28 October 2018, The Tablet

Charity, SoldierOn!, searches for a missing priory

by Nicholas Harrison

Archaeology provides a great opportunity for many people who are going through a period of dramatic change or are unable to find a way forward in life

Charity, SoldierOn!, searches for a missing priory

Last weekend, we ran a short archaeological project on a site that was once home to St Mary’s Priory, founded as a Benedictine order in 1156 by William de Clairfait and his wife Avicia. In 1170, the Priory changed to the Cistercian order.

We were introduced to the site, in the village of Hampole, near Doncaster, by Gary Stapleton, curator of a nearby military museum who has an interest in local history. 

The Priory established its prominence through being the home, in later life of Richard Rolle, Mystic and author who, by the C15th was one of the most widely read English writers. Rolle was born and brought up on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors in Thornton-Le-Dale. He studied at Oxford for while but left before completing his studies to become a hermit, living near Pickering.  

Rolle wrote, in both Latin and English, works such as ‘Incendium Amoris’, where he describes an account of his mystical experiences, embodied through physical feelings, sensory enlightenment and sounds such as a sweet music that followed him as he recited the Psalms. These transcendental experiences led Rolle to conclude that to become closer to God one had to endure four purgative stages, the open-door, heat, song and sweetness. Rolle’s legacy remains the Psalms which he translated from Latin into English which for nearly 200 years the commentary of which remained the only authorised translation of the Bible into English. Buried in Hampole, both his shrine and the Priory itself was dissolved on the 19th November 1539.

The last archaeological work to be conducted on this site took place in 1937 but this work was deemed at the time to be ‘poor’ never mind by today’s standards. Many questions remained to this day unanswered, the most pressing of all was, where was the priory? Records, online searches and the views of local residents offer different locations for the exact site, so one of our objectives was to see if, bearing in mind we only had two days, we could agree where the Priory was. To achieve this we carried out both Geo-phys and Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) surveys.

A mission of Soldier On! charity is to help people who are disadvantaged, or marginalised from mainstream society, to secure happier and healthier lives through participating in inclusive community archaeology and heritage projects. For people who have experienced, or are experiencing, trauma in their lives, working outside, within a team of like-minded people, in the pursuit of a common aim allows them to acquire a sense of belonging and achievement, to step outside their comfort zones in a safe and controlled environment, to practice old abilities and acquire new ones, to contribute to a local area’s better understanding of their region’s history, and to have a break from whatever situation they wish to escape from. Immersion within such phenomena can act as a catalyst to those who are, for want of a better phrase, stuck in a rut, to take the first steps towards a happier, more productive and engaged future.

25 people, the youngest aged 14, the oldest over 60, with a multiplicity of reasons to take part, including physical and mental health issues and students who are desperate to gain field experience to support their studies, joined us, the majority experiencing archaeology for the very first time.  Our partner organisations were North West Heritage, who ran the technical aspects of the dig, with support from Liverpool John Moors University and The Ashcroft Barracks Museum, a Doncaster based military museum, who allowed us to stay on their premises and whose volunteers, all local veterans, joined us on site. Some of these veterans are finding it extremely hard to find any level of happiness in civilian life. One in particular said to us that during the last two days digging his test pit and revealing what turned out to be an old stone bread oven, inch by inch of dirt scraped away, layer by layer, that by focusing his mind, he had a break from the normally prevailing anxiety and stress.  


Thanks to our partners, North West Heritage, under the expert tutelage of Paul and Jim, participants got hands on experience with the technical side of archaeology. Thanks to Alison, others spent time learning how to conduct interviews and use the photography and filming equipment, before taking over and managing the media side themselves. This is all part of our ambition to let people explore new things, learn and acquire new skills, an approach which contributes as much to personal development as it enables individuals to find out more about who they are.  

On the Saturday morning, three members, Beth, Megan and Karl were invited to be interviewed on BBC Sheffield’s Breakfast Show and were highly complemented by the presenter, the wonderful Becky Manners, on their presentation skills.

As a charity, we advocate a ‘collaborative not competitive’ approach. Archaeology provides a great opportunity for many people who are going through a period of dramatic change or are unable to find a way forward in life. We want to work with other charities and government organisations, who support people, to offer spaces on our projects. We were thrilled this weekend to welcome Dr Jill Tolfrey, CEO of ‘The Firefighters Charity’ and to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between our two organisations. We look forward to welcoming members of the fire services community, both serving and former, to one of our projects in the futur

 We are indebted to our partners, Paul and Jim from NW Heritage who volunteer their time to work with us, to the landowner whose permission made all of this possible, and to Gary from The Ashworth Barracks who allowed us to stay on his premises, who approached us in the first place and secured initial permission from the landowner, the Vicar of St. Laurence’s Church, Adwick-Le-Street, Ann Walton, who showed us around her Church and provided welcomed tea and biscuits, to Alison who volunteered her time and media expertise, and to all participants who engaged professionally with all activities. 

As the late autumn beautiful sunshine that, for two days had blessed our field, slowly gave way to the first rain drops for a while, we gathered our tools, marked our test pits with GPS before relaying the turf and agreeing the location of the main Priory building and outer walls. Yes, we had found the priory, but some members told us they found something more fundamental. For two days they experienced an inner calm, they tried something new and acquired new skills, they felt they were part of a community and they left on Sunday afternoon eager to harness the intrinsic motivation generated by the weekend’s activities and re-engage in this new week with far more positivity.


Soldier On! is a registered charity delivering heritage projects and personal development courses. We need to raise circa £40,000 per year to deliver our heritage activities which help anyone who is disadvantaged, vulnerable or socially isolated. Please consider donating here. We are always eager to hear from government organisations or other charities who feel our projects could enhance your existing operations. Please contact 07884 365 054 or email info@soldieron.org.uk to discuss collaborative opportunities or to enquire about our corporate partnership packages. Thank you. 


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