Maison Dieu (or Hospital of the Holy Trinity), Dunwich


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
The monument is centred on TM4789670693.

Statutory Address:
Dunwich Car Park, Beach Road, Dunwich, Suffolk, IP17 3EN


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Statutory Address:
Dunwich Car Park, Beach Road, Dunwich, Suffolk, IP17 3EN

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
The monument is centred on TM4789670693.

East Suffolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


A medieval hospital surviving as buried remains. It is variously known as ‘Maison Dieu’, ‘Domus Dei’ and the ‘Hospital of the Holy Trinity’.

Reasons for Designation

The Maison Dieu, a medieval hospital surviving as buried remains in Dunwich, is scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Historic interest: as a medieval hospital under royal patronage that is a surviving part of the town of Dunwich, a prominent Saxon and medieval settlement which has largely been lost to the sea; * Documentation: the Maison Dieu is well documented in historical sources from the C13 onwards, which provide a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the site; * Potential: the site holds archaeological potential for a range of structural, artefactual and environmental remains dating from the medieval period onwards; * Group value: the Maison Dieu holds group value with St James’ Hospital Chapel, Greyfriars, the Pales Dyke and the west side of medieval Dunwich, as surviving scheduled remains of the medieval town and its associated monuments.


The Maison Dieu was a medieval hospital located just outside the defensive boundary of the medieval coastal town of Dunwich, which has largely fallen off the cliff edge or been inundated by the sea. A Roman fort and settlement may originally have existed near this site. A civitas (town) called Dommoc is recorded in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (completed c.731) and served as the seat of St Felix, first bishop of East Anglia (Haslam 1992). In the Saxon period a wic (trading centre or emporium) was established, which subsequently became the medieval settlement known as Dunwich. It is recorded in the 1086 Domesday Survey with three churches and 236 burgesses, although a large part of land (one carucate) had already been lost to coastal erosion. The settlement nonetheless continued to expand into a sizeable town and important seaport. Its growth was linked to the development of the North Sea fishing industry, being well-placed to harvest near-shore herring shoals.

The core of the medieval town was situated on a range of low hills, with the harbour just to the north where the river Blyth then entered the sea. The Pales Dyke; a ditch and bank with a palisade on top, formed part of the town defences. By 1225 Dunwich is considered to have extended approximately a mile from north to south, covering an area similar in size to London. The town possessed eight churches, three chapels, five houses of religious orders, including Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and a preceptory of the Knights Templar, two hospitals, and possibly a mint and a guildhall. However a series of storms in the C13 and C14 silted up the harbour mouth and flooded the quays, effectively ruining the town as a port. Many of the inhabitants left in search of a livelihood elsewhere. The sea continued to erode the coastline, reaching the market place in 1540. The inhabitants stripped the churches and other buildings of their lead roofs and valuables as the sea reached them. An Elizabethan surveyor, Radulphus Agas, was commissioned to survey the town in 1585. A copy of his map survives and indicates that by 1587 approximately half the town had been lost. The process continued and the last of the medieval parish churches to fall to coastal recession was All Saints Church in 1904-19.

The Maison Dieu is considered to have been situated just outside the Pales Dyke at the north-west edge of Dunwich, between Bridge Gate and the harbour. A medieval hospital is a group of buildings housing a religious or secular institution which provided spiritual and medical care. Although these institutions probably originated in the Anglo-Saxon period, the majority were founded from the late C11. Documentary sources indicate that by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, there were approximately 1,100 hospitals. A few escaped suppression or were re-founded soon after, while many became almshouses. Relatively few exact sites of medieval hospitals have been determined. There were two hospitals at Dunwich; St James’ Leper Hospital about 400m to the west of the town, of which part of the chapel remains standing and is a scheduled monument (List entry No: 1006032), and the Maison Dieu.

Although usually referred to as ‘Maison Dieu’ or ‘Domus Dei’ (House of God), the hospital was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It is first recorded in the Close Rolls in 1251 when it housed a master appointed by the king, six brethren and several sisters. The seal of the hospital was a large oval bearing the three lions of Henry III at the centre surmounted by a triple cross, the lowest hub of which bore two fleur-de-lis. It was inscribed: SIGILLUM. FRATRUM. DOMUS. DEI. DE. DONEWICO. (‘Seal of the brethren of the house of God at Dunwich’). This would indicate that the hospital was founded by Henry himself, sometime between the beginning of his reign in 1216 and 1251. The hospital served as a refuge for the poor and the handicapped. It was not attached to any religious order but came under the direct patronage of the king, who appointed the mastership.

