Posted by: Rachel | July 26, 2013

Sopwell and Scottish plunder

20130526_164715Last Sunday was one of the hottest days we have ever experienced in England – 32 degrees in the shade, with the grass underfoot crisp and the countryside silent except for the occasional buzzing of insects, with every bird or wild creature hidden away in some shady place to wait and endure until the fierce heat subsided.  Having walked to St Stephen’s Church, we were thankful for the cool tranquillity of this ancient place with its thick stone walls and tiled floors.  Having revived ourselves with a traditional cream tea and some excellent fruit cake in the hall, we went out again into the churchyard and paused beneath the spreading branches of a fine horse-chestnut tree which dates from 1758.  However, this is not the oldest tree near the church.  A Cedar of Lebanon reputed to be the oldest in England (which would date it to at least 1640) stands where the old vicarage garden used to be, and this was the point where we began a walk on May 26th, exploring the Sopwell area and the connections between Sopwell nunnery ruins, St Stephen’s Church and a magnificent Scottish medieval brass lectern, once one of the great treasures of St Stephen’s before it was stolen in 1984, precipitating an extraordinary series of events.

Cedar Tree - St Stephen's Church

Cedar of Lebanon by St Stephen’s churchyard. Could this be the oldest in England?

We began our walk at the Cedar tree.  The legend locally is that Henry VIII used to court  Anne Boleyn secretly under its branches, and even proposed to her there, while she was staying at Sopwell Priory, escaping from the tensions of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s court in London.  Measuring 9 metres in circumference, it is older than any cedars planted locally (see Kate Bretherton:  The Remarkable trees of St Albans, 2010) and it would be wonderful to discover that it was indeed planted in Tudor times from a seed or seedling brought back from the Middle East.  Heading away from the Cedar across the park into Mercers Row, named after the manufacturer of chronometers that once had a factory here.  At the bottom of Wilshere Avenue we turned right to walk past Sainsburys and the superstores built on the old gas works, to cross the Abbey Flyer line at the level crossing.  The banks along this branch line to Watford were decked in white cow parsley, and the late spring sunshine had brought out the Hawthorn blossom and pendulous sycamore tree flowers, above grass studded with golden buttercups. Following the footpath through to Cottonmill Lane, we reached the ruins of Sopwell Priory, once the home of Sir Richard Lee (mentioned in a previous post as instigating the re-routing of the medieval road into St Albans from London).  These ruins are now a delightful picnic spot, the red Tudor brick being a perfect foil to banks of wild flowers.

Sopwell ruins

Sopwell ruins

Although Richard Lee was not born into a wealthy family, his father’s connections with court, family connections with the masons and his friendship with Thomas Cromwell led to his rapid advancement.  Sir Richard was awarded the grounds and buildings within the bounds of St Alban’s monastery, Sopwell Priory and also the rectorship of St Stephen’s Church for his services to Henry VIII in the Scottish campaign of 1544 (The War of Rough Wooing) in which Edinburgh and Holyrood Abbey were destroyed as an act of revenge.  Henry had hoped that by this action he could force the Scots to accept the 1543 treaty of Greenwich and the planned marriage between his son, the young Prince Edward and the ten-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots.  Richard returned to England with a knighthood and an appointment as Surveyor of the King’s Works.  He also brought with him plunder from the campaign, including a magnificent brass lectern in the form of an eagle, perched on an orb, standing on a pedestal with three brass lions at its base, which he placed in St Stephen’s.

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Sir Richard was now one of the wealthiest men in St Albans, and decided to make his house and estate worthy of his position.  In 1549 Sir Richard built a new house on the same foundations, ‘Lee Hall’,  taking brick and flint from the Abbey monastery. In 1562, he had the road from London diverted away from his estate and around this time he made further improvements to the house with a courtyard and hall where the cloisters and monastic church had been. When his wife died in 1555, he continued to live there with his two daughters until they married.  He then began further rebuilding of the Hall in the plan of an H, with two courtyards and a hall of two stories and formal gardens. Unfortunately, he did not live long to enjoy it, dying on April 25th, 1575, and the unfinished house passed down in the family until it was sold in 1669 to Sir Harbottle Grimston.  He used it as a source of building materials for his new house at Gorhambury, which left it as the romantic ruin that can be seen today.


