Greyfriars, Dunwich


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
The monument is centred on TM47787037, east of the village of Dunwich.


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

Location Description:
The monument is centred on TM47787037, east of the village of Dunwich.

East Suffolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


The upstanding remains, earthworks and buried remains of a medieval Franciscan friary known as Greyfriars, part of the west side of the medieval town of Dunwich, and the town defences known as the Pales Dyke.

Reasons for Designation

Greyfriars, a site encompassing a medieval Franciscan friary, part of the medieval town of Dunwich and part of the town defences known as the Pales Dyke, is scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Survival: the medieval Franciscan friary is among the best preserved in England, being one of a small proportion of friaries to retain significant upstanding remains, whilst the Pales Dyke and medieval town survive as earthworks and/or buried remains; * Potential: partial excavation has indicated that the site retains a high degree of archaeological potential, with the ground plan of most of the friary buildings likely to survive intact, and a monastic cemetery that may retain the largest and most complete group of burials of any medieval friary in England; * Documentation: Greyfriars is well documented in historical and archaeological terms, which provide a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the site; * Group value: medieval Dunwich, the Pales Dyke and Greyfriars, hold group value with each other, and with the nearby leper chapel of St James’ Hospital, as surviving remains of the medieval town and its associated monuments.


The Franciscan friary known as Greyfriars is located close to the cliff, on the east side of the current village of Dunwich. It was originally situated on the western outskirts 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 probably 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.

A Franciscan friary was established at Dunwich by Richard FitzJohn and his wife, Alice, in about the mid-C13, and subsequently refounded by Henry III (1216-1272). A friary was an institution housing a community of friars. The friars (from the Latin ‘frater’ meaning ‘brother’) were a religious movement which began in Italy in the late 12th century and advocated a mendicant life-style. Owning no property of their own, they lived by moving from community to community begging for alms and gifts. Unlike the older monastic orders, who were dedicated to a continuous round of prayer within a single monastery, the friars main concerns were preaching, evangelism and learning as they moved from friary to friary. Friaries were established in England from the early 13th century onwards, the first houses being founded in Canterbury, London and Oxford during 1224. The sites chosen by or for friaries were usually within towns, often in the less valuable, marginal areas. The buildings centered on a church and a cloister and usually contained a refectory (dining hall), a chapter house and an infirmary (for the care of the sick). They were set within a precinct but the public were not totally excluded. The naves of friary churches, in particular, were designed to accommodate large public gatherings assembled to hear the friars preach. Among the friars were several orders, each with individual missions. The largest of these were the Franciscans (the Greyfriars), the Dominicans (the Blackfriars), the Carmelites (the Whitefriars) and the Augustinians or Austin Friars. By the 1530s approximately 189 friaries had been founded, including some 60 Franciscan friaries.

Greyfriars is recorded at Dunwich in 1277 when there were 20 friars. In 1290, Edward I confirmed the grant of a new plot of land (the current site) just outside the Pales Dyke on the west side of the town, probably after their original site had suffered storm damage. The ditch of the Pales Dyke was partly filled in, the internal bank leveled, and the east wall of the friary precinct built upon it. A church and claustral complex was constructed. The friary precinct was later extended to the south to reach its current extent. This perhaps occurred in the late C14 or C15, when a further phase of building work was undertaken and the refectory and west gateways constructed. By 1538 Greyfriars had been suppressed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The lead roofing was removed, the site granted to John Eyre and converted to secular use. The Agas map of 1587 depicts a large house with two projecting wings in the centre of the precinct, a smaller house or cottage to the south and an isolated tower, probably the remnant of the friary church, to the north. A gate is also shown in the east wall of the precinct.

