The male author who moved into live with nuns in a Doncaster convent

Retired engineer Steve Wilmot knows he is living on the doorstep of history.

Friday, 6th September 2019, 10:34 am

If he was ever in any doubt, it has been made doubly clear to him – as a team of archaeologists has descended near his home to look back over hundreds of years to try to help piece together the story of a nunnery that stood in Hampole until 500 years ago.

But this is no ordinary archaeological dig. The trenches are there, as are the trowels, the traditional tool of the trade. However the time team taking part are brought in by Soldier On!, a charity which works to help with vulnerable sections of the community.

They are in the area to look into the heritage of the Hampole Priory site, which has become the location of a memorial, marking the site’s connection to the 14th century author and preacher Richard Rolle, whose work is still published today.

Residents Amber Torrington, Philip Murton, Nick Balliger, Charman of Hampole and Skelbrooke parish meeting, James Robinson, clerk, residents Kelly and Ann Murton, pictured at the unveiling of the plaque dedicated to author Richard Rolle. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-27-07-19-RichardRolle-2

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Steve can see the archaeologists at work from his garden.

He said: “I’ve lived here 15 years, and I’ve heard about the history here. Apparently part of our house was part of the original walls. We didn’t know that when we first moved in.

“But we heard that apparently Richard Rolle was living at the priory, and there was all sorts of talk about what he may have got up to with the women in the nunnery!

“It is interesting to have all this going on as an archaeological dig. We’re just a little hamlet with no pub or post office, so it’s nice to have the attention. We’ve enjoyed seeing what they’ve discovered.”

Andrew Parker, of Doncaster, holds a 16th century Medieval counting coin found on site. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-30-07-19-SoldierOn-1

Part of the history is in Steve’s own garden. One his trees is embedded with a medieval gravestone, which archaeologists believe was brought up from under the ground by the growth of the tree.

The archaeologists on the site hope to find out how big the priory was, and to find out exactly where it stood. They admit it would be a dream come true for them of they find the bones of Mr Rolle himself, and a shrine that was built to him in the 1300s.

He is said to have died of the plague in the 1340s at the priory, and to have been buried there.

But the priory was pulled down during the reign of Henry VIII, during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Hampole resident Steve Wilmot, pictured by the medieval gravestone that has rose up through a tree in his garden. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-30-07-19-SoldierOn-2

The team from Soldier On! arrived in July. Originally set up in 2008 as a charity providing occupational counselling for people who had been discharged from the armed forces, it has since expanded its scope.

Now it provides personal development activities for people who are vulnerable, disadvantaged or socially isolated, regardless of whether they have a forces background.

It is the third time they have visited the Hampole Priory site, which is on private land. The first time they used a type of radar to look under the ground without digging. The second time they dug trenches, which is what they are doing again on the current project. It is all done under the supervision of top archaeologists.

Charity trustee Nicholas Harrison: “We brought in the heritage project last year, because we wanted to bring in an activities-based intervention to underpin personal development education and support.

Peter Cooper and archaeologist Isobelle Ward, pictured excavating the boundary wall. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-30-07-19-SoldierOn-5

“Working in a field allows to us to engage with people who don't like a classroom approach, who learn better by doing things.

“There is a lot of personal development happening without people realising it is happening. It means long term unemployed people take new skills that are directly transferrable to the world of work.

“While our own heritage is in among former military personnel, we’re not an armed forces charity – people of all walks of life are welcome to participate.”

Among those taking part in the dig is Andrew Parker, aged 40, from Doncaster, who has never been in the forces, but heard about Soldier On! on social media.

He has worked on farms and in warehouses in the past, and has been on the dig for two weeks, but has been out of work for four years having suffered from anxiety and panic attacks – and his involvement is helping him bounce back.

Andrew said: “Everyone here is very supportive, and I think this is helping in my recovery. It is big help to come here and meet people in a supportive environment. I’m meeting people who have had similar issues to myself.

“I can work at my own place and I’m enjoying the physical aspect of working here. It’s not like you’re here doing a 10 hour shift.”

The team have been pleased with some of the finds – although they have not dated back to the days of Richard Rolle. The highlights have included a 16th century counting token, which would have been used by accountants, and pieces of Tudor-era pottery.

Monument unveiled

Dozens turned out to see the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the 13th century writer Richard Rolle in Hampole.

Around 30 villagers from Hampole and Skelbrooke turned out on July 27, to see the sculpture unveiled, and hear a service from the local vicar, the Rev Ann Walton.

Charles Gurrey, the sculptor, was also at the unveiling.

Local resident Nick Balliger said: “People were undaunted by the weather and a small hymn-singing and eulogy to Rolle and blessing of the monument did him proud.

“The timing of the event was to coincide with excavations of Hampole Priory, being carried out by Soldier On! The funds for the carved stone monument were provided by the owner and operator of Hampole Wind Farm.

Sculptor Mr Gurrey described the carved tribute to Richard Rolle as a ‘robust monolith of Caithness stone, bearing a considered inscription of lines from Rolle’s Fire of Love’ - written in about 1340.He said: “The lettered stone, hopefully, has the qualities of Rolle’s writing; muscular and assured but also seeking to register spiritual feeling in a finely-wrought way.“As for Richard Rolle himself, living latterly and dying at Hampole, his fight against the colonisation of religion by scholasticism and the ‘interested classes’, led him to champion the validity of individual feeling and conscience in a way that anticipated Wycliffe and Luther. Rolle’s pioneering prose-writing in medieval English, made the North of England - and especially Hampole - the literary centre of the country, for half a century.“If Hull can have Larkin, Hampole certainly own Richard Rolle!”Rev Walton, in her dedication of the memorial, spoke about Rolle and blessed the monument, which carries his words: “O good Jesu thou has bound my heart in the Thought of thy Name and now I can not but Sing it.”

Who was Richard Rolle?

Richard Rolle was born near York around 1300, and died in Hampole in 1849.

He become a hermit and a spiritual writer, and is commemorated in the Anglican calendar on January 20.

He was said to be a gifted preacher. He settled at the convent at Hampole Priory, where he lived ministering the nuns and writing until his death.

After he died, the nuns tried to have him made a saint, but were unsuccessful.

But his fame persisted and a shrine was created locally in his memory, which become a place of pilgrimage. A number of miraculous healings were reported to have taken place there in the following centuries.