Dunkeswell Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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

East Devon (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
ST 13995 10668, ST 14269 10699

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.

Dunkeswell Abbey is situated in an isolated rural location. The surrounding area contains a series of earthworks which have the potential for locating the abbey in a wider context of landscape history, and which may provide information on the improvement of difficult land traditionally undertaken by the Cistercian order, particularly, at Dunkeswell, in relation to water management schemes. The history of the abbey is well documented and the design of the buildings include some unusual features. The buried remains are extensive and relatively undamaged by subsequent activity. The associated fishponds will contain deposits providing artefactual and environmental evidence relating to the abbey, its surrounding environment and the economy of its inhabitants.


Dunkeswell Abbey is situated to the south of the Blackdown Hills in the hamlet of Abbey, some 3km to the north of the village of Dunkeswell and the parish church. It lies in permanent pasture on the west side of the wide shallow valley of the north flowing Madford River, a tributary of the River Culm. The monument, which falls into two areas, includes the known extent of the upstanding and buried remains of a Cistercian abbey in occupation between 1201 and 1539 and its associated fishponds. The visible remains of the abbey exist as a number of ruined and adapted structures laid out in the traditional monastic plan in which a church and ranges of two storied buildings were grouped around the central square open court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings further from the nucleus. They include the remains of the abbey church incorporated into the graveyard of a Victorian church, the west range of the cloister, in part incorporated into the buildings of Abbey Meadows farm, the gatehouse, in part incorporated into Abbey Cottage, and the fishponds. The walls are of random rubble construction utilising local chert and flint, roughly squared into blocks, with ashlar and carved details in sandstone, and Ham and Beer limestone. The abbey church was of cruciform plan, aligned east-west, and about 56m in length. The south west corner of the nave joins with the north east corner of the west range. Sections of the west front, up to 1.4m in height, are visible in the boundary walls of the graveyard, and include the north west corner of the church and a 7.5m length of the north wall. The width of the nave was 17.2m. The position of the north transept is marked by a raised area in the field to the north of the Victorian church. Part of the north wall of the presbytery is visible, some 2m in height, at the east end of the north wall of the graveyard. The east wall of the graveyard is on the alignment of the east wall of the presbytery. The dimensions and alignments of these walls indicate that the nave of the abbey church was aisled on its south side. The cloister stood to the south of the abbey church and had sides of about 28m square. The west range of the cloister is about 42m long by 8.2m wide, surviving as several substantial sections of walling up to 1.3m thick. The best preserved section is the north gable-end which stands to a height of 8.1m and incorporates a large ground floor fireplace and a chimney with an internal dividing wall and external buttress. The adjoining section of the east wall is 13.2m in length, with the north room being 11.2m. The interior of the gable has the chasing of a lean-to roof dating from the post-dissolution use of the building. The south end of the range lies in an orchard and consists of a further section of the east wall, about 11m in length and an estimated 7m high. Its southern part is incorporated into the west wall of a small farm building; it retains the wall scar of part of the south wall of the south range and ends with a wall return to the west along the line of the southern boundary wall of the orchard. A section of the west wall of the range survives to 4.7m in length and has, at its north end, a wall extending 3.3m to the west. The retaining wall forming the south side of the orchard includes a section of wall that is some 5m south and parallel with this offset. These two walls indicate that the south end of the west range had an extension to the west. The west wall and offset now form two sides of a shed. The area of the west range appears to be buried to a depth of about 1.5m in debris from the buildings. Other buildings of Abbey Meadows farm may incorporate medieval fabric. In keeping with the layout characteristic of Cistercian abbeys, the west range extended to the south of the cloister and south range. The ground floor was used, in part, for storage. The first floor would have included the dorter (dormitory) of the lay brothers, and the section extending to the west may be the remains of their rere-dorter (toilets). It is unusual for a room with a large fireplace to be located on the ground floor of the northern