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  • Luke Morton Sharpe

Traces: Lincolnshire's Monastic Great Houses

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Lincolnshire had more monastic wealth than any other county mainly due the sheer number of religious houses (over fifty abbeys and priories at the dissolution). These included Sempringham Priory the mother house of Britain’s only indigenous order (the Gilbertines) and Croyland Abbey which had grown rich as a pilgrimage site. In the gentle Witham Valley alone, there were nine monasteries the greatest concentration in the country all built close to this ancient and lucrative trade route from Lincoln to Boston then one of Britain’s biggest ports.

Medieval monasticism lasted nearly nine hundred years in Lincolnshire but the houses carved out of their remains were mainly ruined after less than two hundred. Soon after the dissolution the county probably had a plethora of late-medieval style mansions generally fashioned by the Tudor ‘nouveau riche’ from the Head’s lodgings. Many of these lodgings had been upgraded in the decades before closure and formed ready-made high-status accommodation spared from destruction to attract new secular owners. The mansions would have been surrounded by intricate gardens developed as ‘pleasure grounds’ comprising geometrically laid out flower beds set amid ponds or ornamental canals complemented by statues and other garden furniture.

Sadly, the houses have virtually disappeared and their gardens are just lines in a field, at best. The resident families either died out or moved elsewhere. There was a ready market for the liberated fabric in a county lacking building stone and with relatively good communication links.

Although largely bereft of picturesque ruins the history and archaeology of Lincolnshire monasticism is no less interesting. Buildings may have gone but there are traces in the ground and records survive so interpretation goes on. There is also something appealing about these sparse reminders of a once dominant movement silhouetted against the vast Lincolnshire sky.

Tupholme Abbey. Following dissolution of the Norbertine Abbey in 1536, its new owner, Sir Thomas Heneage razed the church and converted the three remaining cloister ranges into a grand mansion for his daughter and new husband William Willoughby. Its elaborate Tudor garden (above reconstruction by Heritage Lincolnshire) re-used the former monastic fishponds and is still visible under the unexcavated and untilled field around. By 1700 fashions had changed and the Vyner family built the neo-classical Tupholme Hall half a mile away to the north. Most of the Tudor mansion was demolished leaving the south wall of the refectory as a garden feature which Samuel Buck pictured in 1726. The Vyners moved elsewhere later in the eighteenth century and the area became a tenanted farm with the refectory wall incorporated into an enclosure. By the 1980s the medieval remnant (top by Andrew Watson) was all that stood as the hall and the farm were demolished. The Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire acquired the wall in 1988 a rare survival of Lincolnshire monasticism.

The extensive earthworks at Nun Cotham indicate a large E-shaped post-dissolution house incorporating the West Range of the Cistercian nunnery with the north and south arms comprising the nave and refectory respectively. The grounds seem to have included formal gardens, water features and a windmill. By 1736 the property was ‘vacant’. Never formally excavated, its exceptionally good condition albeit underground indicates ‘high potential for the retrieval of archaeological information’

Remains of the former Gilbertine priory at Newstead in Ancholme are now incorporated in a nineteenth century farmhouse. The most substantial medieval element is a twelfth century vaulted room (top, now a wedding venue) possibly part of the East Range of the priory although archaeologist David Stocker has suggested that it could have been reconstructed from parts when the farmhouse was built. Around the same time a beautiful Norman arch (above) was moved to nearby Brocklesby Park but this has sadly disappeared. Parclose screens from the priory are at nearby All Saints, Cadney.

Reconstruction of Sir Vincent Skinner’s house at Thornton Abbey by Gail Atherton. The Augustinian Abbey had grown wealthy on sheep farming which had funded a major refurbishment in the late fourteenth century. The enormous gatehouse (seen in the foreground above) constructed at this time became a Victorian tourist attraction with its own railway halt. Today, Thornton is Lincolnshire's only English Heritage property and is centred around that gatehouse. Skinner worked for Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's Secretary of State and through him acquired some lucrative roles in the government. He bought the estate in 1602 and thoroughly demolished the abbey’s claustral buildings recycling the materiel for this grand house built in 1607. By 1612 Skinner and the house were both ruined and nothing remains.

The most famous of the cluster of nine monasteries along the Witham Valley, the Benedictine Abbey at Bardney was a pilgrimage centre for over seven hundred years but like many Lincolnshire monasteries nothing survives above ground. In 1909 after leasing the site local vicar Canon Laing began excavating with ‘energy and zeal’ making first contact with the north transept. Extensive remains of the lower courses were uncovered including the entire pavement of the church featuring sixty-five grave slabs all damaged by collapsing masonry during demolition. Pioneering archaeologist, Harold Brakspear collaborated with Laing and compiled a comprehensive report including his trademark meticulous drawings of surviving architectural detail. Brakspear produced a hypothetical plan of the Abbot’s Lodgings (above) describing its expansion into a ‘most convenient medieval house’. This complex of buildings was developed from the cellarium on the west of the cloister with ‘considerable changes for additional comfort made in later days’. It was probably one of Lincolnshire’s finest late medieval buildings and Brakspear was not surprised that it ‘was seized upon by the grantee [Robert Tyrwhitt] at the suppression as a dwelling-house for himself’. Tyrwhitt’s house was ‘scarce visible’ by 1718 and in 1753 Stukeley reported it ‘intirely demolished’. War and Laing’s death prevented wider exploration of the precinct so around seventy percent waits to be uncovered.