In 1710 Sir George Downing acquired Greyfriars and re-fronted the east elevation of the house with a crenellated brick façade three storeys high. This building incorporated the remains of the monastic refectory. An historical account by Thomas Gardner published in 1754 states that the building served as ‘a good tenement, and a hall with apartments, where affairs of the corporation are transacted, and a jail’. The house stood vacant in 1780 and in about the early C19 most of the later additions were demolished by the Barne family. At about this time quarrying operations for stone and rubble appear to have been carried out within the precinct. An 1817 illustration shows the ruins of the refectory broadly resembling their current appearance. However a timber cattle shed is shown to the north, a stone wall immediately to the east and All Saints Church further in the distance. On the 1883 OS map the refectory ruin is shown as the only building within the precinct, except for a small gabled shed built against the south side of the remains. An enclosed stable block with a hipped tiled roof appears to have subsequently been built against the west precinct wall. It is first shown on the 1927 OS map. Further stables and livestock shelters with corrugated-iron roofs were later added to this block. During the Second World War, Greyfriars was occupied by the army and used as a radar station and later as a gun position to defend against V1 rockets. Aerial photographs taken in 1958 indicate that the southern half of the precinct had been ploughed. Greyfriars passed into the ownership of Suffolk County Council in 1981 and the south-west quarter of the precinct was occupied by market gardens in 1989. In 2013 the Dunwich Greyfriars Trust was formed to manage the site.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY The first recorded excavation on the Greyfriars site was undertaken in 1935-9 by Norman Norris. It uncovered a medieval building identified as the monastic infirmary with later alterations. In 1970 Stanley West examined a section of the Pales Dyke, 20m south of the friary. Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service recorded parts of the precinct wall during demolition, consolidation or rebuilding in 1992, 1994, 2007-9, and 2012. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in England (RCHME) undertook a topographical survey and geophysical survey in 1994. Partial excavation by Suffolk County Council in 1997 revealed buried remains of a south precinct wall, indicating that the original precinct had been extended. A further excavation in 1999 recorded the footings of the friary church and several other buildings, as well the cemetery. Several late C11 to late C13 pits and ditches were also uncovered beneath the friary, indicating earlier occupation of the site. In 2011 The Time Team carried out geophysical survey and trial trenching, including a section through the Pales Dyke.

A project to extract and radiocarbon date organic sediments from soil sections of the Pales Dyke and town streets/roads exposed in the cliff face was undertaken in September 2014. The calibrated date for organic sediment from the bottom of the Pales Dyke was 375 BC, and that from the bottom of Duck Street was AD 675. These raise the possibility that the Pales Dyke originated as an Iron Age fortification and that the remains of the west side of the town may date from at least the Middle Saxon period. However the dates were inconclusive; the sediments were interpreted as inwashed soil material and may reflect earlier material washed or eroded into the soil sections. In addition, stratigraphical survey in the Dunwich Estuary, north of Greyfriars, in 2015 identified a possible Saxon retting pit for the production of hemp fibres used in rope and sail making.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS The upstanding remains, earthworks and buried remains of a medieval Franciscan friary known as Greyfriars, part of the west side of the medieval town of Dunwich, and the town defences known as the Pales Dyke. It is situated on gently sloping ground near the cliff on the east side of the current village of Dunwich.

THE PALES DYKE The Pales Dyke, a large ditch with an internal bank that formed part of the medieval defences of Dunwich, survives as an earthwork and/or buried remains at the east of the site. Documentary and archaeological evidence indicates that it runs roughly north to south for approximately 260m, but curves eastwards at both the north and south end. The ditch survives as an earthwork, approximately 21m long and 12.5m wide, close to the cliff line (April 2015) at the south, near the south-east corner of Greyfriars precinct. Partial excavation of a section of the Pales Dyke in 1970, prior to destruction by cliff retreat, recorded that the ditch was 12.2m wide and 4.6m deep with a steep-sided profile and flattened bottom. The bank had been almost leveled at this point. Post-holes and beam-slots were uncovered beneath it, indicating C12 occupation prior to the construction of the bank in about the early C13. The greater part of the Pales Dyke now survives beneath the Greyfriars precinct; the ditch to the west of the precinct wall, which itself is partly built upon the buried remains of the internal bank. Partial excavation in 2011 and 2012 recorded the ditch profile and indicated that the bank survived up to 0.5m high at this point.

DUNWICH TOWN Immediately east of the Pales Dyke, close to the cliff edge (in April 2015) are the buried remains of the west side of medieval Dunwich. It includes part of an intramural street running parallel to the Pales Dyke, as well as part of Scott’s Lane, Duck Street, and the churchyard of All Saint’s Church. GREYFRIARS PRECINCT WALL AND GATEWAYS The friary precinct wall survives as upstanding and buried remains, currently enclosing an irregular triangle of land 7.16 acres in extent. The upstanding remains vary between about 0.1m and 2.5m high and average 0.4m thick. However the circuit is not complete; the wall is truncated at several places along the east side and south-east corner. The composition of the wall varies. Several distinct phases of construction have been identified, as well as later repairs and rebuilding (see Boulter 2012). The north wall, the west wall (with the exception of the medieval gateways), and part of the south wall is considered to have been built in the C18 but on medieval footings. It is formed of a mix of roughly coursed flint, limestone fragments (including reused masonry from the nearby Leper Chapel of St James), clasts and occasional roof tile. Most of the south wall was built in the C19 under the Barne family. It is characterized by the use of brick: horizontal bands in the internal face (matching the enclosed stable block against the west wall) and randomly placed in the external face, with a tile coping. The greater part of the east wall is thought to have been constructed in 1924, and is predominantly built of beach cobble with some limestone and brick. However towards the centre of this wall is a 48m section of original C13 fabric. It has an internal face constructed of long, thin blocks of locally-derived coursed crag limestone and an external face built of a mixture of stone but predominantly septeria, bonded by a buff-coloured lime mortar.

