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]
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.
The nunnery had started independently of the abbey though. According to the Gesta
two holy women built themselves a primitive sort of shack out of the branches of trees, bent sticks and interwoven twigs. … They began to lead a life of marvellous abstinence, vigil and prayer. They happily continued their own type of religious observance, with no suggestion of immorality, punishing their bodies by living on bread and water.[v]
The Gesta also explains that “the name of the nunnery came from the spring which was near the place, in which the original holy women dipped their lumps of bread”.[vi]
Apparently, their independence lasted “many years”[vii]. However, in ca.1140 abbot Geoffrey de Gorron (1119-1146) heard about them and decided to intervene. He “ordered some little houses to be built there, suitable for women. He established these women, together with some others, as veiled sisters, to live within the order of St Benedict … under the formal protection and authority of the Abbey.”[viii] While they gained more convenience, after all they now had “little houses, suitable for women”, they had to give up “their own type of religious observance”.
However, there was another reason for the abbot’s generosity. St Albans had originally been a double monastery with both men and women. This first abbot after the Conquest, Paul de Caen (1077-1093), had confined the nuns to the almonry and its surroundings, but for Geoffrey this was still too close and he decided to find a separate place for them. Sopwell priory was located in the northern end of Eywood, at that time a park of St Albans Abbey.[ix] It was away from the abbey, but close enough to keep an eye on what was going on.
Geoffrey made strict regulations for the priory. He ordered that there should not be more than 13 women, who had to be virgins. This rule was soon forgotten and the numbers increased, by 1338 there were at least 19. The women were to be locked in at night. Geoffrey also gave them their own cemetery, where no outsiders were allowed to be buried. This was consecrated by a Bishop Alexander, probably Alexander of Lincoln (d.1148).
Buildings of Sopwell Priory
Unfortunately, nothing much of the priory buildings remain. The ruins you can visit today, which are often labelled as Sopwell Nunnery, are not of the nunnery at all, but of a much later building (see below). In the 1960s archaeological excavations were undertaken on behalf of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeology Society (SAHAAS), though their scope was limited to protect the existing ruins. It was found that the priory had been located in the same spot as the later building, with a small church on the north side of the cloister and the other buildings on the other three sides.
What is supposed to have been the first church was small and plain, approx. 7-8 m wide, with an apse at the one end. From the outlay it was concluded that it was built in the 12th century and remained in use throughout the 13th century. Black glazed and mosaic floor tiles were found. Along the southern wall there were indications of a wooden bench, which is reminiscent of the Abbey chapterhouse. They also found some carved stonework, which might have come from doors or arches.
In the 14th century this early church was replaced with a larger structure, measuring approx. 26 m in length and 10 m wide. The north wall was the only one remaining in the same place as in the earlier building. Two burials were found underneath the east end, though it is not clear whether they are from the first or second church. The second church was knocked down after the Dissolution in the 1540s, leaving only a fairly thick layer demolition debris, including a wide variety of mosaic floor tiles, decayed painted window glass and lead cames.
Traces of the nunnery buildings were found, around a cloister walk. These included parts of the chapter house, dormitory undercroft, refectory, and traces of a western range. These have all been dated to the same time as the second church. It is possible that the initial nunnery was in a different spot.[x]
Endowments of Sopwell Priory
An establishment like a priory needs money. Therefore, to ensure the economic viability of his new nunnery, abbot Geoffrey de Gorron “endowed their house with certain possessions and rents”.[xi] Over time, other endowments were made to Sopwell.
