Saturday, 6 October 2012

The lost palace

I've passed the field a few hundred times. It slopes down to the road, between the village of Ancrum and the River Ale, just a couple of hundred yards from a cliff with caves where the local residents once sought refuge during the troubled times of the Wars of Independence. There's nothing remarkable about it, but I'd seen people with metal detectors or field walking a couple of times, so I had an idea there'd been something there once, perhaps an Iron Age settlement or Neolithic Fort.

But when we were visiting on Saturday I noticed the unmistakeable signs of an archeological dig, so I put on my wellies and took a walk over to discover that the diggers had just uncovered one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Medieval Scotland, a long lost Bishop's Palace. Dr Chris Bowles, who led the investigation, told me that the Palace had been built in the 12th Century, and was in use for most of the 13th. It had been built by a Bishop of Glasgow, and one Bishop de Bondington, responsible for founding Glasgow Cathedral, had actually died there after dictating his last writ to the Pope.

The dig at Ancrum has fascinated local people
To put the importance of the site in perspective, you have to be aware that the palace was built at a time of enormous significance in Scotland's history. King David I, a pious and devout ruler, endowed the four great Border Abbeys around that time, handing over vast swathes of land. Jedburgh Abbey just four miles away was founded in 1138 by the king and Bishop John of Glasgow, so there is likely to be a direct correlation between the two. Perhaps it was where the Bishop's representatives lived while they oversaw the building work of the magnificent Augustinian church, which took over a hundred years to construct.

It was unfortunate to be completed at a time when relations between England and Scotland began to deteriorate, and when the Abbey suffered from the various incursions - it was burned five times - the Bishop's Palace would have suffered with it. The end probably came in the mid 16th century with Henry VIII's Rough Wooing of Scotland when Sir Ralph Evers triumphantly wrote to his king that he had burned 'seven monasteries, sixteen castles, five market towns, two hundred and forty villages and three hospitals', and  had followed Henry's instructions to put man woman and child to the sword to the letter. Jedburgh Abbey never recovered and the power of the Bishops was ended.

Part of a Medieval window with beading and slots for bars

You can see the foundations of a massive wall
The limited archeological dig has uncovered portions of wall that give some hint of the massive scale of the structure and it sent a shiver down my spine to be able to look on tangible evidence of its existence and significance nine hundred years after it was built. They've also come across various finds associated with the period. The one that fascinated me most was a lead musket ball, one of a number found in this field. By the time it was fired, the Bishops of Glasgow were long gone, but it points to another time of turbulence, probably in the 18th century, perhaps a long forgotten skirmish in the '45, when Bonnie Prince Charlie's army passed this way. Who knows what other stories it has to tell ...

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