Broadcast 27 January 2008

In June 2007, an archaeological evaluation was undertaken by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ at the site of Sewardsley Priory within the gardens of Showsley Grounds, Towcester, Northamptonshire (NGR 471810 250740) to investigate the remains of a Cistercian Priory founded, according to documentary sources, c.1155. The priory remained relatively poor throughout its existence, but also had an unfortunate propensity for scandal in the later medieval period. This involved financial irregularities and other excesses, culminating in an association with a case of witchcraft in 1470, and the declaration as null and void of the election of one of the last prioresses in 1530 on the grounds of her unfitness for the post. At the time of the Dissolution in 1536, Sewardsley was the second poorest nunnery in the country.

The aim of the evaluation was to attempt to reveal the layout of the monastic buildings, to confirm (or otherwise) the suggested mid 12th century construction date, and to establish the date range of the surviving archaeological remains. The evaluation revealed that the priory had a similar layout to many religious houses in Britain, based upon a 9th century hypothetical blue-print of the ideal monastery known as the St. Gall Plan. The layout comprised a central cloister with a chapel or church to the north, and ranges of buildings surrounding the remaining three sides.

A number of phases of construction were identified, the earliest dating to the 12th century, with later buildings constructed at times of relative prosperity. Burials accompanied the earliest phase of construction, and further burials dating to the 13th century were also excavated. A possible two-storey building was located to the southwest of the cloister, perhaps the remains of the Prioress’s lodgings, although its precise nature and function is uncertain.