WALCOTT: CATLEY PRIORY
The Gilbertine Priory of St Mary, Catley, was founded as a double community of canons and nuns by Peter of Billinghay, a mesne tenant of the archbishop of York in Walcott and Billinghay, between 1146 and 1154. Its endowment consisted of the island of Catley, the site of a grange and two furlongs and two carucates of land in the territory of Walcott, the church of Billinghay and its chapel of Walcott, and pasture and fishing (1). The foundation proved locally popular and soon attracted many other grants of land. Ralf Alselin of Ruskington was perhaps its most generous patron, granting the grange of Sleight next to Catley in Digby Fen and confirming the extensive gifts of land and rights of pasture of his men in Digby, Dorrington, and Brauncewell (2). By the end of the century the priory had also acquired lands and dues in many of the surrounding vills along with a few small parcels in Lindsey (3). Catley, however, was never rich. Apart from its two granges, which, ditched and enclosed, were worked as demesne farms, its holdings were mostly small and scattered, and the bulk of its income seems to have come from wool and its spiritualities which amounted to £20 in 1254 (4). In the fourteenth century it descended into financial crisis and decline, and in 1535 it was valued at only £34 18s. 6d. It was dissolved in 1538, and the site was eventually acquired by Robert Carre of Sleaford (5).
Situated in the fen of Walcott at its boundary with Digby, the precinct of the priory probably occupied much of the island of Catley (Fig 22). The site may already have been used for sheep grazing - Sleight, granted before 1184, means 'sheep pasture' (6) - but Peter of Billinghay cannot have overlooked the economic benefits that his estate would reap from the land improvements at which the Gilbertines excelled (7). The ditching and draining that ensued must have enhanced the quality of much of his pasture in the area. None of the conventual buildings is upstanding, and only one notice has been found of them in medieval sources and that prosaically refers to a burial in the chapter house (8). But the establishment must have been substantial, for, like all Gilbertine houses, it supported a large community: St Gilbert restricted it to 60 nuns and lay sisters and 35 canons and brethren at its foundation, and even in 1376 there was a prior, two canons, one lay brother, a prioress, eighteen nuns, and eight sisters (9).
Aerial photographs taken on a number of occasions, however, give a good idea of the layout of the site (10). They show clearly that the present scheduled area (no 251) does not fully cover the main built-up area. Indeed, it cuts across the eastern precinct wall, which is now ploughed but was pasture in 1965. A similar southern boundary can also be seen as a soil mark (Pl IV). The main buildings occupy the centre of the site. Two rectangular enclosures west of centre each surrounded by buildings, appear to be two cloisters similar to those found at the mother house in Sempringham. There are other buildings to the west, but on the probable church site there is considerable disturbance. This is no doubt partly accounted for by stone robbing. Trollope explains that there was disturbance in 1775 when a cottage was built on the site, and it is probably this activity which removed some of the evidence. The combined accounts of both Creasey and Trollope mention a stone pavement, painted glass, human bones and 'several monumental slabs,' one of which was kept for some time in a nearby farmhouse (11). A faded aerial photograph taken in 1976 shows the waterfilled ditches at the south-west of the site and ploughed-out masonry to the east (12). The earthwork survey confirms the alignment of the various buildings and ditches (Fig 23). Two narrow water-filled ditches currently form a boundary on the south and west sides, but do not join at the corner. Instead they appear to turn inwards, giving a five metre wide causeway approach from the north; they are taken to be fishponds. These main ponds consist of one lying north/south, 60 metres long by eight metres wide, and three aligned east/west. A three metre wide bank stands between the two. The northern pond is 60 metre long by 18 metre wide with almost square corners, the centre one is 40 metres long by 18 metres wide and the southern one runs parallel to the centre pond for 50 metres then turns north-east towards the eastern end of the southern one. All these ponds are now about 1.8 metres deep and contain water to a depth of 1 metres.
Some time after 1908 the site 'acquired a new interest from the discovery at a depth of 80 ft of a natural spring of mineral water, very similar in its character to the well- known German seltzer' (13). The Catley Abbey Natural Seltzer Water Company was registered in Sheffield in 1909 but had ceased production by 1937. Some of the rubbish used to fill in the ditches in recent times includes Catley Abbey Mineral Water bottles and it is just possible that some of the foundations visible in the aerial photographs are related to premises used in the collection and bottling of this water.
1. Transcripts of Gilbertine Charters, ed. F. M. Stenton, LRS 18, Lincoln 1922, 72-3.
2. Transcripts of Gilbertine Charters, ed. F. M. Stenton, LRS 18, Lincoln 1922, 73-4, 81-2.
3. Transcripts of Gilbertine Charters, ed. F. M. Stenton, LRS 18, Lincoln 1922, 75-90.
4. Norwich, 506.
5. VCH Lincs, 196-7; Trollope, 500.
6. J. Field, English Field Names: a Dictionary, Newton Abbot 1972, 207.
7. D. M. Owen, Church and Society in Medieval Lincolnshire, Lincoln 1971, 57.
8. Transcripts of Gilbertine Charters, ed. F. M. Stenton, LRS 18, Lincoln 1922, 74.
9. Mon Ang vii, xcvii; D. M. Owen, Church and Society in Medieval Lincolnshire, Lincoln, 1971, 144.
10. CCAP, RC8 BF 73, AKO 6.
11. Trollope, 500.
11. A. White, Sempringham Priory, Lincoln 1979, 7-11.
12. Photograph in the possession of Mr. M. Gillett
13. Kelly's Directory of Lincolnshire 1913, 70.