Sopwell Priory, St Albans

Imagine you were travelling in medieval times from London to St Albans. The main road was still -as it had been since Roman times – Watling Street. Originally, Watling Street ran through the Roman town of Verulamium, but medieval St Albans and its abbey, founded by King Offa in 793, lay a bit to the northeast. According to the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, the medieval town was created by the sixth abbot Ulsinus (or Wulsin) in the mid-10th century[i]:

Abbot Wulsin was famous for his spiritual and worldly achievements. He loved the district and people of St Albans and looked after their interests. He brought the people from the surrounding areas together and made them live in the town itself, providing and enlarging a market place. He helped them construct buildings by providing money and materials. He built the churches of St Peter to the north, St Stephen to the south, and St Michael to the west, with a dedicated share of land, to improve both the appearance and resources of the town, and to care for the souls of its people.[ii]

The original route of Watling Street would have by-passed his new town, so he re-routed it to attract visitors to the town and his new churches. Now travellers were to turn off at St Stephen’s Church, go down St Stephen’s Hill and up Holywell Hill.

The new route was not without problems though. The River Ver needed to be crossed, initially there was a ford, but a bridge was built in the 12th century. And Holywell Hill was – and still is – rather steep. Travellers found it easier to go along Green Lane (now Cottonmill Lane) and Sopwell Lane, which turns into Holywell Hill after the steepest bit.[iii] As a consequence many inns and hostels were being set up along the route. To this day, Sopwell Lane is regarded as one of the “best pub crawls in England”.[iv]

Sopwell Lane

Beginnings of Sopwell Priory

This little detour took our medieval traveller not only to a pub but also to the topic of this post: Sopwell Priory, dedicated to St Mary. Sopwell was one of three local daughter-houses of St Albans Abbey, the other two were another nunnery, St Mary de Pré, and a leper hospital dedicated to St Julian.

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A Sergeant of the King’s Bakehouse: Richard Gyll (d.1511)

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I would like to thank Dr Heather Falvey and Dr Sean Cunningham for all the information they kindly shared with me and all their generous support. All errors, of course, remain my own.

Some time ago, while looking for something completely different and getting carried away by all sorts of distractions, I came across the mention of a “Sergeant of the King’s Bakehouse”.

The reference was to an existing brass in St John the Baptist Church in Shottesbrooke, Berkshire. It shows a man in armour with his hands held in prayer, bare headed with shoulder-length hair. He seems to be standing on a mound of grass, with a flower between his feet.

The brass of Richard Gyll, in: Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, vol. 2, 1858, p.609

Underneath is an inscription, which explains that this is Richard Gyll Esq, Sergeant of the Bakehouse for both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and bailiff of the “Seven Hundreds of Cookham and Bray” and that he died on 7 August 1511.

Here lyeth the body of Richard Gyll squyer late sergeat of the Bakehous wt kyng henry VII and also wyth kyng henry the VIII and bayly of the VII hundred of Cokam and Bray.[i] 

The reference to an official of a bakehouse caught my eye, because I like baking bread. And it is a necessity, too. For someone used to the variety and taste of German bread, the average Australian bread is not very exciting. Therefore I decided to find out more about Richard Gyll. Fortunately, his will is still extant. It gives us some information about his personal circumstances (see below).

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