Ancient medieval priory unearthed by Northumberland villagers

Volunteers unearth remains of nunnery at Holystone, which was targeted in Henry VIII's Dissolution of the monasteries in 1539

Local volunteers working at the ancient priory dig site next to St Marys church Holystone near Rothbury in Northumberland
Local volunteers working at the ancient priory dig site next to St Mary the Virgin church in Holystone

The remains of what is believed to be a medieval priory have been unearthed following a Time Team-style dig by Northumberland villagers.

The 12-strong team at Holystone in Upper Coquetdale had just five days to carry out the excavations next to the village’s St Mary’s Church.

It was the latest in several attempts by villagers over recent years to find the priory, which was established in the 12th Century and lasted until it was targeted in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

Archeologist Richard Carlton working at the ancient priory dig
Archeologist Richard Carlton working at the ancient priory dig

But this time the villagers had help from Deepscan AR Ltd from Alnwick, a research and development company specialising in ground penetrating radar systems.

The scan findings guided the diggers to the most promising location.

The priory, run by nuns, was near Lady’s Well, a natural spring flowing into a stone tank of possible Roman origin and which is a now a scheduled monument cared for by the National Trust.

Members of the Holystone History & Archaeology Group were given permission by the church, and the landowner and tenants, for the five-day dig, which was funded by Northumberland National Park Authority and Coquetdale Community Archaeology Group.

The operation, led by villagers Jan Frazer and Richard Carlton from Newcastle-based The Archaeological Practice, quickly uncovered significant medieval remains.

Michael Morton digging at the ancient priory dig site next to St Mary the Virgin church in Holystone
Michael Morton digging at the ancient priory dig site next to St Mary the Virgin church in Holystone

These included a wall with foundations 7ft wide which is thought to have been part of the priory church or the cloisters.

Group secretary Jan Frazer said: “It’s really amazing to have finally located where the priory stood and to be looking at walls not seen since 1539.

“It’s all been very like Time Team working against the clock but thanks to the radar scan we were pointed in exactly the right direction.

“We’ve had 12 people working on site under expert guidance and it’s been a marvellous experience for all the villagers who’ve taken part.

“It has been a great community effort and we are all absolutely delighted.

St Mary the Virgin church in Holystone
St Mary the Virgin church in Holystone

“Everybody is amazed by what has been under our feet all this time.”

Archaeologist Richard Carlton said: “This group has worked towards this goal on and off for several years now so it’s wonderful that the dig has been so productive in such a short space of time.

“Holystone Priory was a very important centre in the Coquetdale valley in its heyday and so to finally establish its location is an important archaeological discovery.

“The priory would have been the main institution in the village, a source of employment and a draw for visitors.

“It is probably the foundation of the village.

Local volunteers working at the ancient priory dig site next to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Holystone near Rothbury
Local volunteers working at the ancient priory dig site next to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Holystone near Rothbury

“The dig has shown that there are substantial surviving underground remains.

“It has never been previously established exactly where the priory was situated but what has now been found are believed to be priory remains.”

It is thought that the nunnery was set up by the Umfravilles, who were lords of Redesdale.

It would have suffered in the Anglo-Scottish wars and in 1432 there were said to be only eight nuns in residence.

But Richard said: “The dig findings suggest remains on a bigger scale than anticipated so it could have been a bigger institution at some time.”

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