Sempringham, St Andrews Church
Sempringham, St Andrews Church
© Richard Croft
There was a Saxon church at Sempringham, in the marshy fens near Billingborough. Around 1100 Jocelin of Sempringham replaced that Saxon building with a new church dedicated to St Andrew. Jocelin had a son named Gilbert and it is this Gilbert of Sempringham whose name will forever be associated with the site.

St Gilbert
According to the historical records, Gilbert was born with a 'repulsive physical deformity'. It is not clear what sort of deformity, but whatever it was, perhaps it influenced his outlook on life. Gilbert was trained as a clerk in France. In those days that didn't mean a clerical position as it might today; a clerk was a minor cleric, though not necessarily in holy orders. He entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, and in 1129 was appointed Vicar of Sempringham and West Torrington by the Bishop.
Sempringham Priory
In 1131 Gilbert built a simple range of buildings against the north wall of the church, with accommodation for seven local women, who vowed to live a life of charity, obedience, chastity, and humility. This was the begiing of the Gilbertine Order, the only completely British monastic order during the Middle Ages. The original monastic buildings proved inadequate, and in 1139 Gilbert received a grant of land from Gilbert de Gant (Ghent) to erect a new priory about 350 yards away to the south west.

St Gilbert memorial
St Gilbert memorial
© Richard Croft
Sempringham Priory was a double house, with provision for both men and women (though the genders were segregated) and grew to provide a home for 200 nuns and 40 canons. The canons served as priests, and observed a mix of Augustinian and Premonstratensian rules. The order was known for a strict interpretation of those rules, so strict in fact that in 1170 the lay brothers serving at Sempringham rebelled and appealled to the Pope to relax the harshness of priory life.

Gilbert became friends with Henry II and the Gilbertine Order were granted royal protection. Henry might well have regretted his decision when the Gilbertines were accused of siding with Thomas Becket and helping the archbishop to escape to France during his squabble with Henry over church rights. By the time Gilbert died in 1189 there were 13 Gilbertine priories scattered around England. This number eventually rose to 25 by the time of the Reformation. In 1202 Gilbert was canonised as St Gilbert. His body was exhumed from its place between the altars in the priory church, encased in a lead coffin, and reburied, but the site of the grave has been lost.
Gwenllian memorial
Gwenllian memorial
© Richard Croft
Princess Gwenllian at Sempringham
When Edward I defeated Prince Llewellyn of Wales in 1283, he captured the prince's 17 month old daughter and heir Gwenllian. Edward could not bring himself to murder the child, but feared her presence as a focus for Welsh rebellion, so he asked the Prior of Sempringham to admit Gwenllian to the priory. In 1327 his grandson Edward III visited the priory and provided an annual stipend of 20 pounds to pay for her keep. The princess was not a nun, and not in holy orders, she was a prisoner, unable to leave the priory.

Gwenllian lived out her days at Sempringham and died in 1337. A memorial made of Welsh slate to the 'last princess of Wales' stands on the path to St Andrews church, and is a frequent destination for Welsh pilgrims.

In 1284 Edward also sent the 7 daughters of Llewellyn's brother David to Sempringham. Despite this royal favour the church at Sempringham Priory fell into disrepair and Pope Nicholas IV had to promote the priory as a destination for pilgrims in order to raise monety for its repair. The Pope's efforts must have helped, for around 1310 a new, larger church was built.

Sempringham Priory survived until 1538 when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. The estate was purchased by the Clinton family, the monastic buildings pulled down, and a large Tudor house erected. This grand house eventually fell into decay and it too has disappeared, leaving only earthworks. So the only tangible reminders of the important priory and the Gilbertines are the parish church where the priory had its roots, a holy well, and the memorial to Gwenllian.
St Gilbert's Well at Sempringham
St Gilbert's Well at Sempringham
© Richard Croft
The Holy Well (St Gilbert's Well)
A very short distance to the south of the church is a circular stone basin, reached by a set of descending steps, where a spring, or well rises from the ground. The well is said to be associated with St Gilbert and the water is traditionally thought to have healing qualities.
St Andrews Church
The original 12th century church at Sempringham was much larger than the still sizeable building we see today. By 1788 the church was in a serious state of disrepair, so the chancel and transept were pulled down, leaving the 14th century tower now unusually at the east end of the church, with a rounded Victorian apse beyond. There is a Norman doorway, protected by a 19th century century porch built to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. On the exterior south wall of the tower is a memorial to St Gilbert, and in the porch is an 11th century grave cover found in the churchyard.

In the northwest corner of the churchyard is a small medieval tithe barn. The church is open for irregular services but may be locked at other times. You can arrange to have someone meet you with a key - so plan ahead!
Photos of Sempringham church, the Gwenllian memorial, St Gilbert memorial, and holy well are © Richard Croft, republished with gratitude under a Creative Commons license

About Sempringham
Address: Pointon Road, Sempringham, Lincolnshire, England, NG34 0LU
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: On a lane off the B1177 between Billingborough and Pointon
Website: Sempringham
Location map
OS: TF106328
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


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