The Founding of Monastries
Lincolnshire was a very prosperous county in the 12th century and one of the most popular and well populated parts of the country. Our new Norman masters had brought with them the practice of founding monasteries it has to be said, more for the benefit of their eternal souls, than for the benefit of the monks themselves. Nevertheless, by the 1150s many major landholders gave land to the church in order to found a monastery. By the late 13th century there were over 120 priories, friaries, abbeys, preceptories and monastic hospitals in Lincolnshire.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
All these establishments, large and small, rich or poor were closed down by King Henry VIII in the great Dissolution of the Monasteries, between 1536 and 1540. The king took the land and buildings, stripping them of valuable objects and treasures. Most of the land he passed on to his friends and supporters and in due course most of the monastery sites were converted into rich country houses.
King Henry's instructions were that the abbey churches should be demolished or at the least have their roofs removed, thus speeding their ruination, but the other buildings could remain. In many cases the abbey cloister and surrounding building were converted into great houses. The stone from the ruined church was often used to create new buildings or grandiose garden features, or was sold off to build farmhouses and barns.
But by the 18th century these country houses had become unfashionable and many were demolished for their materials. In some cases, parts of them were left to stand as attractive ruins in the vista of a new stately home. By the 20th century the majority of the monastery sites were little more than bumps and hollows in the ground perhaps just occasionally with one last fragment of stone wall, arch or tower to show where once such a grand structure had been.
Of the 120 odd abbeys and priories that we know of in Lincolnshire, just a few survive for us to visit today.
The most impressive monastic ruins in the county are up in the north at Thornton Curtis which is a couple of miles from North and South Killingholme. The ruins of Thornton Abbey, which was founded in 1139, are open at all times from dawn to dusk and are well worth a visit, but by far the most impressive part of this site is the great brick built gatehouse the earliest use of brick to survive in the county. The Abbot of Thornton was given a licence to build the structure in 1382 and a massive brick barbican was added to the front in the 16th century. The gatehouse is open on alternate Sundays.
Some of the best of our monastic remains are still in use as churches, where necessity demanded a part of an abbey church could be retained to serve as the parish church. Thus part of the great monastery at Crowland, originally founded in the 8th century by St Guthlac, still survives. Crowland Church is the north aisle of the abbey church and next to it is the evocative ruined nave. All other traces of this once great abbey are gone.
A similar situation occurs in the small town of Bourne where the parish church of St Peter and St Paul is a surviving part of the Augustinian abbey church founded in 1138. Also at the tiny church of South Kyme, near Heckington, St Mary and All Saints incorporates the south aisle of another Augustinian priory church founded in the mid 12th century.
South Kyme is one of a remarkable group of abbeys that clustered together along the course of the River Witham. It is perhaps indicative of the wealth and popularity of this county in the 12th century, that so many monasteries were built, so close together in the area between Boston and Lincoln. Indeed, they broke all the normal rules of location, for monasteries were normally remote from each other and from secular establishments but along the Witham Valley they were a mere two miles apart well within sight of each other and regularly complaining about the noise of each others bells!
Abbeys of The Witham Valley
Of the nine religious houses that were founded in the Witham Valley four sites can be visited. The site of the abbey at Barlings is hard to find, but repays the effort. It is seven miles east of Lincoln at the tiny hamlet of Low Barlings. A towering fragment of the chancel wall of the 13th century church still stands amid a large area of earthworks which include fishponds, moats and drains. The abbey was founded by Premonstratensian canons around 1154. The Premonstratensians (so called because they came from Pr้montre in France) established another abbey by the river Witham at Tupholme. Here, one wall of their refectory stands two stories high in a field of earthworks with the remains of extensive fishponds and moats.
Tupholme is east of Lincoln on the B1190, two miles beyond Bardney. There is also an abbey site at Bardney again, well worth a visit, although there are no standing remains. Bardney Abbey was excavated by the local vicar, Charles Laing, between 1909 and 1914. He uncovered all the layout of this Benedictine monastery and it lay open to view until the mid 1930s. Today it has been carefully covered over and grassy banks indicate the layout of all the major buildings. The site is at the end of Abbey Lane and there is a small car park at the side of the farmyard.
Finally there is the great Cistercian abbey site at Kirkstead, near to Woodhall Spa. Here a great crag of masonry still stands in a field of impressive bumps and hollows. Beyond the ruins is the tiny and unexpected church of St Leonard a 13th century gem, thought to have been a gate chapel to the abbey. It contains the tomb of Robert of Tattershall probably the grandson of the founder of the abbey.
There are other visitable abbey ruins at St Leonard's Priory Stamford, Temple Bruer, near Sleaford, and the charming abbey Church of the Gilbertines (St Andrew's) at Sempringham.
Director, Heritage Lincolnshire