Monday, June 29, 2009

St Botolphs Priory, Essex

Me looking like a small yet rotund Henry VIII and my storytelling tent
inside the remains of the nave of St Botolphs Priory church
Click on any image to make larger

On Saturday last I was telling at St Botolphs Priory in Colchester. Its one of the earliest Augustinian foundations in the country (Built c.1100 it adopted the Orders Rule some time in the 13th century) And although now ruinous the remains of Norman arches, blind arcading (Filled in arches) and especially the huge circular pillars gives what's left a sense of permanence!

The West Door

The brick built blind arcading

Still a solid structure in places...

But what really stands out is the use of red brick in such an early medieval building and it turns out that its reused Roman brick. Colchester is after all a Roman town and talking to a the local history group who had a stall on site, it turns out that the early town was built almost entirely of brick because there is not much in the way of good quality local stone. This lack of good stone meant that the roman brick was much valued in medieval times and turns up in many buildings including the Priory and Colchester Castle, which is now a museum. They also pointed out that what little local stone was used was of such poor quality that it has eroded much quicker that the brick, thus making the brick stand out even more. And its true the remains do have an unusual red appearance that really stands out on a bright sunny day. I liked it because it made a change from many religious sites I tell at, which are dominated by fancy ornate carving and frilly bits! The ancient west doorway was enough for me and the simple carved chevron pattern gave it a truly ancient feel. The lack of good quality stone to carve gives St Botolphs a rustic feel; a no nonsense, unpretentious building, although I think that its sheer size would still have made it impressive to the early medieval visitor.

Close up of reused Roman brick

Detail from the West Door

In truth beyond what is here in my pictures there was not a lot else to see, so Sam and I contented ourselves with rooting about in the undergrowth to see what we could find. We both found bone; Sam finding a flattened piece that if human we think may have come from a shoulder blade, or perhaps from the pelvis. I found a bit which looks to have formed one end of the thigh bone of a large man! It might not be human though and could have come from a butchered animal, although even that would be good, for who knows it might have been from the last joint of meat served up at the Priory before it was dissolved by a greedy King called Henry and his even greedier men. Perhaps the Friars themselves were so discontented that they served up their own Prior! We can't be sure what age the bones are or from whence they came, although I have rooted about in enough churchyards in my time to know that there are plenty of human bones about!

A good days rooting about with bones, oyster shells & iron mystery object (See below)

We were on more certain ground with the huge amount of oyster shells we found. Certainly these were a common enough food in medieval times but also turn up on monastic sites like Bayham Abbey in Kent with pigment covering their inside surfaces. It seems that they made handy containers for pigments used for colouring illuminated manuscripts and perhaps for wall paintings as well.

The Oyster shells were good, but then Sam found a small metal ball which we first thought was a musket ball. We already new that Colchester had seen action during the English Civil War. But musket balls were made of lead or stone and from the corrosion we could see that this was clearly iron. Luckily local archaeologists from Colchester Museum were on site and they identified it as a bit of grapeshot; a collection of iron balls and other shrapnel, packed into a canvas bag or wooden cartridge and fired out of a cannon to do the greatest possible damage. And talking to the local history group they told us how the in 1648 the Royalists had been trapped in Colchester as they had marched north to meet up and form an alliance with the Scots (It wasn't really and English Civil War at all!) The Parliamentarians camped outside the town walls and lay siege for twelve weeks to the Royalists trapped within. And it just so happens that St Botolphs Priory lay directly between the opposing forces and was destroyed by their canon fire. St Botolphs was caught in the opposing forces crossfire. It was at this point that Sam reached into his pocket and brought out a little bit of that crossfire for the group to see and all fell silent!

History in your hand- Sam's 17th century grapeshot

So there you go, although the ruins themselves were impressive, they were not so impressive to us as a small iron ball. . Sam's little bit of crossfire in his pocket, a little bit of 360 year old history in his hand!

Thanks to Clive from Colchester Museums for the invite and his great choice of locations for my storytelling tent!

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