Northamptonshire’s naughty nuns and other stories

Posted 14th February 2021

With a national lockdown still firmly in place at the time of writing, Laura Malpas offers alternative ways for enthusiasts to ‘explore’ some of our local places of historical interest.

Our beautiful county is filled with hidden histories and untold stories, and there is still lots to discover without leaving home. Right now, in February 2021, the weather, and Covid precautions make staying indoors and exploring the county through video, websites, social media and good old-fashioned books very appealing. I’m taking the opportunity to draw up a hit-list of places to visit later this year, and to top up my understanding of Northamptonshire’s place in our great English story.

One of my favourite-ever television programmes was Time Team, a Channel 4 production hosted by Tony Robinson. The likeable archaeological crew descended upon a potential site of interest and gave themselves three days to explore, investigate, dig, and recreate their idea of what the past looked like. There was drama, disappointment, thrills and amazement, and genuine discoveries that increased knowledge. Time Team visited Northamptonshire several times over the years, and there’s some exciting news about the future for Time Team.

There are six episodes from Northamptonshire. One was filmed inside the home of a friend of mine at Prebendal Manor. My friend had done some investigation during restoration of her house and found ancient post holes and over 14,000 pottery sherds, showing a continuous occupation from the Iron Age to the present day. So before Time Team visited, she was aware that her house had an interesting history. Imagine buying what you thought was a dilapidated Georgian farmhouse, only to discover that you are living in a manor that once belonged to King Cnut (aka King Canute) over 1000 years ago. Cnut was a major player in Europe, he was King in England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. And the seat of his local government was at his lodge at Nassington, which later evolved into Prebendal Manor. I have written about this exciting location before, but it is very exciting to actually watch the episode where my friend’s hall was excavated, and the building was properly understood. 

So Prebendal Manor was an existing historic site, and it might be expected to hold archaeological remains of interest. But one of the joys of Time Team is that anybody could ask them to come and investigate locations that were unknown to history. Many of the best episodes came from puzzling remains found in the back gardens of viewers who asked Time Team to investigate. One of my favourite-ever episodes has the intriguing title, ‘The Naughty Nuns of Northampton’. Two little girls burying ‘Paint Pot’, their deceased pet cat, made a discovery in their back garden which appeared to be an old building. This eventually turned out to be the priest’s house of the ancient Cistercian priory of Sewardsley. The dig itself was most productive. Not only did Time Team find the remains of the priory church, chapter house, cloisters and high-status burials, they also discovered a fascinating story of the nuns who belonged to the Priory. It seemed that the sisters had fallen upon hard times after the Black Death had ravaged the population, and they had turned to begging for survival. But it got worse, they were reprimanded for creative accounting, but greater shame was to come. In 1434, the Bishop of Lincoln reprimanded them for ‘abandoning the path of religion… committing in public… acts of adultery, incest and fornication to the death of their own souls’. Thirty years later, witchcraft was added to their sins, for exhibiting figures of the King and Queen to be used in sorcery. By the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, there were only five nuns left, and it was the second poorest monastic establishment in England. All that was left above the ground were the old church walls which had been incorporated into the mostly Victorian farmhouse.

Good news for Time Team fans! You can watch the episodes listed below on both YouTube and in better quality on ‘All 4’ for free. And you can follow Time Team Classics and Time Team Official on YouTube. There’s a fun extra now available, with the tongue twisting name of Time Team Teatime. We can watch a specific episode on Sundays at 6.00pm, which is then followed by an online after show event, with brand new interviews with the original team members and lots of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It seems that Time Team may be reinstated by popular demand. There’s more information about this and other exciting developments on

I hope that you stay healthy and safe at home, and enjoy exploring our exciting county history from the comfort of your armchairs. When it’s safe, we will have so much to explore, to see and to do. It’s going to be wonderful. 

Time Team Episodes

Series 8 episode 2 – The man who bought a castle – Alderton: Time Team are at amateur archaeologist Derek Batten’s castle in Northamptonshire and they discover a link to William the Conqueror.

Series 10 episode 1 – Garden Secrets – Raunds: The team meet Morris and Pat Jones who, when digging a pond in their Northamptonshire garden, unearthed a skeleton – laid out with a knife, ceremonial pottery and a valuable buckle.

Series 11 episode 11 – King Cnut’s manor: The Team delve under the floorboards at Nassington, a 15th-century manor, in their attempt to locate a fine Saxon hall that once belonged to King Canute.

Series 13 episode 1 – The bodies in the shed: Tony and the Team travel to Glendon Hall in Northamptonshire to unravel the mystery of the human skeletons found under an outbuilding.

Series 14 episode 7 – The tale of two villages: Tony Robinson and the Team are in the village of Wicken on the edge of Milton Keynes, where evidence of a Saxon community begins to emerge.

Series 15 episode 7 – The naughty nuns of Northampton – Towcester: Tony and the Team investigate the site of 900-year-old Sewardsley Priory, where a small, impoverished nunnery’s nuns were accused of witchcraft, begging and debauchery.