Introduction to the Priory, the Spencers and their documents.

New information has come to light about the most ancient building in Orpington: the Priory. Three previously unknown documents have been unearthed in the National Archives, which describe in the greatest possible detail the contents of the Priory as it was in 1675-6. Every piece of furniture, every cushion and curtain, every room, every piece of equipment in the kitchen, in the granary, and in the dairy, have been listed, and this creates a vivid and realistic picture of life in the Priory in the years after the Civil War. These documents, now transcribed, have been put on these pages for all to see.

Historians have always known about the Honorable Richard Spencer and his wife Mary, who were living in the Priory with their two daughters at the beginning of the Civil War. Richard supported the king, Charles I, and helped to raise a great deal of money and also two regiments of horse, in order to support the king in his war against Cromwell and the rebel Parliamentarians. We all know the outcome of the Civil War: Charles was beheaded, and Cromwell ruled the country. Richard was exiled, but returned in 1653, financially ruined. He died in 1661, and his wife Mary died in 1675. All of this is already known. What has not been generally known is that after the death of Mary, an inventory was taken of the Priory and all its outbuildings, or rather, not one inventory, but three, all slightly different, and each listing objects not shown in the other two.

What kind of things do the inventories list? Apart from the ‘Curtaynes, cushions, Sheetes, Blanketts, chaires, Stooles, Tables, Andirons with Brasse Knobbes’ which are to be found in many of the rooms, there are also some objects which only wealthy people could own:

‘Nyne peeces of Chyna one Cupp of Chalcedony one of Serpentine one of Terrasigislate and two mother of pearl Shells bequeathed to the Lady Glynne …. An Atcheivement of Armes … A Lockett with severall Diamonds An Amethist Ring … A Necklace of pearls, A little Gold Bodkin’. Also there are several guns, including ‘two Brasse Blunderbushes.’ In the kitchen we find ‘A parcell of Onyens a parcell of Apples a parcell of Hopps … one Jack, Chayne and weight foure spitts one iron Dripping Pan and one Grid iron… pewter four hundred weight…’ Some items are quite sad: ‘two Coach Horses a little Maire all blynde or lame … the Deceaseds wearing apparrell and lynnen for her body.’

The years of war and exile had left their scars. After all they had been through, the Spencers must have been a very unhappy family. One starts to get an idea of the depth of bitterness felt by Mary Spencer against her own family, and perhaps against society in general, when one reads her will (which is not a new discovery). She accuses her two daughters of falsifying documents and conniving at her death in order to get her money: ‘if their mother were dead how bravely they would rannt it away at London … Elizabeth the youngest did goe to witches to knowe the tyme of my death…’ Mary’s will is also on these pages.

The transcriptions keep the original spelling, capitalisation and punctuation (or lack of it). It was not easy to transcribe the documents, partly because the handwriting was so different in those days, but also because words sometimes could not be deciphered where there was a heavy crease in the parchment, or the ink was too faded to read, or the scribbled crossings out were just too untidy. The earliest inventory in particular was difficult; it was written in a loose Secretary hand, but scribbled carelessly and at speed. There are bound to be some errors in the transcriptions for these reasons – apologies – and the pages are in a constant state of correction. Words which simply could not be deciphered are omitted, and the symbols *** are used to indicate the omission. Another difficulty was that some words were written perfectly clearly, but their meaning is uncertain. For instance, what on earth are Crookes and Gally pots? What is a bugle basket, or a Limbeck? Eventually Google, and various museums, provided some answers.

National Archives PROB5/1187

Why were three inventories drawn up? The second one on this website is the normal one which would be drawn up when any rich person died, and is in the PROB 4 category. However, it is clear that this was not the earliest; it is more or less a copy of the main body of the PROB 5 document on these pages. The PROB 5 categorisation almost certainly indicates litigation, probably the case Sandys versus Spencer. This is by far the most detailed of the three inventories, and appears to be the earliest of the three. The third, once again based on the first one, was part of the documentation of the Chancery case Bland versus Spencer, which contests the inheritance of the Priory by Margaret Gee, one of the daughters of Richard and Mary Spencer, and so is in the C6 category. This one was neatly written in Chancery hand, and lists in detail all Mary’s jewellery, but omits the low value items in the outhouses. No valuations are given in the C6 document. Valuations were given on the PROB 4 document, but so far have not been added to these pages. The valuation of each article or group of articles is shown on the PROB 5 document, and these have been transcribed. The running totals and the signatures at the end of each page have been omitted in the transcriptions.

Why were these documents only discovered now, 337 years after they were written? The reason is very simple: the people at the National Archives are working hard at listing all their documents and putting the lists on the internet. Some documents are being scanned so that it is possible to download them and read them at home (it is necessary to pay for this). This work is going ahead at breakneck speed. So if you go to the National Archives website, and find one of their Catalogue Search pages, and type in, as I did, Orpington … 1500-1750, details of dozens of documents will come up. Not the documents themselves, but brief details giving names, dates, place and type of document. Then, if you go to the National Archives at Kew (and if you know your way around how everything works), you can see the documents themselves. Anyone who thinks they have finished their family history, just try a search with each family surname and ancestral town or village, and you may well find you are off again.

What should be done with this new information about the Priory? It would be lovely if the whole of the Priory could be restored, based on these inventories, but that is unlikely to happen. Any suggestions?

The Priory, Church Hill, Orpington

Historic Orpington