Situated less than one kilometre southwest of the River Blackwater which flows into the Boyne, Kells is built upon a ridge 100 metres above sea level.  This provided a defensive position in prehistoric and medieval times and elevated the towns strategic importance. 

Kells is well known because of the beautifully illustrated eighth to ninth century gospel book known as the Book of Kells, at the back of which are charters written in Irish that record the names of officials who helped them to administer the monastic school and the guest-house, and of the tenants on monastic land.
They also mention the margad Cenanndsa, the market of Kells, where cattle were sold. We can even pinpoint where the market was likely to have been held, as until recently the “Market Cross” was located at the bottom of Market Street.

On particular saints’ days pilgrims would come and exchange goods at this site. The first Anglo-Norman lord to take possession of Kells was Hugh de Lacy, who built a castle, most likely a motte and bailey castle, in present day Castle Street. By the time the first Ordnance Survey map was drawn in 1836 the castle had been demolished.
In c. 1200 either Hugh de Lacy himself or his son granted Kells a town charter. In the Continental tradition the town wall became the physical expression of this charter, indicating that those living inside the town enjoyed different privileges from those living on manors outside. There were 5 street gates leading into the town.
Street names are a good indicator of life in medieval Kells. John Street, which leads into town from the Dublin Road, is named after the hospital of the Crutched Friars of St. John in Headfort Place.
At the western end of the town we are in Canon St – which has no military associations but rather reminds us that not far from Canon Gate stood the Augustinian abbey of canons regular of St. Mary, which had already taken over from the Columban monastery before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. The street leading out of Kells northwards towards the Blackwater is called Maudlin Street. During the medieval period a leper hospital was located just outside Maudlin Gate.
The prevailing trade in medieval Kells was in grain, salt, livestock, woollen cloth and linen. The markets were held in Market Street. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Kells suffered because of its location on the boundary between the colony’s ‘land of peace’ and the ‘wild Irish’. Many of the Anglo Irish left Kells at that time and the Gaelic Irish moved in.


In 1315 Edward Bruce and his Scottish - Irish army burned Kells to the ground when they invaded the Pale.  The first known 'murage grant' for the fortified town walls of Kells date from 1326 and 1388. These grants paid for stone walls, 1,650 metres in length, to enclose 21 hectares of land.  In the 15th century, grants were issued to repair the walls of Kells which were expected to be paid by the residents. This taxation supposedly caused residents to leave the town in protest.  The walls continued to protect the town's inhabitants who lived on the edge of the Pale and often came under attack from the men of Brefine in Co. Cavan.  

The walls became obsolete in later centuries and were gradually removed. The only extant stretch of the medieval wall is at the end of the gardens south of Canon Street and includes the ruin of a round tower and a small portion of the once great wall.  Medieval walls not only protected the townspeople from attack, they also ensured all traffic to markets passed through the town gates, and paid their taxes on the food and produce they were bringing in. Even nowadays the Boyne Valley is home to a busy array of food producers and artisan craftspeople. A wall was the sign of a prosperous town and the wealth and importance of the Boyne Valley can be seen by the fact that four of its towns were walled.

Did you know? 

Thomas Taylour, 1st Earl of Bective, ordered the removal of the walls in the early 1760s when construction of Headfort House began. Probably using some materials from the walls, the area around the Dublin Gate known as Headfort Place was also built and a wide tree-lined entrance avenue into the town was constructed, featuring a number of fine Georgian houses.

Abarta Heritage, on behalf of the Irish Walled Towns Network, has produced a fantastic kids activity book, where they can learn about life in the walled towns of medieval Ireland. Included in this book are Trim, Kells and Drogheda.

The workbook is ideal for #homeschooling 9–13 year olds, and it is available as a

FREE  downloadable PDF.

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In this book you will find instructions on how to build a medieval town, colouring pages, quizzes and lots of interesting facts and stories about the walled towns of Ireland.

The Big Houses

By 1653 Charles 1st King of England and Ireland had been beheaded and England was now being ruled by Parliament for the first time. Their leader was Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector. He decided to come to Ireland with his New Model Army to suppress the Irish people after a rebellion in 1641 when the Irish rebelled against the settlers who had come with the Plantation. Cromwell did not actually come to Kells himself, the nearest he got was the town of Drogheda where he asked the town to surrender.  He refused and ordered his army to kill men women and children alike. He sent two of his men ahead to conduct what were known as the Down’s Survey. These men were Thomas Taylor and William Petty both cartographers and surveyors. Their job was to map the area and to see what land could be taken from the Catholic natives and to be given to English settlers or army men who had helped him. It was called the Down’s Survey because it was the first time that Ireland was officially mapped and written down. 

Although Thomas Taylor was not eligible to given free land he did decide to buy land from Richard Stevenson who had attained land but did not want to leave England.  In 1660 Taylor sold up all that he had in Sussex and bought 21, 000 acres of land between Kells and Virginia.  The first house the Taylor’s lived in is where The Headfort Hotel is now. It was his grandson also called Thomas and who had became  the First Earl of Bective and built the new family home. Headfort House, in 1770. 

This house was designed by George Semple and the interior was designed by Scottish architect Robert Adams who had studied in Italy thus bringing his elaborate designs to Kells.  The dining room at Headfort House still exists today and is a fine example of his work.

The Taylors became very involved in politics representing Kells as MPs in the Irish House of Commons in Dublin.  By supporting The Act of Union in 1800 the Talylor family were merited with the title of Marquis of Headfort. 

Because of the Taylors, Kells became an estate town. Local people worked for the Taylor’s as labours, farm hands, domestic servants. In return for this they would receive a small dwelling to live in and a small plot of land which they would use to grown vegetables and feed themselves and their children.

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Headfort House