Site of Meaux Cistercian Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
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 09229 39408

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. Some 75 of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or "white monks", on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Meaux Abbey is an important example of a wealthy Cistercian monastery; it was one of the most important of the Yorkshire monasteries along with Rievaulx. This importance is indicated by the scale of the monastic precinct and the scale and quality of its buildings. Although no buildings survive above foundation level, extensive remains indicating their position and extent survive as earthworks across the whole of the site. The functions of some of these buildings have been confirmed by excavation, this work also confirmed that considerable information on their architectural style and detail survives.

Unusually the monastic precinct was largely abandoned after being robbed for building stone following the Dissolution and it remains unencumbered by later buildings, a factor which has contributed to the good survival of the below ground medieval remains. The survival of the wider monastic precinct with its complex system of water-management earthworks is also unusual. These remains will retain considerable information on the range of religious, agricultural, and industrial activities which took place within the precinct and helped support the monastic economy.


Meaux Abbey, also referred to in records as Melsa, is situated on a slight rise in the valley of the River Hull, almost opposite Beverley. Its name meaning `lake with a sandy shore' indicates its former watery situation. The monument comprises a single area containing the whole of the medieval abbey precinct. None of the abbey buildings now remains standing, but extensive earthwork remains visible across the whole of the precinct indicate the position of most of the key monastic buildings.

The core of the abbey, in which the church and attached buildings were situated, lay towards the centre of the site. These buildings follow the usual layout of a Cistercian monastery with the church orientated east-west and forming the north range of a four-sided complex known as a cloister. The church, which is identifiable on the ground by its grassed-over wall footings, was a major building 80m long which had an aisled nave of nine bays, a short choir, a central bell tower, and transepts with eastern chapels. Internally it is known to have been paved with fine mosaic tile floors, as at nearby Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys. Many of these tiles are known to have been removed; examples can now be seen in the British Museum and other collections, whilst a section of flooring is also preserved in Meaux Abbey Farm. This stone church was begun in 1207 and was dedicated in 1253; it replaced a smaller stone and wood church built in 1160 which had been constructed from materials from the demolished motte and bailey castle at Mount Ferrant near Birdsall.

The cloister lying to the south of the church is also identifiable on the ground through its earthwork remains. It measures 37m by 34m. Its eastern range is known to have housed a library of over 300 books; this lay between the south transept of the church and a rectangular chapter house. The chapter house was an official meeting-place within the abbey where the monks met in council. As at other abbeys and monasteries it was used as a place of burial for leading ecclesiastics associated with the abbey. The south range of the cloister was formed by the refectory, or monks' dining room; The west range housed the lay-brothers accommodation. These four ranges surrounded an open space, roughly square in plan, which was surrounded by a galleried and covered passageway used by the monks for study and exercise. To the east of the claustral buildings other earthworks have been identified as the remains of the infirmary, chapel, and hall. Originally the infirmary complex would have been more extensive and may have included its own cloister as at Rievaulx Abbey. Attached to the infirmary hall was a wing built by the thirteenth abbot for his retirement. To the east of this wing are the grassed over footings of a brick hall measuring 19m by 8m which has been identified as the abbot's lodging.

These buildings lay at the heart of a large monastic precinct which was defined on all sides by large moat-like drainage ditches. The area thus defined is roughly 34ha (85 acres) in extent. The surrounding moats range between 5m and 10m wide and are up to 1.5m deep; they remain water-filled today and drain in a south easterly direction; it is likely that this was the pattern followed by the medieval system. This precinct was entered at its north west corner through a great gateway. A `Capella extra Portas' or `chapel outside the gates' is known to have stood immediately to the north of the Great Gate. Slightly further north of the chapel was the Puleynghat (Poultry Gate) which was reputedly kept closed when the Great Gate was open to prevent the abbey chickens escaping. Other lesser gateways may have provided access into the precinct at other points, the position of any such access points has not been firmly identified.

The large precinct thus defined was subdivided into several smaller enclosures. The main monastic buildings described above lay within an inner precinct; this was 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 1.5m deep. Although now much silted many remain waterlogged; some retain running water. These ditches served not only to define the various enclosures, but also, with the enclosing moats, to supply water to those parts of the precinct where it was needed and to drain it from areas where it was not. Additionally these complex water-management earthworks are known to have had other functions. In the Chronicle, one of the main documentary references to the abbey, three channels, the Markdyke, Lamwathdyke, and the Eschedike (a canal which connected the abbey to the River Hull) are named. The Eschedike has been identified to have run through the western part of the precinct, dividing the Great Court from the Outer Court, before running south in the direction of Hull. The course of this canal is now visible as a deep drainage ditch. The exact location of the other named channels is unknown, but Abbot Richard (1221-35) is credited as having `had ditches made in many places to convey provisions to the Abbey' and as being the first to begin wells and conduits in the monastery.

