I’ve just finished watching the third episode of the recent series of The Great British Dig, which was filmed on location last autumn during the pandemic. Hats off to the production team and crew, because they’ve managed to make a remarkably seamless set of programmes featuring some fascinating subjects, while contending with social distancing regulations which really can’t have been easy.
Episode 3 was all about a lost priory in Lenton, a suburb of Nottingham. I’d never even heard of it, and there is literally only one pillar surviving above ground, but apparently in its heyday it was huge. Originally built by William Peveril in the very early twelfth century, it was both wealthy and powerful, but suffered the same fate as every other monastic settlement during Henry 8th’s notorious Dissolution of the Monasteries in around 1536.
The programme was fascinating. With the help of locals, and students from the nearby Queens Medical Centre, they unearthed part of the structure of the priory itself, as well as evidence of burials near the east end, a previously unknown Lady Chapel, a cobbled street, and fragments of the monks’ everyday life.
I was particularly struck by two things. One, my Twitter pal James Wright, who contributed his expertise on Medieval stonework and the history of Nottingham. And two, a name that rang bells for me: a former Sheriff of Nottingham called Philip Mark. Mark paid to be buried near the priory’s east end (the closer to the High Altar you were buried, the more chance you had of getting to Heaven, apparently), and it’s even possible that some of the bones being unearthed might once have belonged to him. The name, though, was familiar for more mundane reasons. Not long ago I watched the repeats of the old 1980s Robin of Sherwood TV series, and one of the characters, played brilliantly as a camp sadist by none other than Lewis Collins, was Philip Mark. At the time, I had no idea he was a real person. Now I’m wondering if the reason his bones were so disturbed was because he’d been rolling in his grave!
The episode rang bells for another reason, because my latest book Trench Warfare, which I’m hoping to publish in the next few weeks, is set on an archaeological excavation of a lost priory, which was dissolved by Henry 8th and promptly disappeared. My book wasn’t inspired by Lenton Priory, but it was useful (and perhaps sobering!) to watch the real experts at work uncovering such a site, and check that I hadn’t got the details too horribly wrong.
If you want to find out more about Lenton Priory then this article on Medievalists.net is a good place to start (as long as you ignore the comment about Henry 8th dissolving the monasteries so he could marry Anne Boleyn). And you can find the entire Great British Dig series on the Channel 4 website. It’s a fab series to watch if you’re interested in history and archaeology. Other episodes include a Roman fort in Newcastle, and an Anglo-Scandinavian (ie, mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Viking) cemetery in Masham, N Yorkshire. And I have the fourth episode, about a secret WW2 military base in South Shields, to look forward to. You never know, maybe I’ll be able to write a book about one or other of them next.