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The Benedictine Priory of St Mary (Sopwell Priory) and the post-medieval mansions known as Sopwell House or Lee Hall

List Entry Summary

This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Name: The Benedictine Priory of St Mary (Sopwell Priory) and the post-medieval mansions known as Sopwell House or Lee Hall

List entry Number: 1019137

Location

The monument may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Hertfordshire

District: St. Albans

District Type: District Authority

Parish:

National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.

Grade: Not applicable to this List entry.

Date first scheduled: 16-Dec-1938

Date of most recent amendment: 06-Oct-2000

Legacy System Information

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System: RSM

UID: 29470

Asset Groupings

This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.

List entry Description

Summary of Monument

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

A nunnery was a settlement built to sustain a community of religious women. Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship, accommodation and subsistence. The main elements are the church and domestic buildings arranged around a cloister. This central enclosure may be accompanied by an outer court and gatehouse, the whole bounded by a precinct wall, earthworks or moat. Outside the enclosure, fishponds, mills, field systems, stock enclosures and barns may occur. The earliest English nunneries were founded in the seventh century AD but most of these had fallen out of use by the ninth century. A small number of these were later refounded. The tenth century witnessed the foundation of some new houses but the majority of medieval nunneries were established from the late 11th century onwards. Nunneries were established by most of the major religious orders of the time, including the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans. It is known from documentary sources that at least 153 nunneries existed in England, of which the precise locations of only around 100 sites are known. Few sites have been examined in detail and as a rare and poorly understood medieval monument type all examples exhibiting survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

The location of the Benedictine nunnery at Sopwell (run by a prioress and therefore termed a priory) was confirmed by limited excavations in the 1960s. This work demonstrated the survival of significant archaeological remains beneath and surrounding the site of the post-Dissolution mansions and revealed detailed information concerning the layout of the priory as it stood between the 14th and 16th centuries. Earlier phases in the priory's development are less well understood, although current information suggests that valuable evidence for the nature and date of these earlier buildings will remain relatively undisturbed within the area overlain by the walled grounds of Sopwell House. This area may also be expected to contain evidence for a range of ancillary buildings related to the later priory, as well as the cemeteries dedicated to the burial of the nuns and the priory's benefactors.

The demolition of the priory and the development of the post-Dissolution houses is of particular interest, reflecting the sweeping changes which resulted from Henry VIII's dispute with the Roman Church. The development of Lee's first house is highly significant as an example of the manner in which former religious houses were appropriated for domestic use, and where archaeological evidence can be used to investigate the degree to which the existing structures were retained or altered. The later house is representative of the consolidation of this social change. The standing and buried remains of the house, its courtyard and gardens, provide an important insight into the designs and social aspirations of this period; all the more valuable given the early date of the abandonment and the consequent lack of successive phases of remodelling.

History

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Details

The monument includes the buried remains of Sopwell Priory (a house of Benedictine nuns dependent upon St Albans Abbey) and both the standing and buried remains of two successive mansions, known as Sopwell House or Lee Hall, which were constructed on the site of the priory in the latter part of the 16th and early 17th century.

The priory site and ruined post-medieval house are located on low lying ground to the south of the city centre, some 900m south east of the cathedral (formerly the church of St Alban's Abbey), between Cottonmill Lane and the River Ver. The priory, dedicated to St Mary, was founded in 1140 by Geoffrey de Gorham the 16th Abbot of St Albans, reputedly in order to regularise a small community of women who had already established a religious retreat nearby. The priory was originally limited to 13 nuns, although 19 nuns voted in the unauthorised election of a prioress around 1330. The Abbey's regulation of the nunnery, reaffirmed following the visitation of Abbot Michael in 1338, portrays a largely enclosed order with strict rules of access and admission.

The remains of the priory are not visible on the ground athough excavations between 1962 and 1966 established that foundations, floors and other evidence of the conventual buildings survive beneath the standing ruins of Sopwell House. These remains indicate a standard Benedictine layout originating in the early 14th century. The church in this period was located on the north side of the cloister, with the chapter house and dormitory positioned along the eastern side. Traces of the southern and western ranges were also recorded. The 14th century church overlies the flint rubble foundations of a smaller structure with an apsidal eastern wall, which has been interpreted as an earlier church. This building is thought to date from the mid-12th century, and the series of renewed floors of black glazed and mosaic tiles found within suggest that it remained in use throughout the 13th century. An alternative interpretation of this apsidal structure, supported by evidence that a wooden bench ran alongside the southern wall, is that it served as the chapter house within an earlier configuration of conventual buildings. If this was the case, then the remains of an earlier priory range may lie to the west and north west of the later cloisters, beyond the limits of the 1960s excavations. Two burials were found immediately to the east of the apsidal end, although it is unclear whether these were placed outside this early structure or within the eastern end of the later church. Further burials can reasonably be expected to survive around the north eastern end of the later church and elsewhere since the nuns were, from the outset, accorded right of burial within a priory cemetery.