The Great Court of the monastery lay immediately to the west of the church. The south side of this court was formed by the New Guest House which is known to have replaced the earlier lay-brothers infirmary. This building still stood, albeit in ruins, in the 18th century, and was the most prominent feature of the site then. The western boundary of this court was formed by a mill-pond.

The Outer Court lay to the west of the Great Court, separated from it by the course of the Eschedike and bounded to north, west, and south by a ditch 10m wide and 2m deep. This area contains ridge and furrow earthworks indicating its use for arable cultivation, although this court is also known to have contained the common stable and a lay infirmary. A postmill mound was later constructed in the court; the mound on which it was set remains visible overlying the ridge and furrow. This mill may have been a replacement for an earlier horse-powered mill constructed by Abbot Butler, which is known to have been unsatisfactory.

To the north of the church and the Great Court, a triangular enclosure contains, on its northern side, three interlinked fishponds. These lie parallel to the main enclosing moat and are linked to it, each other, and adjacent drainage ditches by well-preserved sluice channels. The westernmost pond measures 24m by 9m and is 1m deep; the middle pond is slightly smaller and measures 27m by 10m by 1m deep; the easternmost pond measures 27m by 7m wide and is 0.75m deep. These ponds would have been used to rear fish which formed an important element of the medieval monks' diet.

East of this enclosure and in the north eastern corner of the precinct is a large rectangular enclosure which is known to have been a monastic orchard. It retains the grassed over foundations of a chapel known as `the Chapel in the Woods' founded in around 1238 as a chantry chapel endowed so that masses could be sung for Isabella de Mauley, its founder. Later this enclosure was given over to arable cultivation, as indicated by visible ridge and furrow earthworks, although the date of this change is uncertain.

To the south of the refectory and infirmary two triangular enclosures include ponds, platforms and the sites of various buildings; together these various remains indicate that industrial processes such as iron-working and tanning were carried out here.

In the south western corner of the monument a large enclosure is full of ridge and furrow earthworks, indicating its former use for arable cultivation. In addition to the above, the abbey is also known to have owned water-mills constructed in the 1260's. These were located at the junction of the Eschedike and River Hull. These appear to have lain outside the main monastic precinct, but their exact location has yet to be fully ascertained. Additionally a vacary, or monastic cattle ranch, known as Felsa, lay to the north of the Abbey at Fewsome Hill.

Meaux Abbey was founded circa 1150 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale, on a site originally intended as a hunting lodge. A daughter house of Fountains Abbey, with extensive endowments in Holderness, it prospered during the 13th century, draining the surrounding marshes and founding the port of Wyke, later Kingston upon Hull, as an outlet for the wool of its flocks of sheep. By 1249 there were 60 monks and 90 lay brothers, but all but 10 of the community died in the Black Death (1348-49), and there were only 28 monks in 1393 and 25 at the Dissolution. Details of the abbey's endowments, building history, and disputes with neighbouring landowners were chronicled by Abbot William Burton in circa 1430.

The buildings were almost entirely demolished in 1542 to provide materials for Henry VIII's blockhouses and western wall at Hull. A note of 1542 mentions `20 masons, some of the Mewesse to see it taken down, to plumbers to take down and roll the lead...300 labourers taking down stones and brick.'

During the 18th and 19th centuries there were sporadic antiquarian excavations at the site, including the opening of graves and the removal of mosaic tiled floors. The first systematic excavations were carried out between 1925 and 1935. During these years G K Beaulah and W Foot Walker dug trenches to establish the position and plan of the monastic church; a large culverted drain was also located and recorded during this work. In 1925 the curator of Hull Museum, Tom Sheppard, also carried out limited excavations, including excavation of the drain, finding late medieval pottery and leatherwork. A full survey of the earthworks was carried out by the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in 1980.

A derelict cottage on the site is excluded from the scheduling, though the ground beneath it is included.

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
Donkin, R A, The Cistercians: Studies in the geog. of Med. England & Wales, (1978), 55ff
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 122
Le Patourel, H E J, Moated site of Yorkshire, (1973), 114
Midmer, R, English Medieval Monasteries 1066-1540, (1979)
Oliver, , History and Antiquity of Beverley, (1829), 534-542
'Medieval Archaeology' in Medieval Archaeology, , Vol. 3, (1959), 325-326
'Medieval Archaeology' in Medieval Archaeology, , Vol. 5, (1961), 137-8
'Medieval Archaeology' in Medieval Archaeology, , Vol. 1, (1951), 171
Butler, R, 'Arch. J.' in Meaux Abbey, (1984), 48
Butler, R, 'Proceedings of the Royal Archaeological Institute' in Meaux Abbey, (1984), 146-8
Shephard, T, 'Pamphlets' in Meaux Abbey, , Vol. 32, (1930), 1-ff
Shephard, T, 'Pamphlets' in Meaux Abbey, , Vol. 31, (1929), 1-ff
1513, Humberside SMR,
1513, Humberside SMR,


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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