In 1536 parliament decreed that those religious houses with an income less than £200 should close. Swathes of the north of England were angered at this diktat, the latest in a succession of attacks on the Catholic church by the ‘heretical’ element in Henry VIII’s government. The northerners rose in rebellion with support from across society – the poor feared that the ‘social security’ provided by the monasteries would disappear, the clergy disliked Henry’s divorce from the Catholic Katherine in favour of the Protestant Anne Boleyn and the rich detested the ‘low born’ Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power.

In Lincolnshire the rebels migrated towards Lincoln itself and thousands occupied the Cathedral. Henry mobilised his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk with his loyal East Anglians and most of the rebels soon dispersed. The rest suffered a brutal end. As a reward for his loyalty, Henry handed Brandon some of the abbeys implicated in the rising including Barlings and Kirkstead plus Tattershall Castle as a suitable headquarters for the new Vice-Regent of Henry’s ‘brute and beastly’ county. Historians Paul Everson and David Stocker have studied the archaeology of Barlings and Kirkstead and postulated how Brandon exploited the monasteries to demonstrate the triumph of Henry’s regime.

At the Norbertine Abbey of Barlings, Brandon created a grand mansion out of the Abbot’s Lodging embellishing it with a fashionable brick façade and corner turrets. He called it ‘The Abbot’s House’ perhaps a triumphalist gesture, ironically underpinning the change of ownership - where the prelate had once prevailed, Brandon and the new order were now in control. The decaying claustral buildings were contained in their own specific ‘ruin garden’ dominated by the central tower of the church which remained in-situ for around two hundred years. It might have served as a belvedere, a must-have Tudor embellishment. Everson & Stocker propose that the complex at Barlings was similar to the King’s Manor in York also a centre of royal power developed from the Abbot’s Lodging of St Mary’s and also adjacent to impressive ruins. Top: View from 1720 showing the ruins of Brandon’s palace on the left and the church’s crossing tower. Above: ground plan of Brandon’s complex, interpreted from earthworks – all that remains save one corner of the crossing.

Everson & Stocker believe that the Cistercian Abbey at Kirkstead close to Tattershall Chase became Brandon's equestrian and hunting centre. The claustral buildings were converted to stabling for his beloved horses plus kennels and a falconry ‘mews’. The precinct now featured paddocks and practice areas to demonstrate horsemanship. A new south entrance was built to ease access to the chase. As a final indignity the hunt now crossed former monastic lands that the monks had vigorously defended in the courts for centuries.

When the antiquarian William Stukeley visited Kirkstead in 1716 he made a ground plan (‘ichnography’, above left) which was ‘discoverable from its ruins’. Unknown to Stukeley, this plan maybe that of Brandon’s hunting complex superimposed on the Abbey. He also produced an engraving of the south wall of the South Transept (above right). Subsequent ruination has reduced this wall to a defiant finger, one of the last remnants of Lincolnshire Cistercianism above ground.


‘Gilbert’s abstinence was wonderful, his chastity conspicuous, his prayers watchful and devout, his care for his flock eager and discreet. Meditation filled up his leisure hours, action and contemplation alternating with each other like the angels ascending and descending Jacob's ladder. An idle word rarely escaped his lips.’

Hubert Walter (1160 –1205), Archbishop of Canterbury

Gilbert was son of a Norman noble and had a disability that prevented him becoming a soldier. He became a cleric, eventually returned to Sempringham in Lincolnshire and found a house to accommodate seven local women who wanted to follow a religious life. Spurned by other monastic orders he was encouraged by the Pope to start his own. His original establishment abutted the parish church of St Andrew (upper centre of photograph below) but this soon proved too small. He was granted three hundred acres to establish a new monastery which at its height comprised two hundred nuns and forty canons living segregated lives here amid the Lincolnshire fens. Gilbert lived to be over a hundred, was canonised and buried in the vast priory church (above) which became a centre for pilgrimage. In all there were twenty-six Gilbertine houses in the country. Such was the destruction of Sempringham that its exact location was lost for centuries. As an order the Gilbertines did not survive the dissolution.

Sempringham Hall was built in the 1550s by Edward Clinton, Lord High Admiral of England and according to William Camden it was comparable to Hampton Court Palace. It was probably abandoned in the early 17th century possibly as early as 1616. However, Edward Clinton’s great grandson Theophilus seemingly held a clandestine meeting of fellow puritans at Sempringham in 1629 to discuss formation of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In 1726 Daniel Defoe passed by on his tour of the nation and noted that the Clintons had lived in the ‘utmost splendour and magnificence’ and despite the house being ‘in its full decay, shows what it has been’. He was particularly impressed with the remaining plasterwork that he had ‘not seen anywhere so very fine, except in the palace of Nonesuch’. By 1852 it was reported that ‘every semblance of a house has long since vanished’, its material scattered among local farmhouses.

In 1938 the Lincolnshire Archaeological Society commissioned an excavation to find the site of the priory. In a field to the south of the church there was a U-shaped earthwork (lower centre of photograph below) supposed location of Sempringham Hall. Dig leader Hugh Braun chose to excavate just to the north of this spot as he reckoned the mansion could have been built on one of the priory’s cloisters and if so, the area selected should contain the church. Although this assumption was wrong, he did find other parts of the monastery mixed in with the later mansion. Braun returned in 1939 this time digging over the U-shaped feature itself and found the main part of the mansion superimposed on the church. He discovered the location of Gilbert’s shrine set in the wall dividing the nun’s and canon’s choirs. There was no sign of Gilbert’s body. War prevented further exploration.

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