A cross Fen drive to the next Heritage Open Day. St Andrew’s church, Sempringham, Sempringham Abbey. The parish has a website, and the benefice has one too – here. You can even fly over the church – here. It is approached via a track, and I remembered coming here with the kids when we were at Lincoln Theological College, 25 years ago. There was a Saxon church here, then Jocelin, a Norman knight, built a new church in 1100. The central Norman tower was replaced in 1350-70 by the current one. The south doorway is good Norman work.
The story goes that Jocelin was married to a Saxon lady. She had a vision of the moon coming down and settling in her lap – she interpreted this as the belief her son would be special. The son was born in 1083 and called Gilbert. Popular tradition, and the current leaflet, describe him as “deformed, dull and lazy” – it would be good if we could update the language. His childhood was difficult, only his mother had time for him, and eventually he was sent to France to train as a clerk (these are the European links we are currently trying to destroy), and when he returned – now with a profession – his father accepted him. He began schooling the local children, boys and girls, and some of them started living according to a Rule. In 1122 he became a clerk in the household of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, then served his successor Alexander. He was ordained, then returned to Sempringham in 1131. His father was dead and he was the owner of a large estate. He searched for men to live according to the Rule, but ended up forming a community of seven maidens. He built accommodation for them on the north side of the church, and others joined, including law brothers and sisters. In 1139 a Priory was built on the land to the south of the church – there isn’t a lot to see of it now. In 1149 Gilbert went to Citreaux to ask the Cistercians to take control. They didn’t – not happy about the women! – but international friendships were made. He was a friend of Thomas Becket, and managed to hang on to the friendship of Henry II. By the time he died on 4 February 1189 there were thirteen houses. He was buried by the dividing wall in the Priory church, and is remembered by a memorial on the church wall installed in 1993.
King John and many of his nobles visited in 1201, he was canonised the following year. The number had doubled by the Dissolution in 1538. The priory closed, some of the church remained. The collapsing chancel and transepts were taken down in 1788, and there was a major rebuilding in 1868 by Brian and Edward Browning of Stamford.
Gilbert is the founder of the only English monastic order, and a founder of village schools. It is good that the parish church on the site of his priory is loved and cared for, and we were welcomed. Teddy bears abseiling down the tower, displays inside, and plenty of cake. (I should have walked down to the Priory to walk off the cake).
The doorway is C12 and the wooden door is C13. The leaflet suggests the ironwork was probably made on site – when you think of the logistics of getting stone, wood, iron to a church and a priory, it is incredible. Apparently the red ochre paintwork on some of the internal arches is also evidence of iron work.
There are three more memorials. Look at the interesting career of Edward Pritchett, the discrepancy in death dates of Mr and Mrs Almond, and the memorial to a Welsh princess. Gwenllian was born in June 1282 at Garth Celyn, Aber, near Bangor. Her father was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, and his wife Eleanor de Montfort. They had been married at Worcester in 1278, in the presence of the Scottish King Alexander and England’s Edward I. Eleanor died giving birth to her daughter, and Edward saw the child as a threat to his rule. When she was six months old Edward had her father murdered, and had Gwenllian abducted a year later. He had her brought here to Sempringham, about as far from Wales as she could be. She spent 54 years here as a nun, and died in 1337. We don’t even know if she knew her Royal lineage, but she is remembered. As someone who married a beautiful girl with Welsh roots, I said a prayer for Gwenllian and her family.
And some faces to make you smile. We continued on to Norfolk – lots more churches to come.