The Silent Stones of Thornton Abbey

a medieval mystery

The North Lincolnshire abbey, situated only three miles (as the crow flies) from my home, was the inspiration for my children’s novel ‘The Door to Caellfyon‘, published in 2015. Like many of England’s ancient monuments, elements of its history remain shrouded in mystery. Such mystique never ceases to arouse an abundance of myths and folklore.

This is one such legend.

Two haggard monks stood motionless;

Who, holding high a blazing torch,

Shewed the grim entrance of the porch:

Reflecting back the smoky beam,

The dark-red walls and arches gleam.

Some traveller then shall find my bones,

Whitening amid disjointed stones,

And, ignorant of priest’s cruelty,

Marvel such relics here should be.

Extract from ‘Marmion’ by Walter Scott

The north of England boasts many fine abbeys — Lincolnshire alone has around a hundred and twenty, some grand and imposing while others are less so. One thing all have in common is that their crumbling walls have been witness to numerous dramas, power struggles and tragedies, and of these few are as gruesome or enigmatic as the events played out seven centuries ago in Lincolnshire’s own Thornton Abbey.

The abbey, nestling among trees between Goxhill and East Halton, is arguably the most impressive in the county. It was founded on 13 January, 1139 by William le Gros, earl of Albemarle and Lord of Holderness. Dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, it became home a year later to twelve Augustinian canons from Kirkham Priory. The canons — also known as Black Canons due to the colour of their habits — soon became a familiar sight in the surrounding area. The then monastery was raised to abbatial rank in 1148 and, supported by the area’s fertile lands, continued to prosper.

Nothing remains of the original building. The later abbey, part of which remains today, was commenced on a grander scale in 1262 with stone quarried within the manor of Haslewood in Yorkshire. Rebuilding work continued through to the 1380s, directed by architect Guilbert de Rouen. The abbot at that time was Thomas de Grethem. Both men were to become key players in the following drama. Before the story can be told, however, we must first look at the events that exposed the abbey’s turbulent past.

Following its dissolution in 1539, the abbey exchanged hands over several years before being partially dismantled, much of the stone being robbed for use in local buildings. Only the imposing monastic gatehouse was left intact. The mystery surrounding these once majestic buildings came to light — quite literally — in the 1830s when workmen were employed to pull down walls that time and vandalism had rendered unsafe. The men became increasingly apprehensive as their work progressed, their anxiety intensifying when they discovered a cobwebbed doorway behind one of the partially dismantled walls. The entrance had clearly been sealed for an indeterminately long period. The men’s sense of dread would probably have been far greater had they known that the act of immurement — the imprisonment of offenders behind walls — was a common form of punishment in religious houses.

The men eventually forced their way into what appeared to be a secret chamber. Here they found a table and chair, both covered with the dust of time. On the table, similarly coated, they found a candlestick, an uncut sheaf of candles, a crucifix and a breviary. As they ventured further into the half light of the room they discovered the skeleton of a man lying face downward on the floor, dressed in the shreds of what had once been a monk’s habit. Whilst this discovery would have undoubtedly shaken the men, accounts of the day dramatised it further, stating that the remains crumbled into dust when touched.

The gruesome find prompted investigations and a nineteenth-century ‘Time Team’ was dispatched to find answers to the puzzling discovery. The team’s searches led them to the abbey chronicles preserved among the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library. On consulting the ancient document, they happened upon one particular entry, viewed as most significant. This was a piece believed to concern the abbot, Thomas de Gretham. It read: ‘He died, but in what manner I know not. He hath no obit as the other monks have, and the place of burial hath not been found.’This simple, brief text was considered to be the riddle’s answer and the poor wretch judged to be the missing abbot. Their conclusion has generally been accepted and is reflected in various accounts of the abbey and its history.

There are, nevertheless, other contenders for ownership of the dust-shrouded bones. One, Walter Multon, abbot of 1393, is also named in the chronicles and the above entry may equally relate to him. The apparent ambiguity results from two leaves having been torn out ‘to prevent scandal to the church’. It has been assumed that the missing leaves refer to Abbot Thomas de Gretham ‘deposed in 1393, for some unknown reason’. Consequently, the riddle remains as cloudy as the day the tomb’s seven centuries of dust was disturbed for the first time.

The chronicles, therefore, cannot provide us with a definitive solution to the Thornton enigma. We may instead have to turn to a bizarre local legend involving a dwarf, a witch and a felon under the name of ‘The Green Devil’. This myth, however, implausible, is woven tightly into the abbey’s history and may provide clues to the true identification of the hapless monk. The coalescence of fact and legend is so intertwined that it is nigh on impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.