The two medieval gateways in the west wall were built of flint and Caen stone dressings in the late C14 or C15. The southern gateway was the main entrance. It is 3.4m wide and formed of a four-centred arch of three moulded orders, with large buttresses at the rear. Alternate bands of stone and dressed flint radiate from the crown of the arch on the exterior. The northern gateway was a pedestrian entrance, which is 1.6m wide and 2.8m high, with buttressing at the rear. It is formed of a four-centred arch of five moulded orders, framed by two rectangular niches 0.5m wide. A flushwork panel above the arch comprises six (originally eight) two-foiled arches in Caen stone frames. An additional gateway originally stood in the east wall and is documented in 1587 and 1754. The footings of this gateway will survive as below-ground remains.

The current precinct wall includes a southward extension of the original circuit. Partial excavation has recorded the footings of a length of the original precinct wall orientated WNW to ESE, and extending across the precinct just to the south of the refectory ruins (Boulter 1997). A trackway and ditch ran externally to this wall and survive as buried remains. The medieval wall footings accord with the original grant of 4.5 acres of land, and indicate that the friary precinct was later extended to its current extent of 7.16 acres.

REFECTORY In the centre of the precinct are the standing remains of the monastic refectory. The original fabric is broadly contemporary with the west gateways, dating to the late C14 or C15. However, it was converted to a house in the C16, re-fronted in the early C18, partially demolished in the late C18 or early C19, and partially re-built in the late C19 or early C20 (see history). The present structure is a roofless ruin, up to two storeys high, 22.1m long by 8.9m wide, and aligned east to west. It is subdivided internally by an axial partition wall. The medieval fabric largely consists of dressed flint and Caen stone dressings, but the walls have undergone alteration or rebuilding in a mixture of brick, flint and limestone fragments in the C16 to C18, and in uniformly sized, well coursed, beach cobbles with some brick dressings in the late C19 or early C20 (see Boulter and Everett 2009).

The north elevation has nine arched windows across two storeys; five on the ground floor and four on the first floor, as well as the jambs of a truncated doorway at the west end. The four easternmost ground floor windows are medieval four-centered arches whilst the fifth window is a late C19 or early C20 segmental-headed arch. Between the third and fourth window is a stepped medieval buttress and between the fourth and fifth is the stub of a medieval wall, projecting to the north. The first floor openings are late C19 or early C20 windows; the two to the east are four-centered arches incorporating medieval mouldings but those to the west are segmental-headed brick arches. This elevation also incorporates several medieval put-log holes, as well as the remains of one blocked medieval window and several blocked C16 to C18 windows towards the west end. The axial partition wall to the south is blind. It is largely formed of medieval fabric. However, a gable and return wall at the west end are the remains of a gabled shed, 4.5m long by 2.7m wide, shown on the 1883 OS map.

The south elevation largely survives as low foundations but rises up to about 2.5m high where it meets the east and west return walls. Near the centre of the elevation is an entrance about 2m wide. The west elevation is blind but incorporates an internal rib-vaulted niche in the south-east angle. The east elevation contains a two-centred arch, rebuilt in 2013, and some C16 and early C18 fabric.

FRIARY CHURCH AND CLAUSTRAL COMPLEX The friary church and claustral complex survive as buried remains. The church is aligned east to west and occupies the north side of the cloister. Partial excavation has shown that the south wall of the nave is located about 55m north of the refectory ruins. The church walls are about 1m wide with external buttressing, and survive to 0.2m-0.35m deep. The nave is approximately 38m long by 17m wide, incorporating side aisles c.3.5m wide internally. Between the nave and each aisle are six pillar bases that originally supported an arcade of seven arches, each arch spanning c.4.5m wide. The chancel is approximately 20m long by 10m wide, although these dimensions probably include a central tower. The foundations are of a different construction to those of the nave, indicating two separate phases of development.

