ARCHAEOLOGICAL WEALTH BENEATH ABBEY LAND.
Did you know that underneath the land directly around our church there lies archaeology of national importance?
There are, for example, 270 Saxon burials, and during the 1968 excavations a 5th or 6th century cremation vessel was found, along with sherds of similar examples. And under the land running east from the Abbey to Elstow High Street some ninety graves have been found of the Benedictine nuns who lived here in Medieval times. Some of the skeletons lay in stone coffins and some in wooden ones (indicated by the presence of nails), their arms more usually crossed but sometimes at their sides. The skeleton of a priest was found with a dummy lead chalice placed in his arms.
Of equal importance are the foundations and footings of all the Medieval buildings that belonged to the original, huge complex of the Benedictine Nunnery, of which our Abbey was a part. They all lie safely under the field that stretches towards the High Street and under the land to the south running down to the brook
There could be evidence of more buildings underneath our present church yard but centuries of grave- digging will have disturbed most of them and, in any case, it is obviously impossible to excavate there. We know for certain that a chapel of Saint Helen stood in the church-yard by the 1340s, and it was a desirable place of burial in 1509; it served as a parish church in the mid fourteenth century, maybe reviving a role that it, or an earlier Saxon building, had carried out before the Abbey was started in about 1080.
The building activity stretched over a long period, from 1080 to about 1539, the time of Henry V111's Dissolution of the Monasteries, and during these centuries there would have been continual re-siting and re-building.
Here, then, would have been all the important ranges of buildings attached to the Benedictine Abbey; the Cloisters (arcaded walkways with a garden in the middle); the Dorter (or dormitory ranges); the Chapter House (large place for assembly); the Refectory or eating-house; the Cellarium (or group of cells for storage); the Outer Parlour; the Lavatorium (place for washing); the Rere-Dorter (term for the lavatories at the back of the dormitory) situated nearer the stream; and many other buildings nearer to the brook that might have been bake-houses, breweries or guest-houses.
The most important foundations are those that extend eastwards from the Abbey because they prove how massive it was when it was built. At some point in its early history, the Abbey had transepts and an apse and looked more like a cathedral.
This original size suggests its significance. We need to remember that Monasteries and Nunneries were the Social Welfare centres of Medieval times, where the sick of all classes, as well as the poor, could expect to receive nursing and help. They became, then, like small townships and created employment in all those areas needed for the care of a great many people. Our own Abbey was one of the wealthiest, most important monasterial complexes in England.
It follows that the cottages in Elstow High Street would have been part of the complex, for most of them are Medieval and were workshops, probably inns or guest houses. Number 2 Bunyan's Mead was a fourteenth century shop with a later Hall added at the back; number 20 was most certainly a Medieval shop and Hall; and 204 High Street, next to the Swan Public House was also a workshop of some kind, with a 1500s two-bay building added later at the back. In the roof of 8, Bunyan's Mead there are surviving elements of 1200s rafters as indeed there are in Mike and Ann Hurley's home on the corner of the lane leading to the church.
The foundations of Hillesdon Mansion also lie under the field. Built and altered between 1625 and 1775 it was a grand statement of a home and its ruins, and the wide sweep of its drive still seen in the grass, suggest its scale.
No wonder, that all the church land is protected from building and that IF we were ever able to afford a new church hall, it would be allowed only in place of the existing building.!
We are indebted to David Baker, the County Archaeologist who instigated, and was in charge of, excavation work done in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of his interest in our Abbey and its history we have a clearer picture of its important past. We are also indebted to John Bailey for his work on the architecture of the Elstow cottages.
The Abbey did not immediately fall under the Act of the Dissolution in 1536, but was finally surrendered on 26th August 1539 when the Abbess and the 23 remaining nuns were granted pensions.
The land and property passed to Henry VIII and in 1541 he conferred it upon Edmund Hervey and in 1553 to Sir Humphrey Radclyff who resided in the convent building. The eastern end of the church was demolished in 1580, being thought too large for a village church.