Disused branchline of the Great Northern Railway from St Albans to Hatfield, now the Alban Way trail

Between the Priory and the River Ver is an area of open space that has been created into a nature reserve, firstly a wild flower meadow, and then further along the footpath, an area of wet woodland, where the river naturally floods.  A wooden walkway through the alders and willows brings the path back to the river bank, past allotments, and then to the base of the railway arch.  At this point we climbed steps to walk along the Alban Way trail, once a branch line from St Albans to Hatfield.   There is a fine view of the Abbey from the bridge.20130526_173147

Looking down on the rows of vegetables and tool sheds, so lovingly tended,  with the river flowing nearby, and seeing the Abbey church dominating the skyline, it is difficult not to reflect on the lives of the ordinary citizens of St Albans throughout the turbulent times of the Tudor period.  Only a century later, followed the Civil War.  St Albans became a Parliamentarian stronghold and the destruction of religious images and articles was authorised.  The Eagle lectern disappeared at around this time, and it was presumed that it had been destroyed. It remained a mystery until in 1748 the Montague family vault was opened and the lectern was discovered, hidden in a grave.  It was then placed back in the nave once again.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story.  Since the lectern was regarded as a national treasure of Scotland, there were regular requests for its return to grace the new cathedral in Edinburgh from 1879 onwards. There was an attempted burgulary in 1972 when thieves were disturbed making off with the eagle in pieces.  Matters were made worse when the lectern was sent to Edinburgh in 1982 to appear in an exhibition of Medieval Scottish art at the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.  Demands that the lectern had to stay in Scotland were ignored, and when the lectern came back to St Albans, a group of nationalists broke into the church and stole it in November 1984.  It was only through the mediation of a journalist on the Inverness Press and Journal, the Revd. John Pragnall, Vicar of St Stephen’s (1991-5), Mr David Maxwell, Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Artistic Committee, and Mr David Caldwell of the Royal Museum of Scotland that a compromise was found.  St Stephen’s could not agree to waive any charges against the thieves, but did agree to support the return of the lectern to Scotland, if it was safely returned first.  The lectern did not reappear for 15 years, when it was delivered anonymously to the Netherbow Arts Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.  It is now in the National Museum of Scotland.  In the meantime, St Margaret’s Church, Barnhill, Dundee offered a Victorian lectern for St Stephen’s to use, that proved to be an almost exact copy of the Dunkeld lectern, even down to the inscription.  When this copy could have been made nobody knows.  Hopefully with this kind gesture the story of Sir Richard’s lectern has finished happily.

20130526_174331Following the old line for a short distance, we then came down to follow the track across the golf course, along the medieval road into the town from London. Turning left into Mile House Lane, we then turned left towards the town centre along London Road, where the grassy bank and trees along part of the road side are remnants of the boundary created by Sir Richard Lee at the edge of his estate using stones and rubble from the old priory.   Returning at last to St Stephen’s we passed the tower with stone corbels either side of the door.  It was the custom to carve the faces of patrons of the church on the corbels, and this angel has a particularly enigmatic expression.  Not surprising considering all that it has seen.20130526_164846



  1. A really interesting post – wonderful!
    Do you know where the name Sopwell comes from and why it was used?
    I am really looking forward to the next post for updates on all the interesting walks you do – all the historical detail is especially interesting.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post – absolutely true! The elderly members of the congregation still remember being able post an old penny in through the beak of the eagle and it would drop down and appear out of the tail, so if you ever should see a lectern answering this description, you can soon tell if it’s the stolen eagle or not! The origins of the name ‘Sopwell’ come from the kindness of the nuns at the priory, who dipped morsels of bread (‘sops’) in the clear waters of the river to give to the poor. There is another place name nearby, Holywell Hill, which has an interesting story behind it, too, which you’ll find in the next post (coming soon!)

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