Found: Abbey's towering strength

October 3, 1997

The new treasure act came into force last week but archaeologists are already making great finds without digging

Archaeologists from South-ampton University have found the precise location of one of the great lost abbeys of the middle ages. Until this summer only fragmentary documentary evidence testified to the existence of Wherwell Abbey, one of three Benedictine nunneries in Hampshire established during the tenth century.

A poem carved into the graveyard wall of a local parish church indicated the strength of feeling about the loss of the abbey, destroyed by Henry VIII.

Anno Dom 1649

Here was the monastery of Wherwell

Erected by Queene Ethelred

Demolished by the overactive zeale or avarice of King Henry

And of its last ruines here buried there yet remains this monument Kate Clark, senior experimental officer for geophysical survey at the university, said: "The dissolution of the monasteries was in 1537. More than 100 years later someone was still upset enough to carve this poem."

Dr Clark and a team of third-year students undertook a geophysical survey of the lawns of the 18th-century Wherwell Priory, in the hope of finding some remains.

"We knew that the old abbey church had to be somewhere near but we thought that the foundations would have disappeared totally - most of the stones from the abbey were used in buildings locally. But we were amazed to find significant remains beneath the lawn."

Dr Clark and the students found a cruciform shape of the church floor, virtually intact. They also found that the abbey church must have had a huge tower.

"There was just one document referring to Wherwell Abbey, a cartulary, or inventory," said Dr Clark. "This did describe it as having a tower of 'commanding height and exquisite workmanship'."

The cartulary records that in the mid-13th century Abbess Euphemia ordered a lot of building work on the abbey. She had the church tower rebuilt because its foundations were too shallow and it was toppling. It records the new foundations as being 12 feet deep, and Dr Clark and the students can see these foundations clearly on their survey.

Another clue was in a 16th-century portrait of Avelina Cowdrey, another abbess, in which a tall, slender tower in the background was assumed to be Wherwell abbey church. The survey also found an apse. "It is tiny and may well relate to the Saxon church underlying the huge abbey church destroyed by Henry VIII. The survey has given us a complete historical picture," said Dr Clark.

The geophysical survey involved measuring electrical resistance below the ground. The advantage of it is that it leaves remains intact.

"We will not be excavating," said Dr Clark. "Nowadays excavation is only done when remains are under threat. Inevitably any sort of excavation damages remains. The idea is to recover information and leave the site for posterity."

But the survey will tell researchers more about the abbeys of the time. Of the three Hampshire nunneries in the tenth century only Romsey Abbey survived. The survey shows that Wherwell was bigger than Romsey. At its height it would have housed up to 50 nuns, before the Black Death cut numbers down to single figures.

"Our future research plans are to carry out geophysical surveys on a number of abbey sites. A lot of them are known, and judging by the success we have had at Wherwell, there may be significant remains underground."

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