Much of my lockdown has been spent watching a fragment of chalky 13th-century Cistercian wall at the edge of my garden in Norfolk.
Yew trees and ivy form a dark green curtain around the wall ruins (pictured). There are two stone windows with a clover-leaf design, and some smaller holes beneath. Sometimes jackdaws dart out of these holes, and early in the year I heard harsh squeals. I crept towards the sound and found massively dilated eyes in flat, foetal faces staring out at me. In time, the baby barn owls fledged and flew.
I have watched the sun rise and fall, bringing the wall out of shadows and returning it to silhouette. And I have seen the seasons change around the wall. January: sun-yellow aconites. February: a mass of snowdrops. March: primroses. April: bluebells, then foxgloves, ferns and a crescendo of summer fecundity – poppies, nettles, cow parsley. I use a hacked branch of hazel to slash through a path to the wall.
The stones are all that remain of the Cistercian Marham Abbey – a nunnery founded in 1249 and dissolved in 1536, destroyed by Henry VIII’s marital ambitions and schism with Rome. It went in the first wave, following the Act of Dissolution of the Smaller Monasteries in 1534. Being poor, the house had little bargaining power, and in 1535 the Prioress and eight nuns signed the Deeds of Surrender of the Priory to the agent of Thomas Cromwell. It was valued at 33 pounds and 13 shillings.
What remains is a wall and a cascade of discarded stones, some of which were used in Victorian times to build my hotch-potch house. On the mantelpiece are a couple of glazed tiles; one pattern worn to a yellowed shape in front of a russet background. The shape could be many things but I trace it as an oak tree. The other is much more detailed edging of medieval crosses and symbols.
When a friend and Norfolk neighbour, who is also an expert in historic buildings, came to see the house he declared there was nothing of note. I remember the term whenever I become too enthusiastic about the place. The wall is a scheduled monument but the house is not even listed. Henry VIII certainly found nothing of note here. The total loot was worth around 40 pounds.
Yet the wall exists as a centre of gravity in my life, and the lessons of monastic life are contained within it.
The Cistercians followed the teachings of the French abbot St Bernard of Clairvaux, who said: “You will find in woods something you will never find in books – stones and trees will teach you a lesson you never heard in the schools.”
The wall has spurred a quest to unearth some of the wisdom of the monasteries. I went first to see the unearthly beauty of Rievaulx Abbey, in North Yorkshire, at the other end of the scale from my meek ruin, but founded on the same stern Cistercian principles of toil and prayer.
Steeped in Hilary Mantel, I had swallowed the Thomas Cromwell propaganda that the monasteries were rotten with gluttony and debauchery. I assumed my little Abbey had gone to the bad. Wikipedia suggests as much: “Being of little wealth or status, in 1536 the monastery was in the first wave of closures during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was reportedly in considerable disarray, with the inhabitants accused of disreputable behaviour.”
Well, I am not sure about that. I found some very exact accounting in the records of the Abbey. Furthermore, I had a small archaeological dig this summer to see what we could uncover. The enthusiastic young diggers explained what they were searching for: not treasure, but nuns’ bones. Since each skeleton would cost me £750 for reburial, I had mixed feelings on this. We found none.
On the whole, bodies are found in the east, the wealthier area near the chancery. But this was not a rich abbey. There was no sign of excess nor debauchery.
What I did acquire was a habit of restful contemplation. In the summer, during the lifting of the lockdown, I went to stay at a Trappist Cistercian monastery at Senanque in southern France. Here the teachings of St Bernard are most strictly observed. I began to understand the meaning of interior as well as exterior silence.
I reckon it is time to wrest that narrative back from Thomas Cromwell. Great things came from the monasteries, including hospitals and universities. Perhaps it will take a pandemic to teach us the virtue of self-isolation and of humility.
Sarah Sands is a former editor of the Today programme and the author of Monastic Medicine, published in March by Short Books