Broadcast 4 March 2012
In May 2011 an archaeological evaluation was undertaken by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ at the site of Colne Priory, Earls Colne, near Colchester, Essex (NGR 586466, 228958) to investigate the site of the Benedictine Priory of St. Mary the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist (also known as the Priory of St. Mary and St. Andrew), founded by the De Vere family in the early 12th century. The programme of works investigated the Priory layout and the remains of the post-Dissolution house constructed on Site.
The geophysical survey by GSB Prospection (which expanded upon earlier work by Tim Dennis, University of Essex) revealed the layout of the Priory, including the Priory church, and the domestic structures centred on a southern cloister, and also showed the location of the post-Dissolution mansion which was demolished c. 1820. The evaluation consisted of five trenches. Results from these showed that the main Priory church had been constructed in a single phase, and was accompanied by a number of inhumation burials on the north side of the presbytery. A sample of bone from one of these burials was radiocarbon dated to AD 1040-1260. While this could conceivably belong to an earlier, pre-Priory phase, perhaps associated with a Late Saxon minster, the likelihood is that all the burials belong to the early years of the Priory.
The church was later adapted by the addition of two chapels on the northern side of the presbytery and a third chapel to the south, identified as the Lady Chapel. These were family chapels to house the remains of members of the De Vere family. Three intact tombs were revealed although only one contained articulated in situ human remains, a sample of which was radiocarbon dated to AD 1270-1400. The addition of the chapels had resulted in major structural alterations to the Priory Church, with the removal of the original southern presbytery wall. Further alterations saw the replacement of the apsidal eastern wall of the Chapter House with a squared end with buttresses.
Following the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, a manor house was constructed over the western range of the Priory. The Priory church was demolished and a large ditch was dug straight through the presbytery. A 1598 map shows this large ditch surrounding orchards, although in 1760 a visitor to the Site records witnessing the excavation of the ditch and called it a ha-ha. The remains of the manor house appeared to have been extensively robbed; however, the presence of bay windows on the front of the building was confirmed, as shown on 18th century engravings of the building.