Initially at least, the hospital was well endowed, with houses and land in Dunwich providing an annual income of 4s 6d, as well as land at Heveningham, Ellow and Blyford. However, it appears to have later suffered due to the decline of the port and the misappropriation of funds. In 1251 the hospital tried to recover goods and possessions that were taken and sold by Robert FitzReginald. Despite several inquiries into the matter they could not be traced. Among the stolen possessions may have been a revered cross, which went missing at about this time. It was reputed to hold miraculous healing powers and hence attracted pilgrims who gave offerings; an important source of revenue. The cross was finally found at St Osyth Abbey in Essex in 1306, where it was said to have been taken by William Litequene, a brother of the Maison Dieu, and ‘detained for a long time’. William had been made a canon at the abbey. A court case ensued; several citizens of Dunwich confirmed it was the missing cross, and the abbot was ordered to return it to the master of the hospital. Nevertheless the fortunes of the Maison Dieu did not improve in the following years. The hospital fell into debt and numerous grants of royal protection were made during the early C14 to allow inmates to beg for alms.

Several donations towards the upkeep of the hospital are recorded in the later C15 and early C16, including a contribution to paving the church or chapel in 1527. On the Dissolution (1538), the Maison Dieu may have relaxed its rule. It continued to operate essentially as an almshouse. The Elizabethan chronicler John Stow wrote a description of Dunwich in 1573, which was cited by John Weever in his publication Ancient Funeral Monuments (1631). According to Stow, the Maison Dieu had at one time been a ‘house of grete privilege’ and a ‘proiper lodgyn for the masters’, two of which had been a Master of Art and a squire. However the church had been pulled down by 1573 and the hospital was in a state of decay due to ‘evil masters and covetous persons’. It nonetheless continued to generate an income from the lease of tenements, houses and lands. On the Agas map of 1587 the Maison Dieu is shown to comprise three buildings; a small gabled building to the east, an isolated tower to the north, and a long gabled range of two-storeys to the west. This range is orientated north to south with four bays of windows, four chimneys, and a projecting single-storey bay at the south. At least part of it appears to be timber-framed, with vertical lines indicating close-studding. The tower may be a remnant of the hospital church. These three buildings are shown on the north-west side of a road; Maison Deau Lane (now Beach Road), that curves from north to east. This location would position the buildings at the south-west of what is now the Dunwich car park. A schoolmaster, Robert Aleyn, was paid to teach the inmates of the hospital in 1596.

A drawing of c.1700, which was copied by Hamlet Watling in the C19, shows the Maison Dieu at this time. It depicts two gabled buildings, each of two-storeys with a chimney and a tiled roof, and the remains of a brick wall. One of the buildings is a C15 or C16 timber-framed structure with close-studding to the ground-floor and what appears to be a jettied upper floor. The drawing accords well with a description by the antiquarian Thomas Gardner in 1754. He wrote that it comprised ‘a few poor who live in the Master’s [quarters] and another old decrepit house, being all that is left of the buildings, except for a small portion of the south wall of the church’. Richard Taylor’s Index Monasticus of 1821 states that the Maison Dieu was ‘still continued as an almshouse’. The Barne’s Estate Map of 1826 shows a plot of land labelled ‘Fish House Piece’ in this location and a single rectangular building at the end of Maison Dieu Lane (now Beach Road). It is not clear whether this building is associated with the hospital; it does not correspond to the location of the buildings shown on earlier maps and drawings. The hospital may have been demolished by this date and a new building erected, perhaps a fish house given the name of the adjacent land. The area to the south is marked as ‘Maison Dieu Hill’ and does not feature any buildings. The 1838 Tithe Map depicts an additional three buildings at the end of Maison Dieu Lane and a small T-shaped building on Maison Dieu Hill. The former are shown with gabled roofs in an 1880 photograph, and were probably associated with the fishing industry. A lifeboat house and several capstans had been erected by the time the 1884 OS map was drawn. None of these buildings remain today. The site of the Maison Dieu eventually passed to the Dunwich Town Trust. A concrete pillbox was built at the south-west of the site during the Second World War. In the later C20 the site was a field utilised as a car park with tea rooms at the south.

