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Earl's Colne Priory

By: Mick Aston


broken bones
An old priory resident

Earl's Colne represents a good microcosm of this. It is a splendid example of the role of an aristocratic family in developing their estate in the Middle Ages: in this case the de Veres, who became the Earls of Oxford.

We went to Earl's Colne to excavate the medieval priory, a small Benedictine monastery, at the invitation of the present owner of the site, who was very knowledgeable about the history of the site and was anxious to see what had survived underground. Very little was visible on the surface - it had been thoroughly robbed out at the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century. The land returned to the Earls of Oxford who altered part of the monastic buildings for use as a house. This is a common story: many great medieval families founded monasteries on their lands, partly so that the monks and canons could say masses for their souls, but also so that the church could act as a mausoleum for the burials of members of their families. This was the case at Earl's Colne, which became the main burial place for the de Vere family, including 13 of the Earls of Oxford. The priory church would have been full of the tombs of the de Veres who were buried there until the Dissolution. Our excavations uncovered the bases of some of these tombs and some of the bones that had been removed from them. It was clear that as the stone work had been robbed, people had come across burials and rather than casting the bones aside, they had carefully collected them, perhaps in leather bags, for reburial. There were little stacks of bones all over the excavated area.

Shortly after the Dissolution, the estate passed out of the hands of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford (a noted spendthrift) and rather than being smashed up when the priory church was demolished, the tombs were removed from the site. Some ended up in the local church but some parts of tombs were reused as fireplaces in the eighteenth-century house on the site. The tombs from the parish church were restored to the priory site in 1827 when the present house was built along with a gallery built especially for their display. In 1935 they were removed to the thirteenth-century chapel of St Stephen at Bures, a few miles away, actually in Suffolk. We are very fortunate to have these and I found my visit to see them most instructive. The family crest of the de Veres includes a boar and a star, which are both much used on the tombs. The wild boar was adopted as a family symbol as the Latin word verres means 'boar', a sort of heraldic pun on the de Vere name. The five pointed star appears on the churches at Castle Hedingham and in Earl's Colne, where the actual crest also survives on the tower.

The de Vere family, of course, did not live in the priory, though the founder, Alberic (or Aubrey) de Vere, did actually become a monk in priory, shortly before he died. The de Vere's main base in Norman times was at Castle Hedingham, a few miles further up the Colne valley, on the route between Cambridge and Colchester. Here the great keep of the castle survives intact, the interior giving a very good impression of what it was like to live in one of these vast stone buildings. Families like the de Veres were also involved in developing the economy and making money. One way to do this was to found new medieval towns, by acquiring rights to hold markets and fairs and giving free burgage tenure to tenants who became craftsmen, traders and merchants in these new towns. This type of town development was carried out at Castle Hedingham which still feels more like a town than a village with densely packed timber-framed buildings. The landscape around was organised to support the family. They had parks and woods for hunting and supplying food and wood. Chalkney Wood survives almost intact to show what a medieval wood would have looked like. It is owned by Essex County Council and the local wildlife trust and is fully open to the public for walks and visits.

Earl's Colne itself seems also to have been laid out and developed as a town around the precinct of the priory. Beyond the parish church of St Andrew, there is a wide main market street, which in 1395 had at least 22 stall sites. Over time these gradually became permanent buildings. This street is lined with the narrow properties - burgages - typical of medieval new towns. Many of these have surviving timber-framed buildings of late medieval and later dates.

Earl's Colne shows very well the connections between castles, monasteries, towns and the countryside. We tend to study these in isolation but taken together we can get a much better idea of how aristocratic medieval society worked.

Time Team synopsis

In this popular and (literally) groundbreaking programme, Tony Robinson and a team of experts travel the country to investigate a wide range of archaeological sites of historical importance

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