The cloister is situated immediately to the south of the church. Partial excavation and geophysical survey has recorded wall footings indicating a west, south and east range of buildings surrounding a walkway and open courtyard or cloister garth. A garderobe (latrine or toilet) was identified within the south range, which probably served as the reredorter (latrine block). The garderobe is a square structure, 3.5m by 3.5m, with walls c.0.5m thick, primarily constructed of squared limestone blocks. A brick and flint-built drain, 0.75m wide with a semi-circular arched top, runs north-south just to the west of the friary church.

INFIRMARY A mid- to late C14 infirmary survives as buried remains, 15m ENE of the refectory (Norris 1939). It is T-shaped in plan, comprising a north-south range, over 14m long and 4.1m wide, attached at the south by an east-west range, 11.6m long and 4.3m wide, supported by angle buttresses. The north-south range is sub-divided internally, lined with plaster and contains a recess or cupboard in the east wall. The east-west range has the jambs of at least one original doorway in the north wall, providing access to the adjacent range. Attached to the south of the building is a 1.4m wide cloister walk with a four-bay arcade supported by buttresses. It has been rebuilt at a later date, possibly the mid-C15, in red brick and paved with sandstone slabs within the walkway and brick beneath the arcade, a string of cobbles separating the two. The cloister walk faces an open area, which is 1.2m wide, paved with cobbles, and supported by traces of a south retaining wall.

The infirmary has undergone further alterations and additions in about the later C15 or C16. These are built in dark red brick and pebble. Two doorways with chamfered brick jambs have been inserted and/or re-lined in the north wall of the east-west range, which is also partitioned at the east end for a staircase providing access to an upper floor. A further range has been added in the north-west angle between the two buildings, and later lined by clay and rubble and converted into a lime kiln. An out-building or garderobe, 2m long by 1.4m wide, is attached to the south-west corner of the cloister walk. It has been paved in red tile in the C16 or later, beneath which is a cess pit or soakway over 3m deep.

CEMETERY An extensive monastic cemetery survives as buried remains. Partial excavation recorded 94 burials within the church and to the north, east and south of the building (Boulter 1999). Most of the burials uncovered were left undisturbed, although three were fully excavated and nine partially excavated. The exact extent of the cemetery is uncertain but it is estimated to include approximately 1000 burials.

EXCLUSIONS The scheduling excludes the enclosed stable block and modern agricultural buildings next to the west precinct wall; all modern gates and gate posts; fences and fences posts; water troughs; water pipes; stone collection boxes; signs and sign posts; and notices. 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 40
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Books and journals
Chant, K, The History of Dunwich, (1986)
Haslam, J, 'Dummoc and Dunwich: A Reappraisal' in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, , Vol. 5, (1992), 41-46
Norris, N, 'First Report on Excavations at Grey Friars Monastery, Dunwich, Suffolk, July 1935' in Proceedings of The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, , Vol. 22, (1936), 287-9
Norris, N, 'Second Report on Excvations at Grey Friars Monastery, Dunwich, Suffolk, August 1936' in Proceedings of The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, , Vol. 22, (1936), 210-8
Norris, N, 'Third Report on Excavations at Grey Friars Monastery, Dunwich, 1937-9' in Proceedings of The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, , Vol. 23, (1939), 210-8
West, S, 'The Excavation of Dunwich Town Defences 1970' in Proceedings of The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, , Vol. 32, (1970), 25-33
Boulter, S, and Everett, L, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, Dunwich Greyfriars (DUN 092 & 094): Archaeological Recording Works Associated with the Rebuilding of a Section of the Precinct Wall and Repairs to the Gateways and Refectory No.2008/52 (2009)
Boulter, S, and Everett, L, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, Dunwich Greyfriars (DUN 110): Archaeological Monitoring Report No.2012/123 (2012)
Boulter, S, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Report, Dunwich Greyfriars (DUN 025): Record of an Archaeological Evaluation Report No.99/21 (1999)
RCHME, Dunwich Greyfriars: An Archaeological Survey (1994), Report held in the Historic England Archive, Swindon
Sear, D, Murdock, A, LeBas, T, Baggaley, P and Gubbins, G, English Heritage Dunwich Project 5883 Final Report (2013)
Sear, D, Scaife, R and Langdon, C, Touching the Tide Project: Dunwich Land-based Archaeological Survey Report 2014-15 (2015)
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.

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