Archaeology breakthrough as researchers discover William the Conqueror’s lost priory in UK

William the Conqueror discovery found by archaeologist

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Excavators working in back gardens in the Nottingham town of Lenton uncovered a string of Medieval skeletons, pottery, and more importantly, William the Conqueror’s lost priory. The period covered the Domesday Book era of the land, which Nottingham was heavily featured in. The book, described as the “Great Survey” of much of England and Wales, was completed on the order of King William the Conqueror in 1086.

Nottingham had a recorded population of 165 households back then, putting it in the largest 20 percent of settlements recorded in the book.

More4’s ‘The Great British Dig’ team headed to Lenton in a bid to find William’s lost priory, discovering with it a never-before-seen chapel.

The team, led by Richard Taylor, Natasha Billson and Dr Chloe Duckworth discovered a range of relics before they struck lucky.

Bones, bits and pieces of domestic pottery, as well as artefacts that would have once been used by the monks at the site were initially unearthed.

Digging in Terry and Simon’s garden, the residents whose home sat directly above the priory, Richard uncovered a jumble of stones hidden beneath the surface.

He suggested that they were deep enough to come from the Medieval period, although Medieval stone specialist James Wright was at first sceptical because the rocks were fairly loose, with no mortar between them.

However, as Mr Wright noted: “We have got mortar on some of these stones, and it’s been built into a wall at some point, and then been pulled apart.”

Richard then suggested that the pair were talking about the “dissolution” that would have happened as part of King Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.

Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland.

He expropriated their income and disposed of their assets.

While the policy was originally envisaged in order to increase the personal income of the Crown, much of what was taken was later sold off and used to fund Henry’s military campaigns in the 1540s.

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Identifying the rock found in the garden, Mr Wright said much of it appeared to coincide with the types of material Medieval craftsmen would have used.

Richard concluded: “What you’re saying is that we’ve got all the ingredients for a priory structure that has been demolished?”

Mr Wright replied: “That’s it, exactly.”

Visiting the site, Chloe started to unpick the rubble, noting that the deeper she went, “the more solid it became”, suggesting the team were nearing some sort of foundation wall.

She said: “Once we’ve taken the loose stuff off the top, what we see beneath is a lot more compact.

“And so, we can see a lot more convincing evidence for a structure of a wall here, as in the actual priory wall.

“We’re potentially looking at something like a buttress coming out, it’s just the right angle to be coming out of one of the chapels or a chapel.

“This is really exciting, this could be the line of a wall, you can see all the chunks of mortar in there, so we might have, coming out of here, the north-easy end of the priory church building.”

While the jumble of stones offered up some of the priory’s old wall, it also marked the discovery of a structure “we didn’t know existed”.

In the 13th century, monastic churches were remodelled to include chapels at the end.


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The location and orientation of these stones strongly suggests the additional building found had pride of place behind the altar, making this a lady chapel, dedicated to The Virgin Mary.

Chloe noted: “This is exactly what we’ve been looking for, the actual buildings, a part of that building, coming out here and we’ve just caught it in this trench which is fabulous.”

Described as the “missing piece of the puzzle”, while the wall offered a groundbreaking discovery, it was difficult for the team to visually map out what the priory might have looked like.

To overcome this, digital heritage expert Marcus Abbott built a 3D model of the priory based on the finds from the various trenches.

The chapel, they believe, was built as an extension onto the monastery, right beneath the team’s archaeological dig.

It would have taken around five years for the Medieval builders to have erected the chapel.

In doing so, they would have extended the length of the priory to about 90 metres.

Tash, towards the end of the show, also uncovered a range of human bones, including a jaw bone, among them perhaps the Sheriff of Nottingham, Philip Marc, who paid to be buried close to the priory, believing he would ascend to heaven quicker.

The number of bones and other items unearthed, like pottery and bowls, proved that the site wasn’t exclusively inhabited by high-status individuals as first thought.

The type, number and mix of bones churned up in the social across such a big area strongly suggests that this was a much longer-lived cemetery.

As the dig was coming to an end, Chloe made a discovery almost two metres down in one of the gardens just outside of the priory walls, uncovering evidence for a Medieval cobbled surface, and just on top of it, “pure Medieval pottery, nothing else”.

At the same level as the foundations of the priory building, it proved that there were people living just outside the priory.

All episodes of The Great British Dig are available on All 4.

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