It is accepted that, when the abbey was being extended in 1380, there was considerable unrest in the surrounding countryside. A notorious band of villains, led by a powerfully-built man known as The Green Devil, was terrorising the local populace, committing acts of violence, theft and pillage. The band’s leader struck fear into the hearts of the population by dressing entirely in green, his outfit complete with horns and a tail. Despite his supernatural appearance, he was a mere mortal, and a later trial held within the walls of Thornton Abbey revealed him to be the abbey’s own dean, Richard Fletcher.

Fletcher was not only afflicted by a self-confessed lust to possess, his interest in the abbey’s profitability also came to light when the man’s name became linked to a missing deed of covenant. The document, bequeathing to the monks lands adjacent to the abbey, had been stolen from a scrivener’s house in Lincoln. The covenant written by Sir Thomas Wellham of Thornton Manor had not, however, been his final instruction. Whilst the initial, stolen document had decreed: ‘… the broad acres comprising the demesne of the Thornton Manor to the abbot and chapter of St. Mary’s Abbey and their successors at Thornton to have and hold forever …’, a second document superseded this. In it ‘the abbot and chapter’ had been replaced with ‘… my dear nephew William Wellham, his heirs and assigns …’. The legend states that, in stealing the original will, Fletcher cast the later document into a fire.

The Wellham family was linked to the abbey by more than just the purloined will. Sir William Wellham, named in the codicil, had a beautiful daughter, Heloise, who at that time was receiving classical education from the abbot, Thomas de Gretham. The arrangement well-suited the abbot and the young woman as their interest in one another exceeded the normal teacher/pupil relationship — a situation that became known to dean Fletcher. Aware that abbey architect Guilbert de Rouen also had an interest in the girl, Fletcher saw an opportunity to use the information for profitable political manoeuvring.

Here the complicated plot becomes more convoluted but culminates in dean Fletcher denouncing abbot Thomas and having him put on trial for lax living. As a result, the abbot was deposed, leaving him to the mercies of Fletcher and two of his supporters, who then secretly conspired to have the abbot walled-up alive in his quarters. The remaining brotherhood remained ignorant of the abbot’s fate, believing him to have left the area.

It was not only the monks who were curious as to the abbot’s whereabouts. Lady Heloise was so concerned by the sudden absence of her friend she sought spiritual help from a local seer and healer known as The Keelby Witch, who lived in a thatched hovel at Roxton, a hamlet adjacent to Keelby village. Here, the witch suggested Heloise visit Henry, a dwarf living nearby. This Heloise did and the man revealed to her that the dean possessed the stolen will. Dwarf Henry was so moved by Lady Heloise’s plight he identified Fletcher as the evil Green Devil.

The dwarf’s evidence led to a further trial. During the proceedings, conducted in secrecy behind the abbey’s closed gates, one of the brothers, William Winter, testified that dean Fletcher had tricked him into walling up the abbot’s quarters, despite the loud protestations coming from within. Fletcher was found guilty by a unanimous decision and, amid calls for ‘… an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth …’, chapter president, St. John, announced sentence: ‘Dean Fletcher, it is the chapter’s just sentence that you shall be immured with Abbot Thomas. This will be justice and retribution.

Sentence was swift and the dean was taken immediately to abbot Thomas’s quarters where the brothers began clearing away the hastily-built wall, revealing the locked door beyond. Upon entering, however, there appeared no sign of the abbot. St. John was unmoved and insisted the sentence be conducted, saying: ‘He is guilty of everything else whether he murdered abbot Thomas or not. The rapes and murders of the Green Devil are enough to immure him a dozen times.’ This said, the grisly sentence was carried out.

In the traditions of many fine Lincolnshire mysteries, particularly those involving a tragic death, several people have since claimed to have seen shadowy figures wandering the abbey ruins at night, accompanied by the plaintive strains of distant organ music. Indeed, it would be nice to think that the two lovers, separated by one man’s evil ambitions, had been reunited again — albeit in the spirit world.

Aside from the splendid gatehouse, only a small part of the abbey remains today; another crumbling skeleton, standing resolutely among the foundations of the once-fine building. Here, an ornately decorated arch points accusingly toward the heavens, its weather-worn stones the only remaining witnesses to the drama that unfolded here. However, like the Augustinian brothers who took their vows all those years ago, they remain silent.

Thornton Abbey Ruins, North Lincolnshire