end of the range. Along part of the east wall of the west range the cloister walk can be traced. It is about 3m in width, its east wall, which contains the scars of five buttresses, now incorporated into the decaying boundary of the orchard. The layout of the rooms forming the east range and most of the south range has been revealed as parchmarks in the grass in exceptionally dry summers. The south transept extends about 13m from the abbey church and is about 12m in width. The east range is uniformly of the same width, and extends about a further 40m south of the transept. Traditionally the ground floor rooms of the east range included the sacristy (vestry) and chapter house, which was usually vaulted. The first floor was occupied by the monks dorter (dormitory). The exact layout of the south range is less clear, in the characteristic Cistercian layout it would have included the frater (dining hall), aligned north-south. The locations of the monks rere-dorter and the infirmary are not known, but traditionally would have been to the east of the east range. The gatehouse stands some 70m to the west of the abbey church. It is a rectangular structure, of some 15m by 8m overall, consisting of a symmetrical layout of a single wide gate-passage, aligned east-west, flanked by two small, two storied dwellings. The southern dwelling was subsequently incorporated into a cottage. The gatehouse is of late 15th century date, and its fabric includes all of the observable in-situ moulded architectural detail on the site. The north gable-end of the ruined northern dwelling survives to a height of 7.1m. The ground floor room was entered from the gate passage, and was furnished with a fireplace and a spiral stair, partly housed in an external multi-angular turret, projecting from the rear, east wall. The outer north west corner of the gatehouse retains the scar of the precinct wall. This formed the outer wall of a roofed, two storied passage, of 1.5m internal width, extending northwards, and with a door opening into the upper room of the gatehouse. This structure is an unusual feature. The garages to the north of the gatehouse may incorporate associated medieval fabric. Within Abbey Cottage the rear wall of the ground floor room retains a moulded doorway with the passage through the wall angled to the south, indicating that it originally gave access to a stair turret. The gate-passage only retains sections of an arch on its outer, west side. The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a wall and contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and cloister, all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the abbey was capable of sustaining. Many of these structures would have been of timber construction. At Dunkeswell part of the western line of the precinct is defined by the straight property boundary extending north and south of the gatehouse. In the pasture to the east of the abbey there is a slight terrace which lies parallel with the river and curves around the north east of the abbey church. This earthwork defines the western limit of the area liable to flooding and probably represents the line of the precinct to the east. The land in the vicinity of the abbey contains a number of earthworks. The fishponds are situated on the west side of the hamlet, some 100m from the abbey gatehouse, in a small east-west valley that contains a stream flowing east to the Madford. They include a rectangular area of well preserved, now dry, earthworks of some 170m by 70m overall, the main elements of which are two substantial parallel dams. Both pond bays become deeper towards the dams and have inlet channels in their south west corners. The ponds are separated from the stream to the south by an embankment up to 1.8m in height. This section of the stream appears to have been diverted and canalised, being about 1.5m lower than the land to the south and also significantly lower than the inlet channels. The dams and the banks of the stream can be expected to contain the buried remains of sluice-gates for controlling the water in the ponds and there is a high probability of the area containing waterlogged deposits. The western pond is about 80m by 55m internally, being retained on its west and north sides by flat-topped embankments, about 8m in width at its base and 1.5m maximum height. The dam forming the east side is some 10m wide at its base and over 2m high, cut by a central channel of some 2.2m width that has evidently been widened for farm vehicles. The eastern pond is about 60m square internally and is at a slightly lower level. Its north side is terraced into the hill slope by up to 1m. The dam forming its east side is a more complex structure which may have been altered in more recent times. It too contains a channel, to the south of centre, through which the stream now runs. North of the channel the dam is about 1.5m high, its northernmost part and east side being obscured beneath the lane. South of the channel, the dam forms a substantial rounded mound of some 2.5m in height, which has the stream flowing along its western, inner side. Earlier this century the stream ran around