The priory was suppressed in 1537, at which time only five nuns remained in residence. In 1540 Henry VIII granted the site to Richard Lee, the military engineer then responsible for the King's Works in Scotland, and subsequently knighted for these services in 1544. The demolition of the priory appears to have advanced rapidly following the Dissolution. Excavation revealed lead smelting hearths within the south range and the church, as well as a thick layer of building debris spread across the site. Nevertheless, Lee's new house, built on the site around 1550, retained the cloister garth as a courtyard and utilised the foundations (if not some standing elements) of the church and conventual buildings. In 1562 the surrounding grounds were emparked, requiring the relocation of the St Albans-London Road, and in 1564 Elizabeth I stayed at `Sir Richard Lees's house at St Albans'. It can be assumed that construction was substantially complete by this time.

Towards the end of the 16th century, probably before Lee's death in 1575, the first house was torn down and a new mansion constructed to take its place. The ruins of this second mansion, variously termed Sopwell House or Lee Hall, still stand on the site of its predecessor. The house was built in flint with brick headers and limestone mouldings, the latter doubtless including some reworked stone from the priory buildings. Excavation has shown that the main hall lay across the site of the priory church, flanked by a southern aisle which faced into a courtyard still perpetuating the position of the cloister garth. The hall lay between two north-south orientated wings. The west wing (some 35m in length) survives as a substantial ruin, standing nearly to the height of the eaves and retaining doorways and window embrasures at both floor levels. The second, symmetrical, wing stood some 15m to the east and is now represented above ground by a single fragment of the structure which contains the vaulted supports for a major staircase.

After Lee's death the Sopwell estate passed to Lee's daughter and her husband, Humphrey Coningsby. In 1603 Mary settled the estate on her nephew, Richard Sadler, and it remained in his possession until his death in 1624. A map of Sopwell drawn up under Sadler's tenure depicts the house in a stylised manner surrounded by a walled enclosure extending east to the River Ver and west to the road now known as Cottonmill Lane. Sections of this wall still survive alongside the river (where it is buttressed and stands up to 2.7m high) and to the north and south of the mansion. The wall is constructed in flint and brick with occasional limestone inclusions which may have been salvaged from the demolition of the priory. The enclosed area to the east of the house is depicted on the map containing an ornate garden with pathways and symmetrical planting areas (parterres). The western area is depicted as an outer courtyard, entered via an impressive gateway to the west and containing three ancillary buildings. The brick and flint foundations of one building remain visible towards the centre of this area. Other buried remains may be signified by undulations in the ground surface, although these may also relate to trackways and a small building erected on the site in the 19th century. The early 17th century map depicts a warren, containing both rabbits and deer, extending across the hillside to the south of the walled enclosure, surrounded by a timber pale and containing a central warrener's house. This important element in the designed landscape surrounding the house has since been overlain by modern housing and, apart from a narrow strip immediately to the south of the walled enclosure, is not included in the scheduling.

Excavated evidence and architectural details indicate that the second mansion was not completely finished when the estate was sold to Sir Harbottle Grimston in 1669. By 1675 Sopwell House was in the process of demolition. Some material was used for alterations to Grimston's main house at Gorhambury, 4km to the north west. Other components, including moulded door jambs and perhaps a series of stone medallions of Roman emperors, are thought to have been acquired by Sir Jeremiah Snow for the rebuilding of Salisbury Hall, Shenley.

All fences, gates, signposts, sheds and horticultural structures are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Selected Sources

Books and journals
Concise Dictionary of National Biography, (1995), 1745
The Manor of Sopwell Part of the Possession of Robert Sadler Esq
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire: Volume II, (1908), 412-5
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire: Volume II, (1908), 422-23
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire: Volume II, (1908), 422-26
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire: Volume II, (1908), 412-415
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire, (1908), 412-5
The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire, (1908), 422-426
Dugdale, D, Monasticon Anglicanum, (1673), 365
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 265
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 265
Norden, J, Speculum Britainnia, (1723)
Pevsner, N, Cherry, B, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, (1977), 322-23
Smith, J T, Hertfordshire Houses Selective Inventory, (1993), 157
Smith, J T, Hertfordshire Houses Selective Inventory, (1993), 157
'Proc Soc Antiqs (2nd series)' in Proc Soc Antiw Ncle 4 ser 11, , Vol. Vol 31, (1919), 213
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. ix, (1965), 179
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. ix, (1965), 179
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. ix, (1965), 179
Johnson, A E, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, (1967), 274
Johnson, A E, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, (1967), 274
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. x, (1966), 177-81
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. x, (1966), 177-80
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. x, (1966), 177-180
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. x, (1966), 177-81
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. viii, (1964), 242
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. viii, (1964), 242
Johnson, A, Weaver, O, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Hertfordshire: Sopwell Nunnery, , Vol. viii, (1964), 242
Other
546 Sopwell Nunnery: early church, Thompson, I, St Albans Urban Archaeological Database, (1997)
594 Sopwell Gardens fishpond, Thompson, I, St Albans Urban Archaeological Database, (1997)
611 Sopwell Nunnery, Thompson, I, St Albans Urban Archaeological Database, (1997)
Data entry St Albans UAD, Thompson, I, 611 Sopwell Nunnery, (1997)
Green, C, Sopwell Nunnery, forthcoming
Green, C, Sopwell Nunnery, forthcoming
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Map Source Date: 1898 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Map Source Date: 1972 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
UAD data entry, Thompson, I, Sopwell House: Park, (1997)

National Grid Reference: TL 15080 06367

Map

Map
© Crown Copyright and database right 2017. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
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This copy shows the entry on 22-Nov-2017 at 11:19:01.

End of official listing