SCOTLAND’s first Cistercian nunnery, founded in a war zone more than 850 years ago, must have been one of the wealthiest religious establishments in the country, its lands alone carrying a modern-day value of up to £1.5 million.
But for all its power and influence, nothing could stop the destruction of St Leonard’s nunnery, which somehow survived for 150 years as battles between the armies of English and Scottish kings raged around its impressive architecture.
An archaeological excavation at the site of the long-abandoned religious house on the outskirts of Berwick-on-Tweed has revealed the importance of St Leonard’s, and has suggested that an ancient community known as Bondington may have existed long before the town became the busiest and most important of all Scottish ports.
A varied collection of artefacts, including fragments of medieval pottery, writing styli, part of a pilgrim’s badge and oyster shells - an indication of the type of diet enjoyed by the St Leonard’s order - have been recovered from the soil where the nunnery once stood.
But those involved in the Bondington Project say much more archaeological work should be done to establish the status of the community, and to reveal more traces of medieval life in the Berwick area.
The dig has shown Bondington had at least two other churches within a few hundred yards of the nunnery, established by the pious King David I. The king also founded the four great Border abbeys of Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh.
There were countless legal wrangles involving the abbeys, the nunnery and other religious establishments over the rights to various church taxes and property deeds.
Alan Williams, the Newcastle-based archaeology consultant who worked on the project, said: "Berwick’s medieval archaeology lies hidden beneath the modern town. But there is certainly potential for further investigations at Bondington, which seems to have been abandoned in the 14th century. The fact that three churches existed just outside the town is an exciting discovery."
Brian Chappell, whose garden at his home in Castle Terrace contained carved grave slabs from the period when the town was changing hands regularly between Scots and English captors, was one of the leaders of the recent project.
He explained: "The first signs of Bondington’s existence came to the surface in the 1950s when, during the construction of a local house, human bones were discovered. One of the skeletons had an arrow through its rib cage, but the remains were destroyed after an initial investigation."
Another set of bones was uncovered in 1998, during a separate housing development, and since then research has proved the existence of churches dedicated to St Lawrence and St Mary.
A report on the findings of the Bondington Project is on public display in the Berwick Borough Council archive. The archive is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9:30am to 1pm and from 2:30pm to 5pm.