Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire was founded in 1232 by an order of nuns known as Augustinian canonesses. The Abbey provides a fascinating insight into women's lives in medieval times. Nuns were recruited exclusively from the upper classes. Upper class women had very little choice about their path through life. If they did not marry, their wealthy families might decide to use a nunnery as an alternative. A career as a nun also offered a cheaper option for families with a number of boys to educate, and girls to provide with dowries. Poor girls never became nuns since employment in agriculture or industry was open to them, and also because their families could not afford the dowry necessary to secure a place in a convent. This is the social and economic reality of convents, often obscured by a spiritual smokescreen. But while Lacock illustrates the lack of opportunity for women in medieval England, it is also the case that a convent like Lacock was run by women. Monastic life offered one of the very few opportunities for women to enter a career leading to independent responsibility.
Lacock Abbey survived as a convent for three hundred years, finally closing in 1539 during Henry VIII's Reformation of the English Church. It was then bought by William Sharington, who converted the abbey to a grand residence. The impressive octagonal tower was added at this time. The abbey then continued as a private residence, being purchased in the mid nineteenth century by wealthy scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. From around 1827 Talbot carried out work investigating the effect of light on various chemical compounds, and developed the first photographic negative in 1835. His earliest photographs, using his new techniques, were of windows at Lacock Abbey. Taking photos for this page with a digital camera I thought of Talbot sizing up the same views. This aspect of Lacock's history is explored in a large exhibition housed in a medieval barn at the visitor's entrance. There are displays on Talbot's work and the history of photography.
Fittingly Lacock Abbey has served as a film set location, notably for scenes depicting Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films, and also for The Moonraker.
Lacock High Street
Close to the Abbey grounds is the village of Lacock. The village has a history of ownership by the Abbey, and therefore has the beauty of a planned estate village. While most estate villages are of comparatively recent origin, Lacock has a long history as an adjunct to the Abbey. Most of the houses are eighteenth century, and there are some much older medieval buildings. The tithe barn is particularly impressive. Lacock continues as an estate village, owned today by the National Trust, which also owns the Abbey. The village has been used as a location for television and film productions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
There are a number of places to eat and drink in the village, including the Stable Tea Rooms, the Red Lion, the sixteenth century Carpenter's Arms and the fourteenth century George Inn.
Opening Times: Opening hours for National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
Address: Lacock, near Chippenham, Wiltshire SN15 2LG
Directions: Lacock is off junction 17 of the M4. Take the A350 to Chippenham and follow brown tourist signs. Click here for an interactive map centred on Lacock Abbey.
Access: Wheelchair access is good in the village, the inns and teashops, and in the Abbey grounds and cloisters. A stair lift is provided at the museum, and an electric wheelchair is available for visitor use. Braille cards and large print guides are provided. Ask at the visitor reception at the entrance to the Abbey.
telephone: 01249 730459