About the Abbey
The Cambridgeshire Fens were isolated, desolate places – indeed parts are today. Places such as these attracted many individuals and religious orders to found abbeys and monasteries during the Middle Ages. Spinney Abbey was one of these. A spinney means a place where thorn trees grow. In the Fens such places were scarce, as this usually meant relatively high ground and so would have been an obvious place to build. With this in mind it is possible that a building was on the site before the Abbey, but no record of this is known.
Between 1216 and 1228, Beatrice, the grand-daughter of Wimar, Steward of the Count of Brittany, founded the Priory of St Mary and the Holy Cross in the spinney a mile from Wicken. The priory was first endowed with three canons of the Augustinian order. It was endowed with the advowson of the parish church, 55 acres of land, a marsh called Frithfen and the fishery of Gormere. Frithfen is likely to have included at least part of the area now known as Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, although its exact location is unclear. As such this is the earliest record concerning that area, as well as Spinney Abbey. For centuries the Abbey was associated with the fen, and this continues even now with water being pumped from the farm fields into the Nature Reserve.
In 1301 Mary de Bassingbourne expanded the establishment with 90 more acres and four more canons. The bad news was that her endowment depended upon the canons feeding three thousand poor people per year – a task which they soon enough complained was ‘grievous and insupportable’. In 1403 the Prior, William de Lode, was murdered by three of his own canons who stabbed him in the priory church. What happened to the murderers is unrecorded. This grisly tale has given rise to many ghost stories about the Abbey. Fortunes at Spinney declined with the Black Death and the social upheavals of the fourteenth century, and in 1449 Spinney Abbey was absorbed into the priory of Ely, which in due course became Ely Cathedral. The priory continued in existence and the almshouses it supported were not immediately abolished. In 1536 Henry VIII began the dissolution of the monasteries. Spinney became a private property and was owned by various persons, including Sir Edward Peyton who had been a prominent leader of the puritan party during the reign of Charles I.
Perhaps the most celebrated former owner of Spinney Abbey, and one who actually dwelt there, is the fourth son of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Cromwell. He lived in Spinney Abbey after his retirement from his office as Lord Deputy of Ireland at the Restoration (some information about his time in Ireland can be found here). He was a well-respected and capable man, and having petitioned the King was allowed to continue living in peace there despite his father’s fate. He owned Spinney from 1659 to his death in 1673, and tradition has it that King Charles II visited him there in September 1671. Henry Cromwell is buried with his wife at Wicken parish church.
The fascinating and rich history of this extraordinary place has been comprehensively researched and well recorded in “Spinney Abbey, Wicken – being an account of the History of Spinney Abbey, Wicken, in the county of Cambridgeshire, from its earliest beginnings to the near present day.” by Michael Rouse, 1971 (ISBN 0950230006). This substantial illustrated booklet can be read at Spinney Abbey, or borrowed from many libraries. Much of the following information, and the illustration, is extracted from that publication.
The ancient site of Spinney has, not surprisingly, accumulated many tales of the supernatural. Most are little more than tales but nevertheless the house has been quite famous amongst ghost-hunters for many years – possibly due to the records and observations made by Thomas Llewellyn Fuller, who died in 1977. Many of these tales were recorded directly from Mr Fuller by Michael Rouse and are set out in his book.
The following extract is based on information taken from the publication GHOSTS OF EAST ANGLIA by Tony Ellis. Note that some of the historic information is not quite the same as shown in the research of Michael Rouse. “One mile from Wicken Fen, in the heart of Fen Country, stands a farmhouse called Spinney Abbey. The name was derived from the old priory which once stood on the site. It is haunted by phantom monks, who are heard singing, and one has been seen walking along a pathway in the grounds. Mysterious lights and a female figure have also been reported. Local tales also tell how monks can still be heard chanting in the still of the night, and that their ghosts have been seen”.
Strange lights are reputed to be visible, which could be either ghostly or just natural Will o’ the wisp. These lights can be seen wandering from the farm to Spinney Bank, which is a bank now between Spinney Abbey and Wicken Fen. The most well-known legend is of the phantom black dog, sometimes known as Old Shuck or Black Shuck. This legend is a common one across East Anglia and is applied to many locations. The dog is said to have eyes the size of saucers and it is also said that, if anyone is unfortunate enough to meet the demonic dog and happens to look into its red/orange eyes, that are described as “burning like fire”, then their death will soon follow.
There are still some fragments of the original abbey to be found. The old pig sty is said to be built in the ruins, and although the pigs were usually quite happy and content, occasionally they got boisterous. It is also said that in the early hours of the morning, on occasions, horses in the stables made a terrific noise for no apparent reason. The ghost who walks along the path in the early hours of the morning is believed to be a murdered monk.”
In 2014 “Ghost Hunting” was published, written by Peter Underwood, former President of The Ghost Club, the book covers ghostly happenings at various properties around the country including Spinney Abbey, which he visited when Robert Fuller (b.1874) owned the property in the first half of the 20th Century. Copies are available from our farm shop.