Authors: Lara Cook, Project Archaeologist, and Tom Clayton, Project Archaeologist
With our field school at Grace Dieu Priory set to begin in July, we thought it would be a nice idea to give you all a bit more information about the history of the priory and the surrounding estate.
Grace Dieu Priory was founded c.1239 by Rohesia De Verdun, the then Lady of the Manor of Belton. It was an Augustinian priory dedicated to the Grace of God (Grace Dieu), Holy Trinity and St Mary. Rohesia had inherited the Belton manor from her father, Nicolas, who was granted the land by William the Conqueror. Located on the NW fringe of Charnwood Forest, the Priory was built on the estate and probably started with approximately 14 nuns. It is one of only two female priories in Leicestershire. The priory was unusual in being independent of outside control. The nuns called themselves “the White Nuns of St. Augustine” and wore un-dyed white wool robes; there are thought to be no other houses of their order in the country.
Account book from 1414-1418 provides an insight into the Priory’s economy and way of life. It notes income from rents, the mill, the lime workings, quarries, as well as commodities like timber, skins and wool, pigs, cattle, and sheep. Maintenance work is also mentioned, such as the laying of a new brass pipe to bring water to the refectory and repairing the roof of the cloisters and church.
Later, in 1441, a visitation by Bishop Alnwick of Lincoln described a divided community, with questions having been raised regarding the Prioress’ conduct and favouritism. It was also reported that the infirmary was in a poor state of repair, and that the Prioress should sleep at least once a fortnight or month, with the other nuns and not in her own lodgings.
Throughout the three centuries of the Priory’s existence, the complex expanded (Figure 1). It is known that the nuns had a garden that resembled the one at Mount Olives at Gethsemane, the outline of which could still be seen during the reign of James I. It was this garden, and the ‘romantic’ ruins as they were in the early nineteenth century which attracted William Wordsworth. He wrote:
“Beyond yon eastern ridge, the craggy bound
Rugged and high of Charnwood’s Forest ground
Stand yet, but, stranger; hidden from thy view
The ivied ruins of forlorn Grace Dieu
Erst a religious House, which day and night
With hymns resounded, and the chanted rite…”
The nuns had also received several donations by local lords of neighbouring land. The most generous was John Comyn (Earl of Buchanan) and Lord of Whitwick. The estate continued to grow until the mid-sixteenth century, when the Dissolution began to take hold.
In the 16th century, as the dawn of the Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries arrived, a report was compiled by the king’s commissioner for Leicestershire, John Beaumont. This provides the final insight into the state of the Priory at the time of the Dissolution. The first visitation by the commissioners in 1536 valued the Priory at £72 13s 4d. The buildings mentioned (church, choir, cloisters, refectory, and the rest of the house) were in a good state of repair and well-maintained.
In 1538, an inventory of the Priory was undertaken where a list of buildings was noted, these were:
- Lady Chapel
- Nun’s Choir
- Bellhouse with steeple
- Dorter with three cells
- Chapter House
- Prioress’ Lodgings
- Areas for guest hospitality
o Knight’s Chamber
o Inner Chamber
o Chapel Chamber
o Dining Chamber
- Service rooms
o Larder House
o Candle House
o Smith’s forge
The inventory also lists the contents of the buildings, and other agricultural holdings, such as Merrill Grange and Home Farm (probably on the site of the present Grace Dieu Manor Farm). The nuns had also been exploiting an outcrop of limestone to the west in Grace Dieu Wood since at least the 15th century.
After the Dissolution, the Grace Dieu Estate was purchased by Sir Humphrey Foster on behalf of John Beaumont who was Henry VIII’s commissioner. Beaumont’s position as the king’s commissioner meant that he could not reserve properties himself, hence why Foster procured the priory for him. The main Priory complex was converted into a private residence by Beaumont, including the construction of first-floor rooms, additions to the Chapter House, galleries linking the first-floor rooms above the Cloisters and East Range (Figure 2).
Beaumont was later elected Master of the Rolls. This role designated Beaumont as the keeper of all charters, patents, and records of court judgements. He was responsible for the organisation of the judges, as well as presiding in one of its courts.
However, Beaumont was found guilty of abusing his power in 1552, and so, Grace Dieu was forfeited to the Crown. After being transferred to the Earl of Huntingdon, it later returned to the Beaumonts through John’s widow, Elizabeth. In c.1690, when the Beaumont line at Grace Dieu died out, the Estate was sold to Sir Ambrose Phillips of Garendon, who purchased Grace Dieu as an extension to his Estate.
From this time onwards, the house at Grace Dieu fell into disrepair; Phillips demolished the Priory Church in 1696, stripped the roofs of lead, and so it became a ruin as it is today. However, the foundations and coffins were left in-situ. As such, Grace Dieu became merely an extension to the neighbouring Garendon Estate.
During the mid-eighteenth century, industrialisation was sweeping across England, and Grace Dieu was no exception. Between 1791-1794, a new canal was constructed through Charnwood by the Leicester Navigation Company. The canal carved a route just south of the ruins at Grace Dieu, truncated the monastic fishpond and probably destroyed standing remains, such as parts of the precinct wall. However, in February 1799, the feeder reservoir at Blackbrook burst, rendering the canal inoperable, and so it was abandoned.
The construction of the canal likely caused incalculable amounts of damage to the site. However, in 1833, the Grace Dieu Estate was inherited by the eldest son, Ambrose, of Squire Charles March Phillips De Lisle of Garendon. Ambrose set about restoring Grace Dieu to its former glory, starting with a new country house which would be called Grace Dieu Manor. It was designed by William Railton, with additions by Augustus Pugin; two of the most profound architects of their generation. Railton is best known for designing Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, while Pugin pioneered the Neo Gothic style which is so iconic of Victorian buildings, having designed the Houses of Parliament.
Grace Dieu once again became a country seat (Figure 5). Much of the stone used for the construction of Grace Dieu Manor is thought to have come from the Priory, which itself was used as a garden folly, much to the intrigue of visitors. The Park was re-landscaped, a new entrance drive and Gate Lodge was constructed, with avenues of various species of trees, running through Grace Dieu Wood.
Later, in 1874, the Charnwood Forest Railway company was incorporated, aiming to replace the previous defunct canal with a new railway branch to link Loughborough with the coalfields of Coalville. A new embankment, roughly on the same line as the canal, was constructed through the Priory site. A rudimentary station was opened at Grace Dieu, and a six-arch viaduct was constructed to carry the railway through Grace Dieu Wood, over the new entrance drive to Grace Dieu Park (Figure 6). However, the line closed to passengers in 1931, and later completely in 1963.
With this extensive history in the area, we thought it would be a great place to do a community research project. Archaeological research around the priory will give everyone involved a deeper understanding of the people who lived and worked at the priory and how it has evolved over time. Archaeological research can also help to boost awareness of the priory and hopefully aid in the discovering of the missing buildings and a possible cemetery.
If you would like to take part in our excavations, then join us this summer! More information can be seen on our Grace Dieu Priory webpage, and the Friends of Grace Dieu Priory Facebook page.