Despite existing in Little Marlow for over 500 years, very little evidence of its Benadictine priory can be seen today. Built on a small sandy hillock between Well End and the river Thames, it was known of as “de fontibus de Merlowe” throughout mediaeval times – on account of the vigorous springs that welled up around the site. Today, the site is in the middle of a leafy, peaceful housing estate, still surrounded by bubbling brooks! A house called the “Abbey” stands where the Priory once stood and if you look carefully, there is some evidence of dressed stones being re-used and a small part of the old priory walls is thought to have been used to create a summer house in the garden.
Although the site of the Priory (sometimes called an Abbey) was already well known, it was only in 1903 that an archaeological excavation took place. This was undertaken because the owner, Mr Vaughan Williams, had found ancient walls when work was undertaken for a new road through the grounds. Eventually he uncovered evidence for the entire structure – the first small Priory ever excavated in the UK.
The dig itself was “energetically and efficiently” carried out by Mr Williams himself but overseen by a renowned historian and member of the Society of Antiquaries, C R Peers MA FSA who visited the site each week. In fact it was C R Peers who drew up the plan of the Priory and wrote an article for the Records of Buckinghamshire (Volume 8). They found that the buildings were very simple, built of local stone – the quoins (corner stones) were made of chalk and had crumbled away. The church was aisle-less with no sign of vaulting, however it did have a tower. The infirmary was found to have been a different build from the rest of the Abbey and from the style was probably 14th century in date. Interestingly, in all four corners of the infirmary hall large blocks of sarsen stones had been incorporated into the walls.
During the course of the excavation, locally made tiles from the 14th and 15th century were found, some complete with designs. Although they were not of the finest quality they were attractive. One carried the inscription “RICARD ME FECIT” (Richard made me). A similar tile with this inscription was found near the altar at Cookham Church, but it is not known whether it came from Little Marlow, or it was just made by the same man. The excavators also found a part of a statue’s leg from an effigy made of Purbeck marble.
The foundation of the nun’s Priory is shrouded in mystery but was some time in the 13th century. The founders could possibly have been the de Clare family as there is evidence of a connection between the priory and Missenden Abbey (Marlow Priory paid rent for some land nearby owned by Missenden in 1331) and the de Clares were Lords of the manors of both Little Marlow and Missenden. Also, when the site was excavated, tiles were found bearing the de Clare arms. The first recorded prioress was Matilda de Anvers in 1230.
It is known that abbey was a small institution with only 25 nuns and was never very wealthy, in fact the nuns were granted permission from the Bishop of Lincoln in 1300 and 1311 to beg for alms and were barely self-sufficient.
However, in 1342 tithes were donated to the nuns at the priory and to this day, there is a large barn-like building opposite the site that’s called the Tithe Barn, though it has been converted into homes.
The Abbey’s estate included the Spade Oak wharf on the Thames which the nuns would have run on a commercial basis. As the centuries progressed the numbers of nuns diminished. By the time that Bishop Longland visited in 1530 there were just five nuns and a prioress. When commissioners visited to oversee the Priory’s dissolution in 1535, three of the nuns were dismissed for being (at 24) too young, leaving only the prioress Margaret Vernon and one “pore mayden” to keep her company, even though the house was in good order. Fortunately, Margaret Vernon knew Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, and negotiated a promotion for herself to become abbess of Malling. She was not there long, however, as Malling Abbey was suppressed in 1538. After the dissolution, the Abbey was given to John Tytley and Elizabeth Restwold. There is no evidence that they ever lived on site which was probably used as farm buildings, possibly as it was of little value.
As late as 1719, much of the abbey still stood, although it had been partially used as a quarry for building materials for nearby houses (which can be seen to this day). The hall was pulled down in 1740 and by 1830 the Abbey had all but disappeared.
By Rose Palmer