The Cambridgeshire Fens were isolated, desolate places – indeed parts are today. Places such as these attracted many individuals and religious orders to found abbeys and monasteries during the Middle Ages. Spinney Abbey was one of these. A spinney means a place where thorn trees grow. In the Fens such places were scarce, as this usually meant relatively high ground and so would have been an obvious place to build. With this in mind it is possible that a building was on the site before the Abbey, but no record of this is known.
Between 1216 and 1228, Beatrice, the grand-daughter of Wimar, Steward of the Count of Brittany, founded the Priory of St Mary and the Holy Cross in the spinney a mile from Wicken. The priory was first endowed with three canons of the Augustinian order. It was endowed with the advowson of the parish church, 55 acres of land, a marsh called Frithfen and the fishery of Gormere. Frithfen is likely to have included at least part of the area now known as Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, although its exact location is unclear. As such this is the earliest record concerning that area, as well as Spinney Abbey. For centuries the Abbey was associated with the fen, and this continues even now with water being pumped from the farm fields into the Nature Reserve.
In 1301 Mary de Bassingbourne expanded the establishment with 90 more acres and four more canons. The bad news was that her endowment depended upon the canons feeding three thousand poor people per year – a task which they soon enough complained was ‘grievous and insupportable’. In 1403 the Prior, William de Lode, was murdered by three of his own canons who stabbed him in the priory church. What happened to the murderers is unrecorded. This grisly tale has given rise to many ghost stories about the Abbey. Fortunes at Spinney declined with the Black Death and the social upheavals of the fourteenth century, and in 1449 Spinney Abbey was absorbed into the priory of Ely, which in due course became Ely Cathedral. The priory continued in existence and the almshouses it supported were not immediately abolished. In 1536 Henry VIII began the dissolution of the monasteries. Spinney became a private property and was owned by various persons, including Sir Edward Peyton who had been a prominent leader of the puritan party during the reign of Charles I.
Perhaps the most celebrated former owner of Spinney Abbey, and one who actually dwelt there, is the fourth son of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Cromwell. He lived in Spinney Abbey after his retirement from his office as Lord Deputy of Ireland at the Restoration (some information about his time in Ireland can be found here). He was a well-respected and capable man, and having petitioned the King was allowed to continue living in peace there despite his father’s fate. He owned Spinney from 1659 to his death in 1673, and tradition has it that King Charles II visited him there in September 1671. Henry Cromwell is buried with his wife at Wicken parish church.
The fascinating and rich history of this extraordinary place has been comprehensively researched and well recorded in “Spinney Abbey, Wicken – being an account of the History of Spinney Abbey, Wicken, in the county of Cambridgeshire, from its earliest beginnings to the near present day.” by Michael Rouse, 1971 (ISBN 0950230006). This substantial illustrated booklet can be read at Spinney Abbey, or borrowed from many libraries. Much of the following information, and the illustration, is extracted from that publication.