the east side of the dam and down the west side of the lane, which forded the stream where it turned to flow east. An essential part of the design of all abbeys was the provision of a supply of fresh running water. At Dunkeswell the main water source appears to have been the stream supplying the fishponds. The water supply would have been taken from the stream by a leat at a point above where it could have been contaminated by overflow from the fishponds. This consideration places the probable location of the head of the leat at the south east corner of the ponds. North of the abbey the stream runs in a stone-lined canal, the bed of which is paved for its eastern 9m. The abbey was founded in 1201 by William Brewer, an influential figure in the Plantagenet court, following his granting of all his lands in Dunkeswell parish to the Cistercian order. It was colonised by monks from Forde Abbey in Dorset and dedicated to St Mary. Documentary evidence suggests that William Brewer was buried in the abbey on his death in 1226. By the end of the 13th century the abbey had gained substantially in wealth from grants that included land and churches, mainly in east Devon. In 1291 18 estates are recorded. In 1290 it was granted weekly markets at Buckland Brewer and Broadhembury. The Cistercian order in general inclined toward the pioneer cultivation of areas of waste or difficult land and documentary evidence suggests that this policy was followed at Dunkeswell. An associated practice was the creation of grange farms which the abbey established on a number of its holdings, the most important being located on the land in adjacent parishes. In 1539 there was an abbot and nine monks in residence. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 following an Act of Parliament of 1538 in which the largest and wealthiest religious houses were surrendered to Henry VIII. A condition of the subsequent sale of the buildings was that they were to be rendered unfit for monastic use, and this was greatly assisted by the Crown's sequestration of the roofing lead. Following their disposal by the Crown, parts of the buildings were often converted to habitable use and this appears to have been the case at Dunkeswell. In 1539 Lord Russell bought the most valuable parts of the estate and sold the abbey buildings to John Haydon for the salvage of building materials. In 1541, Russell exchanged the abbey site which was then returned to Crown ownership and was leased. At the end of the 18th century the Dunkeswell estate came into the ownership of the Simcoe family. The sale indentures and lease inventories give some indication of the process of destruction and reuse of the abbey. In 1539 the church, chancel, tower, cloister, dorter (dormitory), frater (dining hall) and houses are referred to. The division of any treasure found in tombs or elsewhere was also mentioned at this time. In 1635 an oven house is mentioned,in 1656 houses called `the seller' and `the chapel', and in 1672 the `circuit and precinct'. In 1794, Swete recorded the ruins of the gatehouse, with the cottage to the south and abutted on the north side by a larger ruined building. In the mid-19th century the Simcoe family made sketches of the ruins and were instrumental in building the present church on the site of the abbey church in 1841-2. This involved the clearance of parts of the ruins and the reuse of the stone. During the construction of the present church the Simcoe family made a plan of the exposed foundations of the abbey church. The plan is difficult to understand and interpret. Two burials were disturbed at that time. In 1913, parchmarks were recorded that show the extent of the east cloister range. In 1959, the Dunkeswell Abbey Preservation Fund was founded to preserve, repair and restore the ruins of the abbey. In 1989 a detailed fabric survey was undertaken of the gatehouse, north end of the west range, and parts of the west front of the abbey church. The following are Listed Buildings Grade II: the ruined gatehouse, the Church of the Holy Trinity, Abbey Cottage and Abbey Meadows Farmhouse. The scheduling comprises two areas enclosing what is currently recognised as the extent of the abbey and fishponds. Within the designated areas the following are excluded: the church and graveyard extension; all dwellings, modern farm buildings, made-up roads and tracks; power-cable poles; garages, sheds and footbridges; and gate and fence posts, although the ground beneath all these features, with the exception of the graveyard extension, is included.

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


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Books and journals
Blaylock, S, 'Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit Report' in Dunkeswell Abbey, Devon: A Survey of the Standing Remains, , Vol. 89.05, (1989)
Chapple, P, 'Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries' in Dunkeswell Abbey, , Vol. 8, (1915), 8-9
Weddell, P, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Dunkeswell Abbey, , Vol. 11, (1986)


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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