By Natasha Hodgson
In October 2020, a team of archaeologists and a film crew from Channel 4 (UK) dug up peoples’ back gardens near the centre of Nottingham in order to find a vanished monastery which was once the largest and most prestigious in Nottinghamshire. Let us explore the dramatic backdrop of religious turmoil, treason and insurrection which lead to the priory’s destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
What was Lenton Priory?
Lenton was, without doubt, the most powerful monastery in Nottinghamshire, not just in terms of the size of the building itself (similar to the minster building still visible in nearby Southwell) but with many holdings across several counties. It was founded by William Peveril, constable of Nottingham Castle in around 1108 during the reign of Henry I, and dedicated to the abbey of Cluny in France. It was a huge endowment, including the town of Lenton and other local smallholdings, 7 mills, 3 churches, with tithes from woods and fisheries, and from stud farms, lead and venison in Derbyshire where Peveril also held land. It was fortuitously situated on the River Leen, allowing it to control key trade and river crossings close to Nottingham. The monks played a significant role in the development of post-Conquest Nottingham and in the political life surrounding the castle.
Despite its wealth and power in the Middle Ages, only one part of this huge structure now remains in situ: the weathered stump of a column in a forlorn patch of grass, enclosed by railings and sandwiched between the bustling university hospital, Queens Medical Centre, and sprawling industrial estates. Lenton, like many other monastic houses, was dissolved during the Reformation, at the behest of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, Thomas Cromwell.
Why was the monastery dissolved?
In the late 1530s there were nearly 900 religious houses in England, about 260 of which were monasteries: these contained about 4000 religious clergy, with many servants and lay brethren attached. Monasteries were part of people’s everyday lives – they were involved in charity, healthcare, hospitality, education, art and music. Monks were perceived as the holiest people in society, often keeping holy objects such as relics, and people gave them donations to pray for their souls.
From the early sixteenth century religious change was sweeping across Europe. Henry VIII, motivated by his dissatisfaction with the Pope, began to implement religious changes in England, famously so he could marry Anne Boleyn. In 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, he set himself up as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and his right-hand man Thomas Cromwell set up a visitation of the monasteries in England, checking for corruption and sexual misdemeanors – all the while totting up their financial assets. They were fishing for information that could be used to discredit at least some of these institutions, and by 1536 they started to dissolve some of the poorer, less well-functioning houses. The fate of larger houses was not yet sealed: they could have decided on further reforms rather than dissolving them completely.
The thing that tipped the balance was the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, a grassroots movement led by lawyer Robert Aske which aimed to protect monasteries in direct response to the beginnings of the dissolution and challenged both the authority of Cromwell and the King. Aske’s supporters occupied the city of York, and attempted to return expelled monks and nuns to their prior positions. The unrest spread across the country, and several abbots were involved in the rebellion. Henry came down particularly hard on these, seeing them as traitors – many were executed.
By 1537, it seems that the fall of the monasteries was inevitable, and Cromwell was looking for ways to ‘encourage’ the heads of the larger houses to ‘surrender’ their monasteries and all their lands to the king in return for pensions. The dissolution ended up being an enormous land-grab, with profits of resale going mostly to the king, though some monks were pensioned off. It has been estimated that the annual revenue of these lands was about £130, 000 a year, twice what the king’s own lands brought in. Rather than thinking in the long term and consolidating these resources for the crown, however, Henry blew most of the profits on warfare in the 1540s.
Why was Lenton Priory treated so harshly and why were the monks killed?
In the first place, Lenton Priory was the most visible and powerful monastery in Nottinghamshire, therefore if Cromwell wanted to encourage other heads of monasteries to submit, making an example of Lenton made sense. The monks of Lenton were also vulnerable. They had not managed to consolidate their scattered holdings as some other houses had done, so the tithes and taxes were difficult to collect. The priory’s power was on the wane by the early sixteenth century, but it still had the support of important local landholders like Sir Thomas Willoughby, and it was still very land-rich despite occasional cash-flow issues. In the mid-1530’s it was estimated to have a regular annual income of about £330.
There may also have been some personal animosity between Cromwell and the prior, Nicholas Heath. Cromwell appointed him in 1534, possibly for a back-hander which Nicholas was then unable to pay because of Lenton’s cash-flow problems. He had to petition Cromwell to defer his repayment, which did not look good. The monastery also seems to have been rather unlucky in that a certain apostate monk – who had run away several times and had stolen monastery property to boot – was being held at Fleet prison as a debtor. He was more than happy to tell tales about hearing treasonous words being spoken by the prior about Cromwell (and by extension the king), in order to secure his release. Despite the dubious character of this witness, his testimony gave Cromwell the ammunition he needed to make a target of the monks.
