Ancient Monuments

History on the Ground

This site is entirely user-supported. See how you can help.

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

A Scheduled Monument in Sopwell, Hertfordshire

Approximate Location Map
Large Map »
Street or Overhead View
Contributor Photos »

If Google Street View is available, the image is from the best available vantage point looking, if possible, towards the location of the monument. Where it is not available, the satellite view is shown instead.

Coordinates

Latitude: 51.7442 / 51°44'39"N

Longitude: -0.3345 / 0°20'4"W

OS Eastings: 515086.779889

OS Northings: 206367.468879

OS Grid: TL150063

Mapcode National: GBR H8B.L7S

Mapcode Global: VHGPQ.5F17

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

Scheduled Date: 16 December 1938

Last Amended: 6 October 2000

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1019137

English Heritage Legacy ID: 29470

County: Hertfordshire

Electoral Ward/Division: Sopwell

Built-Up Area: St Albans

Traditional County: Hertfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Hertfordshire

Church of England Parish: St Albans St Stephen

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans

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.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

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.

Source: Historic England

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)

Source: Historic England

Other nearby scheduled monuments

AncientMonuments.uk is an independent online resource and is not associated with any government department. All government data published here is used under licence. Please do not contact AncientMonuments.uk for any queries related to any individual ancient or schedued monument, planning permission related to scheduled monuments or the scheduling process itself.

AncientMonuments.uk is a Good Stuff website.