Searching for a Saint and a Princess
As I gaze over the flat farm fields of Sempringham, its ghosts stir, bringing to life the bustling abbey and Saxon village that once stood in this place, now deserted in the summer sun. I am at journey’s end.
Eighty miles from London in the fen country of Lincolnshire, just north of the small village of Pointon, a tiny black and white sign lettered “Sempringham” points me down a narrow dirt road. Bouncing in the ruts through farm fields and over a tiny stream I arrive at the small stone church of St Andrew’s, built in 1120, isolated in the middle of cultivated fields, its steeple reaching skyward. I am on a quest, searching for two graves, one of Gwenllian, the last Welsh princess, a life-long prisoner at Sempringham, who died there at the age of 54 in 1337. The other is the grave of St. Gilbert, founder of the only wholly English religious order, who lived to the remarkable age of 106, dying in 1189.
I have a rendevous at St Andrew’s with Eric Iredale, keeper of the secrets of Sempringham. Iredale has spent thirty years researching and translating records and documents, searching for answers to what lies hidden here. In the carefully tended, grassy plot of ground next to the church, weathered gravestones catch the sun’s reflection and my eye. Are Gwenllian and St. Gilbert buried beneath these ancient stones? Iredale is waiting in the church, and we sit in a 15th century pew as he explains the mystery of this place and tells me that the stories of the Welsh princess and St. Gilbert are part and parcel of Sempringham’s story.
The story begins around 1082, like a fairy tale, when Sir Jocelin, a wealthy Norman knight, besotted with a beautiful village maiden from the Saxon village of Sempringham, married her. While pregnant with her first child she dreamed that, before he was born, the moon came down and settled in her lap, a sign of her child’s coming greatness. But the fairy tale almost ended in 1083 when their son, Gilbert, was born crippled. A future in the church seemed the likeliest place for such a child, and Gilbert’s parents sent him to France to be educated as a clerk in holy orders. According to the records of the time, Gilbert developed a goodness of heart and character and soon distinguished himself as a scholar.
Gilbert returned from France to Sempringham in 1115 and taught the children on his father’s estate, then spent nine years as clerk to the Bishop of Lincoln. He was ordained as a priest in 1129 and returned to serve in Sempringham’s church. Two years later, when his father died, he used his inheritance to start The Order of Sempringham, recruiting seven nuns. Over the next few years most of the inhabitants of the Saxon village joined the Order leaving an almost deserted village behind them. Thus its decline began.
But the Order of Sempringham thrived, becoming a home for more than 200 nuns and 40 canons. As Gilbert’s reputation for goodness of character and charitable acts spread, other branches of the Order opened throughout Britain. When he died in 1189, he left a legacy of 13 Gilbertine houses with 700 monks and 1300 nuns. So many miracles of healing were purported to be due to his influence that Pope Innocent III canonized him in 1202—a fulfillment of his mother’s prophecy.
Iredale reads me a quote from his book, “A History of Sempringham”. Henry II, king of England, fighting in France when he learned of Gilbert’s death, said, “Truly I knew he had left this earth, for all these ends (referring to his misfortunes in war) had come upon me because he is dead.” Although Gilbert was supposedly buried in the church, his actual burial place today is unknown. It remains a mystery. Iredale points to the only decorated arch in the ancient church and the coffin-sized depression in the floor beneath it. He believes this is the grave of St. Gilbert.
Eighty years later Sempringham’s other famous resident, Gwenllian, the last Welsh princess, was imprisoned here by Edward I, king of England, who was determined to break the back of Welsh national resistance and remove any rallying point for them. After killing Gwenllian’s father, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, in a battle, he spirited baby Gwenllian away to Sempringham where she was kept prisoner at the Abbey. Buried on the Abbey grounds in 1137, her grave, too, is lost in history’s shifting sands.
I ask Iredale what happened to the remains of the Saxon village and the bustling abbey. He talks of the tragic stripping of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538. At Sempringham, lead was removed from the priory roof and its buildings and the bells were taken down. Most tragically, the contents of the library were sold as waste paper. Henry VIII gifted the land to Edward Fiennes, Lord Clinton, who built a mansion on the site.
Time sounded a death knell for the gutted priory buildings. The deserted village and even the mansion turned to rubble, the rubble was buried under the soil, and farmers cultivated the land. Sempringham disappeared and took its secrets with it.
An attempt was made to uncover these secrets, when, in 1938, the Lincolnshire Architectural Society began excavations of the site. But World War II halted work and funding. Weather and wind covered the excavations and, today, in these farm fields, St. Andrew’s church is the only visible reminder of a thriving community.
But Sempringham and its saint and princess are not forgotten. Outside, on the wall of the church, is a memorial to St. Gilbert and the Gilbertine nuns. Beside the church a large stone slab with a map depicts the probable locations of the priory church and buildings as seen from aerial photographic clues.
Every second year, in September, St. Andrew’s Church celebrates its heritage with a weekend display on St. Gilbert and Sempringham. The Welsh people honoured Princess Gwenllian in 1996 when they erected a beautiful memorial to her by the tiny stream that approaches St. Andrew’s. But, for now, the lost graves of a saint and a princess still wait to be found, their secrets hidden—perhaps forever.
Sempringham is just on the northern edge of the tiny village of Pointon. From London take the A1 north to of Peterborough, then the A15 to Bourne. Pointon is on the B1117 12.8 kilometres (8 miles in Britain) past Bourne.
All of southern Lincolnshire is within easy traveling distance of the Pointon area.
Of particular interest is the ancient stone market town of Stamford and nearby Burghley House, the grandest house of the First Elizabethan Age 1565-1587
Tourist Information at Stamford Arts Centre, 27 St. Mary’s St., Stamford, Lincolnshire, PE9 2DL, England
Text and photos © by Barbara Ballard
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