Part of Muchelney Abbey.
Reasons for Designation
From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages.
Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.
The scheduled part of Muchelney Abbey survives extremely well in the form of standing structures with well-preserved exposed and below ground remains. It is reputed to be the second oldest surviving monastic establishment in Somerset and as such represents a major element in the ecclesiastical and secular history of the county. Partial excavation has demonstrated that the site had been in ecclesiastical use almost continuously from its original pre-Conquest foundation until its dissolution, a period spanning approximately eight centuries. Its importance is further increased by the potential of possibly well-preserved waterlogged deposits, particularly of pre-Conquest date, in deeper cut features. Part of the abbey remains are on public display as a monument which provides an educational resource and an insight into the workings of a medieval monastic community.
This record was the subject of a minor enhancement on 22 July 2015. This record has been generated from an "old county number" (OCN) scheduling record. These are monuments that were not reviewed under the Monuments Protection Programme and are some of our oldest designation records.
The monument includes the larger part of the known extent of the standing and below ground remains of Muchelney Abbey and part of its precinct. The site of the Abbey occupies an area of ground which is slightly elevated above the surrounding Somerset Levels between the River Parrett to the west and the River Yeo to the east, about 2km south of Langport. It is recognised as the second oldest monastic establishment in Somerset and the site was in almost continual religious use from its foundation by Ine, King of Wessex in the 8th century, until its dissolution in 1538, having converted to the Benedictine order in the late 10th century after a short period of Viking disruption.
The surviving extant buildings include the Abbot's Lodging with an adjoining section of south cloister alley and refectory wall, which are Listed Grade I and a Listed Grade II* reredorter.
The preserved and exposed remains include part of the pre-Conquest abbey church, the later abbey church, the claustral range, and the sites of the warming house, chapter house, and infirmary. The below ground remains represent buildings of agricultural and industrial use within the Outer Court areas of the abbey precinct. An associated moated site is also included in the scheduling.
The Abbot's Lodging was originally constructed in the 12th century. It was largely reconstructed to its present form of two and three stories in the late 15th or early 16th century from local lias with Ham stone dressings and Welsh slate over coped gable roofs. Fragments of 12th century masonry are incorporated in the walls. The interior of the Abbot's Lodging comprises a kitchen and ante-room hall at ground level and several upper rooms including the Abbot's parlour. The preserved remains of part of the south cloister alley adjoin the Lodging and the north side of the Lodging and the surviving refectory wall adjoin the cloister alley.
The reredorter, or latrine block, is a detached structure of 12th century origin with later alterations of possible 13th century date. It is two-storied with a half-hipped thatched roof. The upper storey which formed the monks' privy house is now reached by a flight of 20th century stone steps on the north side. The area below would have housed a stream or sewerage channel. A culvert was recorded in this area during a small excavation prior to the construction of a new fence. The west face of the lower storey has a row of five pointed arches set low into the wall at and below the present ground level. The reredorter originally extended further to the north, adjoining the east range of the abbey buildings.
The preserved and exposed foundations of the abbey church, the cloister ranges and service buildings including the infirmary, the chapter house and the warming room, are located to the south of the present church, immediately north and east of the Abbot's Lodging. They were all contained within the Inner Court of the Abbey precinct which is believed to have been entered through a gatehouse on the north side. Partial excavation in 1949 revealed that the church was constructed in four phases. The earliest phase, of pre-Conquest date, probably represents the remains of the original church founded by King Ine. The latest phase is of 14th century date. An area of 12 sq m was enclosed by the cloister alleys immediately to the west. The abbey barn which now forms part of the modern Abbey Farm buildings is located to the south west of the claustral ranges within the area of the Outer Court. The single-storied barn in its present form dates to the 17th or 18th century, however, the south wall is considerably earlier in date, and contains several phases of stonework. The original function of the structure is unknown but it may have been constructed for some industrial purpose.
The moated site, located to the south west of the abbey buildings survives as an island of 14 sq m in area with steep sides raised above the surrounding quadrilateral water-filled moat which is 15m wide at its widest point. The moat is considered to form part of the monastic establishment possibly as part of a fishpond and is included in a 19th century list of Homestead Moats as the 'Abbey Moat' at Muchelney.
The extent of the abbey precinct on the east, south and south west sides is defined by a continuous bank which a small trench evaluation in 1999 confirmed as a deliberately constructed feature. Several low earthworks are visible within the area of the precinct, part of which would represent an area of industrial activity necessary for the self-support of the monastic community. Such buildings would have included a smithy, tannery, dovecote, and possibly a corn mill.
The monument has evidence of an early eighth century foundation charter from Ine, King of Wessex, reputed to be one of the most powerful Saxon rulers. After several Viking raids the monastery fell out of use and was subsequently refounded by King Athelstan as a Benedictine House, dedicated to saints Peter and Paul, in the tenthth century. The abbey was dissolved in 1538 and the whole property was passed to Edward Seymour who later became the Duke of Somerset. The abbey church survived until the 16th century after which it was systematically destroyed and its stone reclaimed and used in the construction of the local village houses. The Abbot's lodging and remains of the cloisters, refectory wall and the exposed foundations of the abbey church and claustral buildings are in the care of the Secretary of State.