High treason was a very serious charge, and demanded the highest penalty. Nicholas and one of the other monks were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. They would be drawn through the streets behind a horse on a wooden hurdle, hung by the neck then subjected to torture, disembowelment and emasculation while still alive. Finally the head would be severed and the body would be cut into four parts and scattered. The dismemberment of the body had particular Christian theological ramifications, as it affected ideas about consecrated burial and the resurrection of the body. The punishment did not just end a life, it impacted on the afterlife as well, an awful fate for someone who had dedicated their life to religion, though the condemned may have drawn strength from precedents set by earlier Christian martyrs. It was a very visual and graphic punishment designed to warn people off committing treason, but also sent a very clear message to all the other monastic houses in the region – submit, or this is the fate that could await you.
We are not sure precisely where the hanging, drawing and quartering of the monks took place, but the records show that a gift of wine was made by the city and they paid for the cleaning of Cowe street, (now Clumber Street) which leads off Market Square in Nottingham City Centre. The cleaning may have been to make way for the drawing element of the execution, or to clear away rubbish thrown by watching crowds. After the spectacle, the remains of the monks were displayed at the gates to Lenton Priory as a stark warning to others.
What happened to the abbey?
In the immediate aftermath of the execution, those monks who were not killed were turned out on their ear, penniless. Because they had been accused of treason, the land immediately became the property of the king by attainder, and the process of asset-stripping began. We know that 198 fodders of lead were taken to London for the king’s use, and presumably any other objects of value like cash and relics were loaded up and carted away. Without a roof the main body of the priory probably began to fall into disrepair first, and though we have evidence of some buildings, like the prior’s lodging, lasting a bit longer. By 1554 the ‘great church’ was being described as a ‘source of free stone’.
Interestingly the land did not go to Sir John Willoughby (steward of the priory) as one might expect, possibly because of his Catholic sympathies which did not play well at court. However, he seems to have rescued some of the medieval service books and even employed one of the ex-monks.
The land went to Sir Michael Stanhope, supposedly on a 40-year lease, but then he was executed in 1552. Documents from 1554 and 1573 suggest that there were still some buildings in use on site, but these were in disrepair. By the late sixteenth century, Sir Francis Willoughby was building his magnificent stately home, Wollaton Hall, which was finished in 1588 (also widely known as Wayne Manor from Batman: The Dark Knight Rises). Archaeologists have clearly identified stone which was taken from the priory to be incorporated into this building.
What might the new team of archaeologists working on the site expect to find?
As most of the assets were stripped away, the archaeologists are not likely to find ‘treasure’ of any sort – unless it was hidden by the monks. On a site like this you would expect to find more every-day objects with little monetary value but really significant to understanding medieval culture, pottery – of which quite a lot was produced in Nottingham during the period, for example decorated tiles or masonry.
Depending on how close they dig to the priory church, human remains may also be present. Most famously, Philip Mark, the Sheriff of Nottingham sometimes associated with the ‘Robin Hood’ stories, paid to be buried there. One of the more significant finds from this site was made by William Stretton, who bought the land in 1802. He was an antiquarian and dug up the baptismal font, which he kept in his garden as an ornament before donating it to Holy Trinity church, Lenton. It is a unique example of Norman carving, including scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Dr. Natasha Hodgson is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History and Director of the Centre for Study of Religion and Conflict at NTU.
G.W. Bernard, ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries’ History (2011), 390-409.
Janet Jones and Sheila Chambers, ‘Lenton Priory’ in Sanctity and Scandal: Medieval Religious Houses of Nottinghamshire ed. David Marcombe and John Hamilton (University of Nottingham, 1998), 22-31.
‘The Priory of Lenton’ in Victoria County History for Nottinghamshire vol. 2,
F.A. Barnes, ‘Lenton Priory after the Dissolution: its buildings and fair grounds.’ Transactions of the Thoroton Society 91 (1987).
David Crook, ‘The Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood: The Genesis of the Legend?’ in P. R. Coss, & S.D. Lloyd eds. Thirteenth Century England II: Proceedings of the Newcastle upon Tyne Conference 1987. (Boydell Press, 1988)
Simon Webb, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain (History Press 2011)
'Hugh and the team unearth William the Conqueror's lost priory hidden beneath Lenton in Nottingham, and begin to draw a bigger picture of the landscape during the Domesday Book era' – Channel 4.
— Natasha Billson (▶️behind the trowel) (@Tash_Archaeo) March 1, 2021
Top Image: Hugh Dennis and lead archaeologists f.rom Channel 4’s “Great British Dig” © Channel4/Strawberry Blond TV, 2020