Sopwell origins

Much of our knowledge of the history of the area comes from the writings of Matthew Paris, a St Albans monk who lived from 1200 until 1259.  He was the most reputable historian of his time.

Also acknowledgement must be made of Donald Pelletier for his book "Mysterious Ruins: The Story of St Mary's of Sopwell, a Priory Cell of St Albans Abbey, Thereafter Called Lee Hall, Now Known as 'The Ruins'" (ISBN 1903747171).

Legend has it that two local women lived as hermits beside the river and in 1141 the then Abbot of St Albans, Geoffrey de Gorham, was so impressed by their piety that he established a nunnery there. The nunnery was called St Marys of Sopwell, which in time became Sopwell Priory. Originally there were 13 nuns but by the dissolution in 1537 there were only 5 nuns left.

The name Sopwell apparently comes from the practice of nuns dipping crusts of bread into the water of the Holy well before offering it to travellers on their way to the shrine of St Albans.

The ruins, known as the Sopwell Nunnery or Priory, are in fact the ruins of  Sir Richard Lee's unfinished manor house. 

As one of Henry VIIIs military architects, he was given the land, including the nunnery, in 1538, after the dissolution and he built a new house on the foundations. 

Later, he began to build a grander mansion but it was never completed.

In 1562, he had London Road diverted in order to enlarge his park.  Sir Richard Lee died in 1575. 

Later parts of the house were dismantled and used to restore Sir Nicholas Bacon's manor house in Gorhambury. Some fine plaster medallions of Roman emperors were removed and these can now be seen at Salisbury Hall at Shenley.

Sir Richard Lee was buried in St Peters churchyard and his helmet, which accompanied his coffin, can be seen in the Hatfield Road museum.

A thousand years ago Sopwell was known as Eywood. It was a large forest  and hunting ground between the River Ver and the Roman Watling Street.

Odo, half brother to William  the Conqueror, was the Bishop of Bayeux and he gave Eywood to the Monastery of St Albans in the hope of gaining favour in his quest to become Pope. He did not succeed but his claim to fame is that he commissioned the Bayeux tapestry for his cathedral in Bayeux.

For centuries the road in front of the Priory ruins was called Green Lane as were many roads which passed through grazing land. The name was changed to Cottonmill Lane in 1810 after a mill was established there which produced cotton for the wicks of candles.  This mill eventually closed down. There is evidence of an early swimming pool there.