Site of Watton Gilbertine priory, two possible medieval archery butts and Civil War earthworks


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Date first listed:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Riding of Yorkshire (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TA 02337 49983

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. The Gilbertine order, thought to have been the only order to originate in England, was initially established for men and women. The founder, St Gilbert of Sempringham, founded double houses from 1131 until his death in 1189. After this time the houses founded were mainly for canons. Of the total of 29 Gilbertine foundations, 16 were for men. The order originated in Lincolnshire and most of the houses were established in that county, although others were established throughout eastern England. Small numbers of Gilbertine canons sometimes served hospitals, and at Old Malton, Yorkshire, a training and retreat house was established. As a rare type of monastery, all examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are worthy of protection.

Watton priory is an important example of a wealthy Gilbertine monastery and was one of the most important monasteries of the order. This is indicated by the scale of the monastic precinct and also the scale and quality of its buildings. In addition to the standing medieval buildings extensive earthwork remains indicate the position and extent of other buildings. The functions of some of these buildings have also been confirmed by excavation, which also confirmed that considerable information on their style and architectural detail survives. Unusually the monastic precinct was largely abandoned following the Dissolution and was robbed for building stone. It remains largely unencumbered by later buildings, a factor which has contributed to the good survival of below ground medieval remains. The survival of the wider monastic precinct with its complex of water management features is also unusual. These remains will retain considerable information on the range of activities, religious and industrial, which were occurring within the precinct and which helped support the monastic precinct. Watton Priory also retains information on the pre-Conquest nunnery of Vetadun, known from the works of Bede, which is believed to have been situated here.


