeleton of a monk who had been beheaded and buried face-down in the earth – suggesting he was bound for hell.

Some say this was the body of Prior William who was in charge of the priory in 1321 when it was taken over during a violent clash.

It is said the spectre said to haunt the building and grounds is his.

Others suggest the ghost is that of a monk, executed by the monastic order for falling in love with a local girl.

Although the building has undergone massive changes in its lifetime, not least a recent £1.8 million refurbishment, plenty of original features survive, including a 12th-century doorway with chevron and dog tooth ornamentation.

During Victorian times, the Scratton family inherited the Priory and carried out their own renovations, turning the building into a comfortable home. Among this work was the creation of a walled kitchen garden on the site of the monks’ burial ground.

The priory was bought by local philanthropist Robert Arthur Jones in 1917, who gifted the building to the people of Southend for future generations to enjoy.

It is now an important facility, run by Southend Museums and a venue for regular public events.

The refectory, which retains one original wall from the time of the monks, is a popular venue for weddings and civil ceremonies.

! See for yourself what Prittlewell Priory has to offer by going to its Christmas at the Priory event on Saturday, December 5. The fascinating past of the building will be brought back to life in an exploration of Christmas past.

Find out how the Cluniac monks celebrated the festive period and lots more. Entry is free, drop in between 10am and 3pm.