Early endowments were those by the Aubigny family, a family with close links to St Albans Abbey. Geoffrey de Gorron’s immediate predecessor as abbot had been Richard d’Aubigny (1097-1119). (He was in office, when the abbey church of St Albans, built by Robert the Mason , was consecrated.) Richard’s nephew Henry d’Aubigny[xii] and his wife Cecilia not only founded the priory of Beaulieu in Bedfordshire as a cell of St Albans Abbey[xiii], but also were generous to Sopwell Priory. They granted 2 hides of land and a claim for wood in Eastcotts, Bedfordshire[xiv], where Henry’s father Nigel (Richard’s brother)[xv] had held a manor of 6 hides. Henry and Cecilia’s children continued their support of Sopwell Priory. Their son Robert (d.1192) confirmed the grant and, when his sister Amicia joined the priory as a novice, he gave them another virgate of land. Robert’s son, another Robert (d.1224), made additional donations. Sopwell Priory retained these lands until the Dissolution.
Another benefactor was Richard de Tany, who bestowed the estate of Black Hide in the soke of Tyttenhanger (near St Albans) to the priory.
I, Richard de Tany, with the consent and good will of my heir, have granted, and by my present charter confirmed, to God and S. Mary, and the Nuns of Sopwell in pure and perpetual alms, the whole of that land which Roger Niger held of the Soke of Tidenhangre, which land is called ‘ La Blakhida’.[xvi]
Richard de Tany’s grant is remembered by a street name in the area, De Tany Court. Ralph Pirot also granted half a hide of land at Blackhide to Sopwell.[xvii] He also made grants to St Julian’s Hospital and other religious houses.[xviii]
Henry III made in 1247 an annual allowance of 50s. from the issues of Hertfordshire to pay for a chaplain to celebrate daily masses at Sopwell.
Life at Sopwell Priory
It seems that of all its dependent houses, Sopwell was under the tightest control of the abbey. In 1212, it was determined that only the abbot had the right to decide who could join the community, unlike in other cells like for instance Markyate. However, this did not stop the women of Sopwell Priory to have a mind of their own.
A controversial choice of a prioress
In approx. 1330, the nuns decided to challenge the order that the prioress was to be selected by the abbot of St Albans. When Prioress Philippa died, they had a general meeting and came to a majority decision in favour of Sister Alice de Hakeneye. As soon as abbot Richard de Wallingford (1327-1336) heard about this, he sent his counsellor and friend, prior Nicholas de Flamstead, over. In a show of consideration, Nicholas asked each sister to state her choice in writing. The result was 16 votes for Alice de Hakeneye against 3 votes for the sub-prioress Alice de Pekesden. This was not the result the abbot wanted and majority decision notwithstanding, he installed Alice de Pekesden. This show of male dominance was a few years later followed up with further restrictions.
This was at a time when it was felt that St Albans Abbey itself was in need of reform to get the monks to adhere more strictly to the rules. The same went for the dependent cells like Sopwell. Here it was mostly Richard de Wallingford’s successor, Michael de Mentmore (1336-1349), who introduced reforms. After a visitation of the priory, stricter rules were applied. The nuns had to sing the mass of St Alban once a week. Silence was to be enforced at all times in the church, cloister, refectory and dormitory. There were strict limitations on who could speak at daily chapter. The structure of the day was comprehensively organised. Even the times when the nuns were allowed to enjoy a bit of fresh air in the garden were limited.[xix] Contact with secular and male religious persons was also regulated. It seems though that these rules were more precautionary and not in response to any specific behaviour, as they are comparable to other houses.
Mentmore’s successor, Thomas de la Mare (1396-1401), even went a step further and decreed that no man was allowed to enter the priory without the abbot’s permission.
Problems between abbey and priory escalate
If they had hoped that this meant an end of the nuns being too assertive, the abbey clergy were sorely disappointed. In 1480, abbot William Wallingford sent the archdeacon John Rothbury and the sub-prior Thomas Ramryge to Sopwell, to replace prioress Joan Chapel, who was apparently old and infirm. The chosen new prioress was Elizabeth Webbe.
A few years after her installation, Elizabeth Webbe seems to have ruffled some feathers and abbot Wallingford wanted to depose her. Elizabeth did not accept this quietly. She brought an action in the Court of Arches, which she won and was reinstated.