The site of the Gilbertine priory at Watton is situated in the Hull valley. Its name, meaning `settlement by the water', indicates its former watery situation. It is the second monastic house to have been established at Watton, the first being the Anglo-Saxon nunnery of Vetadun mentioned in the works of the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede. The monument comprises a single area in which the majority of the monastic precinct lies, including the remains of the church, nuns' and canons' cloisters and other key monastic buildings, water-management features and fishponds. Two priory buildings, the prior's lodging and another building often described as a barn, remain standing. Extensive earthwork remains are visible across the site and indicate the extent and arrangement of the wider precinct. The core of the priory, in which area the church and attached buildings were situated, lay toward the southern end of the site and immediately to the north of the prior's lodging. The complex of buildings is orientated east-west and takes the form of two separate four-sided ranges of buildings known as cloisters, one for the nuns and the other for the male canons, connected by a passage. The plan of this complex was exposed by excavation in the late 19th century. The priory church lay to the west of the prior's lodging. The nun's cloister was built against its north side. Inside the church a wall ran along the spine of the building, creating two separate areas, ensuring that contact between nuns and canons was restricted even during the religious services. A chapel formed the south range of the canons' cloister which lay to the east of the nuns' cloister. A rectangular chapter house is situated in the eastern range of both cloisters. These chapter houses were the official meeting place where the nuns and canons met in council. The north range of both cloisters was formed by a frater, or dining room. A guest house formed the west range of the nuns' cloister, a hall formed this range of the canons' cloister. The area between the cloisters included the priory cemetery and a granary. These buildings lay at the heart of a large monastic precinct largely defined by moat-like drainage ditches. The area thus defined is roughly 22 ha in extent. The ditches are between 5m and 6m wide and up to 2m deep. Access to the monument is now from the south although the original point of entry to the precinct is currently unknown. An embanked trackway runs from north to south along the eastern boundary of the precinct although it is not clear whether this is a product of later farming activity, or whether it relates to original access points to the precinct. The large precinct was subdivided into several smaller enclosures. The main monastic buildings described above lay within an inner precinct surrounded by a series of outer courts or enclosures. The boundaries between these enclosures were formed by an extensive series of drainage ditches. These are visible throughout the precinct and vary between 2m and 10m wide and are up to 2m deep. Although much silted, most ditches remain waterlogged and some retain running water. These ditches served not only to define various enclosures, but also, along with the ditches defining the boundaries of the site, to supply water to those parts of the precinct where it was needed and to drain it from areas where it was not. The water-management features ultimately drain into Watton Beck which forms the southern boundary of the precinct. There are a number of fishponds which would have been used to rear the fish which formed an important element of the medieval monastic diet. Two heavily silted ponds 30m long, north-south, and 10m wide lie south of the claustral buildings. North east of the claustral buildings is a slightly curved fishpond. It is 67m long, north-south, up to 36m wide and 1.75m deep and is connected to drainage features to the south and east by short, silted channels. A fourth, waterlogged pond lies further north. It is 60m long, 18m wide and 1.5m deep. It has has been partially recut in recent years as a farm pond. This pond lies on the southern boundary of an embanked enclosure 200m square. This enclosure is full of ridge and furrow, evidence that it served an agricultural purpose. Further evidence of agricultural use of outer enclosures is seen to the north and east of the core buildings. Two buildings with medieval origins still stand within the site: the medieval prior's lodging, which comprises part of the modern Abbey House, and a building usually identified as a barn. The prior's lodging is a Grade I Listed Building and is excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath it, including a culverted medieval drain with which the building was connected, is included. Since the Dissolution of the priory this building has been enlarged to create a farmhouse. The barn is a derelict, two storey, brick building orientated east-west. Its original function remains unknown, though the culverting of a water-course beneath its eastern end suggests it was a major building which perhaps required access to water from the drain. One possibility is that it was an outlying dormitory building. This building was converted to a barn following the Dissolution. It is Listed at Grade II*. Two earth mounds known as Butt Hills are located to the east of the prior's lodging. One mound stands north east of the lodging and is 11m in diameter and 3m high. The second mound lies further south and has been incorporated into the garden wall. The name Butt Hills suggests that these features were associated with the practise of archery. Antiquarian accounts record that the house was fortified by Royalist troops during the English Civil War (1642-46) and local tradition reports the discovery of swords and cannon balls. The south wall of the garden is supposed to have been raised at this time; it is built from reused monastic stone and has an earth bank 10m wide and 2.5m high thrown up against it. This wall encloses the southern Butt Hill, thereby forming a circular corner tower. Earthwork remains of a mill mound and of possible water management features lie to the south and east of the monument. They cannot, currently, be positively identified as components of the priory and hence are not included in the scheduling. The Anglo-Saxon nunnery of Vetadun was founded c.AD 686 and was probably abandoned in the ninth century in the face of raids by Scandinavian Vikings. It is mentioned in the works of the historian Bede in connection with St John of Beverley who visited the site c.AD 705. The exact location of this nunnery has yet to be confirmed. However elsewhere later monastic sites were established on the sites of pre-Conquest establishments. There is a strong probability, therefore, that the site of the Anglo-Saxon nunnery underlies the medieval priory. The Gilbertine priory at Watton was founded c.1150 by Eustace FitzJohn as a penance for fighting for the Scots against the English. The priory, which was dedicated to St Mary, went on to become one of the most prosperous Gilbertine houses. There were 53 nuns at Watton in 1326 and 61 in 1378. In 1539, when the priory was dissolved, there were 9 canons and 12 nuns. Several of the canons were accused of complicity in the 1536 revolt against the Dissolution, the Pilgrimage of Grace. The priory was partially excavated between 1894 and 1898 by W St John Hope. These excavations did little more than reveal the plan of the claustral arrangement. The prior's lodging, garages north east of the lodging and the modern farm buildings at the east end of the barn are excluded from the scheduling though the ground beneath them is included. The barn remains scheduled.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


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

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Books and journals
Allen, T, The County of York, (1828), 437-43
Bede, V, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation273-4
Bulmer, T, History and Directory of East Yorkshire, (1892), 284
Bulmer, T, History and Directory of East Yorkshire, (1892), 281-84
Bulmer, T, History and Directory of East Yorkshire, (1892), 281
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 151
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 194-96
Kowles, D, St Joseph, JKS , Monastic Sites from the Air, (1952), 246-47
Lawton, G, Religious Houses of Yorkshire, (1853), 100
Midmer, R, English Medieval Monasteries 1066-1540, (1979), 100
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire - York and the East Riding, (1972), 361
Hope St John, W H, 'Archaeological Journal' in Archaeological Journal, , Vol. 58, (1901), 1-34
Brown, P, (1993)
RAF/541/189/3336-3337, (1948)
RAF/541/189/3336-3337, RAF,
RAF/541/189/3336-3337, RAF, (1948)
RAF/541/189/3336-3337, RAF, (1948)


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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