- The villages around Bourne, Lincolnshire, England -

Sempringham

Photographed in 2005

THERE WAS A TIME when the name of Sempringham was known throughout the land but today it is a difficult place to find. The best route is along the A15 and then fork off on the B1177 north of Bourne, taking the second left turn at Pointon village but from hereon you must keep your eyes peeled and look out for a dilapidated sign alongside a farm track on the left hand side announcing that this is the parish of St Andrew's and that the church is in the vicinity.

You will then face almost a mile of uneven cart track but a glimpse of the pinnacled tower of the Norman church is always with you behind trees on the horizon, a lonely landmark on a hillock among cultivated fields, and soon the winding road will bring you to its door. Funeral corteges and wedding parties must negotiate this hazardous and uneven track to reach the church for it appears to be well used and the graveyard is full with recent burials.

This is the site of the famous St Mary's Priory founded by the crippled priest St. Gilbert in about 1139 as a home for his white-robed Gilbertian order, the only purely English monastic order and the only one which catered for men and women alike. It was sited to the south of the present church but was surrendered and destroyed in 1558 and all that remains today are signs of earthworks, although excavations have been carried out that revealed the foundations together with fish ponds and the old well.

Remains of stained glass, pottery, coins and carved masonry have also been found and stones from the original buildings are thought to have been used in the construction of some houses in the locality and in marking the well, now an attraction to visitors as the Holy Well. The present church of St Andrew's was once much larger than the present building but a Norman chancel and transept were taken down in 1788 after becoming dilapidated, leaving the tower unusually at the east end of the building. A priest's door was also removed and in 1899, the arch was returned and incorporated into a new porch that was designed to protect the original Norman door, a project that was carried out to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

A few yards to the south of the church, alongside the track that leads to the main gate, stands a stone and slate memorial which honours the mediaeval Princess Gwenllian, daughter of Llewellyn, the last true-born Prince of Wales, and the only grand-daughter of Simon de Montfort, who was held captive here for more than half a century. Gwenllian was born at Abergwyngregyn in Wales on 12th June 1282 but when she was only 17 months old, Edward I, fearing that she might threaten his suzerainty over Wales, wrote to the prior and prioress at Sempringham, the Gilbertian Abbey which then stood on this site, asking them to admit her to the order and habit "having the Lord before our eyes, pitying also her sex and age, that the innocent and unwitting may not seem to atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked and contemplating specially the life of your Order".

Four years after Gwenllian was admitted to Sempringham, Edward issued a mandate to Thomas Normanvill "to go to the places where the daughters of Llewellyn and of David his brother, who have taken the veil in the Order of Sempringham, are dwelling, and to report upon their state and custody by next Parliament". Sempringham Abbey was allowed to acquire certain lands, including Ketton, Cottesmore, Stamford and Casterton, because Edward had shared them with Gwenllian. Then in 1327, when Edward III stayed at Sempringham, he granted Gwenllian a yearly pension of 20 for life. She died ten years later on 7th June 1337 after 54 years of virtual imprisonment by the order.

Photographed in 1999 Photographed in 2002

The memorial was erected in 1993 as a tribute to the princess and financed by public subscription raised by the Princess Gwenllian Society. Coach parties of Welsh pilgrims regularly visit the site to pay their respects and the memorial was recently blessed by the Bishop of Bangor. Unfortunately, it was vandalised during the late summer of 2000. They shattered the heavy Welsh slate capping and punctured the inscribed blue slate tablet but the culprits were never found. The society however replaced it during the summer of 2001. Their secretary Mrs Malt Anderson, said: "We have been grateful for the support of friends in Lincolnshire who have helped us so readily in the past in our determination to maintain and care for this tiny corner of an English field that is forever Wales."

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