That is when things turned really nasty. Two monks were sent from the abbey to the nunnery. They broke down the door with an iron bar, beat Elizabeth up and put her in prison. However, as we’ve seen she did not give in that easily. She complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, who sent a highly critical letter to abbot Wallingford on 5 July 1490.[xx]
One of Morton’s accusations was that Wallingford changed prioresses “as he pleased”, which does not seem to be too far fetched. It is probably also correct that “she was the authority for some of Morton’s charges against St. Albans”.[xxi] However, her complaints were only part of a wider power struggle between Wallingford and Morton about the rights of St Albans Abbey, which lasted from 1487 to 1492.[xxii]
For Elizabeth Webbe though, Morton’s support did the trick. She remained as prioress at least until the turn of the century and continued to fight for the rights of Sopwell priory.
Other women associated with Sopwell Priory
We know the names of some of the nuns and other women associated with the priory from the registers of the abbey and the Book of Benefactors of St. Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). [xxiii] We hear that Agnes Paynel gave various vestments and money to the abbey and gave a gold ring to the shrine of St Alban. Another benefactor was Letitia Wyttenham, who was prioress 1418-1435 and is known for her needlework.
As part of the Corpus Christi festivities in 1428, Cecilia Paynel and Margaret Euer were admitted to the fraternity of St. Albans, at the same time as Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, and his wife Isabel de Despenser and their son Henry.[xxiv]
In June 1429, it is stated that Margaret Wynter made her profession at Sopwell and offered a girdle enriched with precious stones worth 10 marks. She was sponsored by Margaret, duchess of Clarence, who was admitted to the fraternity of St Albans on the same day. She might have stayed at Sopwell Priory during her visit to St Albans. It is possible that Margaret Wynter was the sister of Simon Wynter, a priest of Syon Abbey, and that she had come from that abbey.[xxv]
Sopwell Priory seems to have been popular with London grocers. In the 15th century there were two nuns from the families of London grocers, Joan Welles and Amy Godyn.[xxvi] Another grocer, Thomas Knolles (d.1435), left in his will “40s. to the nuns of Sopwell, to pray for [his] soul”.[xxvii]
The priory was dissolved in March or April 1537[xxviii]. The church was dismantled and some of the building materials were sold.
In 1538, Sir Richard Lee (1501/2–1575), a military engineer and architect, and his wife Margaret Grenville bought the property.[xxix] In the 1550s, they built a residence on the site, which seems to have “retained many features of the medieval plan” and “often reused the medieval footings for its walls … The nave of the church was rebuilt as a hall with a fireplace as a hall with a fireplace in its north wall’”.[xxx] About 10 years later, he started replacing this first residence with a grander H-shaped structure, though this building was not completed by the time he died in 1575. In 1669, it was sold to Sir Harbottle Grimston, who had parts of the existing building pulled down.
Although the ruins we see today are referred to as Sopwell Nunnery they are actually of Sir Richard Lee’s second, uncompleted, residence. The name of a street next to the ruins, Nunnery Close, reminds the visitor of the original purpose of the area.