The buried remains of the Maison Dieu were scheduled on 1st May 1970. A bank to the east and west and a series of earthworks up to 0.15m high were identified at this time. The tea rooms were destroyed by fire in 1988 and subsequently re-built. In 1990-2 sea defence and utility works were carried out and a shingle bank constructed to the east. Soil and rubble were dumped and levelled on the site, obscuring the earthworks. The car park is now (2015) surfaced in gravel with the Flora Tea Rooms, public toilets, a small gabled hut and a fenced refuse enclosure at the south, and a large shingle bank and fisherman’s huts to the east.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY In July 1988 a watching brief was carried out on the site during the construction of a new tea room. It identified the medieval foundation walls up to a depth of 0.9m below ground level. An oral testimony at this time, noted that human skeletons had been found just east of the tea rooms closely buried east to west in shallow graves. A further watching brief was carried out in 1996 during the excavation of a drainage trench at the south-west of the car park. It uncovered a possible medieval deposition layer between 0.2m and 0.5m thick that contained a range of finds (see below). In 2012 Wessex Archaeology excavated three trenches on the site for Channel 4’s Time Team. One trench was located along a grass verge on the south-west edge of the car park, whilst the two others were located just to the north of the tea rooms. Within the former, a medieval posthole and a possible floor surface were identified in association with numerous finds. Geophysical survey was carried out in an area north of the tea rooms and identified some areas of discrete resistance, including a possible buried surface, but was affected by disturbance from modern utilities. In July 2015 a small trench was excavated by Access Cambridge Archaeology on the grass verge at the south-west of the car park. A large amount of C12 to C14 pottery sherds were recovered, as well as smaller amounts of late medieval wares.


The buried remains of a medieval hospital. Partial excavation has recorded part of the foundations of the hospital. These include a flint, beach pebble, sandstone block and mortar wall, 0.8m wide, that extends north to south. To the west is a mortar layer running for about 4m at a depth of 0.6-0.9m. Cartographic and documentary evidence indicates that the foundations are part of a complex of at least three buildings, which are of rectangular plan, and constructed of stone and timber. A medieval floor surface and post hole have been uncovered at the south-west of the site. Inhumation burials have been identified in shallow graves, orientated east to west, at the east. A range of medieval finds have also been recovered including stone mouldings (such as a corbel block, decorated with a dog-tooth pattern), lime mortar or plaster, floor and roof tiles, window glass, C12 to C15 pottery sherds, charcoal, oyster shells and animal bones.

EXCLUSIONS The scheduling excludes: the Second World War concrete pillbox; all modern buildings and structures, including the late-C20 weatherboard gabled buildings, public toilets and fisherman’s huts; the surfaces of all modern roads, concrete hard-standings and pavements; telegraph or electricity poles; lamp posts; litter bins; benches and tables; collection boxes; signs and sign posts; fences and fence posts; gates and gate posts. However, the ground beneath all these features is included.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
SF 142
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Chant, K, The History of Dunwich, (1986)
Comfort, N, The Lost City of Dunwich, (1994)
Parker, R, Men of Dunwich: The story of a vanished town, (1979)
Blinkhorn, P, Pottery from Dunwich, Suffolk, accessed 18 November 2015 from
British History Online – Victoria County History: A History of the County of Suffolk Volume 2 (edited by William Page) – Hospitals: Holy Trinity, Dunwich, accessed 2 November 2015 from
Dunwich Museum Research Database, accessed 2 November 2015 from
Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Report: Excavation summary, plan and section, Keith Wade 26 July 1988 (1988)
Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Report: Site of the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, Dunwich, Suffolk, Report No.96/7, DUN 006 (1996)
Suffolk County Council Historic Environment Record: Hospital of Holy Trinity: Maison Dieu Hospital, Monument No. DUN 006 – MSF1991
Wessex Archaeology, Dunwich, Suffolk: Time Team Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results, Report No.77505 (2012)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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