Cottonmill Lane, St Albans AL1 2BY, England
Sopwell Priory, otherwise known as Sopwell Nunnery, was an offshoot of the Abbey of St Albans with a history that goes back to the early 12th century.
The story goes that a couple of female hermits lived in the forested land between the River Ver and the old Roman road of Watling Street. They apparently lived in rudimentary shelters crafted from tree branches to help keep themselves protected from the worst of the weather. The Abbot at the time was so impressed with the piety of the two women that he founded a nunnery on the site.
As a relatively small institution, the number of nuns was set to 13, and only selected young ladies could join the community. By the time King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, there were only five nuns living at Sopwell, as well as two children, that were presumably boarders left at the priory to be educated.
Following the dissolution of the nearby Abbey in 1539, the grounds and buildings of Sopwell Priory were bought by Sir Richard Lee, a military engineer and commander of King Henry VIII’s army. He built a house on the site which he named Lee Hall after first demolishing the existing priory buildings. It later became known as Sopwell House, eventually falling into disrepair, although its ruins can be found on Cottonmill Lane, near the centre of St Albans.
Sopwell Priory is similar to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, also being a nunnery turned into a Tudor country house. The king was known for giving away lots of land and buildings to his court favourites that had been forcibly taken from the church when the monasteries were dissolved.
The location of the Benedictine nunnery at Sopwell (run by a prioress and therefore termed a priory) was confirmed by excavations of the land around Lee House in the 1960s. It showed the survival of the archaeological remains beneath and gave a wealth of information concerning the layout of the priory as it stood between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Sir Richard Lee’s helmet and chain-mail can be found on display at the St Albans Museum. There is also more detail about the history of the priory and its evolution into a house and ruins. Situated right by the River Ver and beautiful River Ver Trail, the site is a perfect spot for a relaxing walk or picnic as well as exploring a piece of local history.