Bourton, P. (2021), ‘Sopwell ruins’, St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society (20 May 2021). URL: https://www.stalbanshistory.org/buildings/st-albans-abbey-buildings/sopwell-ruins-2
Niblett, R. & I. Thompson (2005), Alban’s Buried Towns: An Assessment of St Albans’ Archaeology up to AD 1600. Oxbow Books, ISBN 1-84217-149-6
Page, W. (ed) (1971), ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, vol. 4, pp. 422-426. British History Online URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol4/pp422-426
Page, W. (ed) (1971), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: St Albans Abbey – After the Conquest’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, vol. 4, pp. 372-416. British History Online URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol4/pp372-416
Roberts, E. (2008), The Hill of the Martyr: an Architectural History of St Albans Abbey. The Book Castle (reprint of 1993 edition)
[i] Niblett & Thompson (2005), p.178. Roberts, p.263, dates his abbacy to ca.860-ca.870
[ii] Translation and Latin quoted in Niblett & Thompson (2005), G8, p.362
[iii] Roft, D. (2010), ‘The road that moved: The story of the road from London to St Albans’, Herts Memories (17 May 2010). URL: https://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/st-albans/the-road-that-moved
[iv] Boatswain, T. (2020), ‘Sopwell Lane’s Medieval Past’, St Albans (17 April 2020). URL: https://www.enjoystalbans.com/general/sopwell-lanes-medieval-past-by-tim-boatswain/
[v] Translation and Latin quoted in Niblett & Thompson (2005), G27, p.371
[ix] Rowe, A. (2009), Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire. University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, pp.192-193
[x] An overview of the archaeological findings is in Niblett & Thompson (2005), pp.207-298.
[xi] Dugdale, W. (1849), Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. John Caley et al, vol. 3. London, p.362
[xii] Gallistl, B. (2018), ‘„A book for Avicia“? Der Eremit Roger im Psalter von St. Albans’, Concilium medii aevi, vol. 21, pp.7-8
[xiii] ‘House of Benedictine monks: The priory of Beaulieu’, in: A History of the County of Bedford, vol. 1. London, 1904, pp. 351-353. British History Online URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/beds/vol1/pp351-353
[xiv] Dugdale, p.363. Page, W. (ed) (1912), ‘Parishes: Cardington with Eastcotts’, in: A History of the County of Bedford, vol. 3, pp. 233-238. British History Online URL http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/beds/vol3/pp233-238
[xv] Gallistl (2018) suggests that a third brother Roger, ancestor of the royal administrator William d’Aubigny, became later in life the hermit Roger, who is mentioned in the ST Albans Psalter, and whose double tomb with Sigard can still be seen in St Alans Cathedral.
[xvi] Fowler, H. (1894), ‘Tyttenhanger’, SAHAAS Transactions (1893-94), pp.31-33
[xvii] Page, W. (ed) (1908), ‘Parishes: Ridge’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, vol. 2, pp. 386-392. British History Online, URL: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp386-392
[xviii] Page, W. (ed) (1971), ‘Hospitals: St Julian by St Albans’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, vol. 4, pp. 464-467. British History Online URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol4/pp464-467
[xix] Amherst, A. (1896), A History of Gardening in England. 2nd edition, London, p.30
[xx] It is sometimes stated that William Wallingford died in 1484, but more recent research shows that he only died between 23 May and 5 June 1492. Clark, J.G. (2004), ‘Wallingford, William (d. 1492)’, Oxford DNB
[xxi] ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory’
[xxii] Clark, J.G. (2004), ‘Wallingford, William (d. 1492)’, Oxford DNB
[xxiii]The digitised manuscript of Cotton MS Nero D VII can be viewed online URL: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_nero_d_vii_fs001r
[xxiv] Annales monasterii S. Albani a Johanne Amundesham, Vol. I (A.D. 1421-1440), pp.67-68
[xxv] Ibid., p.40; Jones & Walsham (2010), Syon Abbey and Its Books: Reading, Writing and Religion, c.1400-1700. Boydell & Brewer, p.88
[xxvi] Page (1971), ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory’
[xxvii] ‘The wills and testaments of three London grocers’, Florilegium Urbanum. URL: http://users.trytel.com/tristan/towns/florilegium/lifecycle/lcdth12.html
[xxviii] Page (1971), ‘Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory’
[xxix] Merriman, M. (2004) ‘Lee, Sir Richard (1501/2–1575)’, Oxford DNB]
[xxx] Weaver, O.J. (2006), in: ‘Sopwell Priory: Excavations 1963-66’, E. A. Johnson and others. Supplement to Hertfordshire Archaeology and History, vol. 14, quoted in Bourton (2021).
(All links checked 22 May 2022)