The priory at Earl's Colne was rumoured to house the remains of Edward de Vere, the 7th Earl of Oxford and, perhaps, the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Could Mr Whight have Hamlet in his back garden? Could we find the original De Vere manor house? Had it been built on the site of the priory itself?
Almost 1000 years ago the site looked very different. Our first task was to get to grips with the priory layout. Initial geophysics was encouraging with even the first scrape of the digger revealing 12th century pottery and even carved stone. Mick was keen to get a lot of radar work done - this would show up surviving stone walls clearly and help us unpick any phasing in construction. As a bonus if we could identify the chapel then perhaps we could find the tomb we were searching for. Mick, of course, was concerned that we obtain as clear a plan and layout of the priory complex as possible.
Almost immediately Phil began to uncover stone box-like structures with fragments of skull... Could we already be in the right place for grand De Vere burials? Understanding the development of the site over time would be crucial. Documentary evidence suggested that the Earls may have built a manor house either on the site of the priory or even restyled the priory itself. Any later demolition and building work would be sure to confuse our results. The dates of any pottery and burials would be of vital importance.
Phil's trench began to deliver the goods; 13th century floor tile and pottery. By now John and Jimmy's extensive radar survey had been processed, showing a very interesting and unusual feature which Mick thought could be a chantry chapel - built for a high status individual. Could we be looking at Edward De Veres tomb...? Mick felt that we could be confident that we were inside the priory church.
Mick was keen to follow up on the radar in an attempt to locate De Veres tomb. Trenches were put in and others extended to make sense of the geophysics. Were we in the right place for the chapel? Mick was convinced that the building shown on John's radar results was unusual; not fitting in with the layout of the rest of the site. But for once, the geophysics had misled us. The strange structure turned out to be a cell building, probably used by an 'Anchorite', a hermit who spent his or her life in quiet contemplation. The location of the De Vere tomb remained a mystery for now.
As the hunt continued Phil's trench just kept growing. Evidence suggested we might have a vault - an underground chamber built for burials. It contained a surprise - decorated floor tiles and highly decorated glass; the sort that would have been included in the grandest of chapel buildings. We seemed to be on the right track. Mick still felt it was vital to understand the entire complex and find the manor house - so more work for John and his team.
As new radar results came in it soon became clear that we were dealing with a building complex constructed in a number of phases and with some tantalising hints that the manor house we had been asked to find might be about to reveal itself. Excavation showed bay windows and brick construction - definitely not part of the priory. It seemed we had an answer to our manor house conundrum.
But what about Edward De Vere? Our search for his tomb had been one of the tasks set for us by Paul the landowner. After three days and numerous trenches, as well as some wonderful geophysics, we were still scratching our heads. Was the 17th Earl even buried at the site? A final search of the documents gave us the answer... Edward De Vere had died of the plague in London and had been buried in Hackney. A low key funeral for a man who had squandered his inheritance.
So the three days had been a partial success - an answer to the mystery of the manor house and a number of high status burials, but no Hamlet in the back garden. However the team had been able to produce a stunning complete survey of the priory. Trenches identified at least three phases of construction and a number of high status burials. Not a bad result for Mick and the team!