Thornton Abbey Augustinian monastery: gatehouse, precinct, medieval road and bridge, moat, fishponds, post-Dissolution college and school, and house
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1011198
Date first listed: 08-Feb-1915
Date of most recent amendment: 23-Oct-1992
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: North Lincolnshire (Unitary Authority)
Parish: East Halton
District: North Lincolnshire (Unitary Authority)
Parish: Thornton Curtis
National Grid Reference: TA 11784 19009
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
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 some 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 225 of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as 'black canons' because of the dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running almshouses, schools, hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their revenue. The Augustinians 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. Thornton Abbey is an important example of a wealthy Augustinian monastery and unusual in that it survived in use after the Dissolution as a secular college. Although, in the main, its standing remains do not survive well, having been systematically quarried after the college was suppressed, the foundations of a wide variety of monastic buildings are still in place and provide a good illustration of the layout of this type of monastery. The gatehouse and barbican, which survive almost intact, are the best preserved of any monastery in the country. Furthermore, the buried remains of other buildings and features survive in the extensive precinct which is still defined by its original encircling moat. Together with a complex system of fishponds and other water-management works, these will provide importance evidence of the economy and way of life peculiar to Augustinian canons. The site is unusual in having very good documentary evidence contained within a 16th century Chronicle and a 1539 Augmentation Survey. These provide excellent detail of individual buildings. Such detailed documentation is rare for an Augustinian house and considerably improves our understanding of it.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Thornton Abbey is situated in Lindsey, south of the Humber estuary, and was
formerly in the county of Lincolnshire. The monument comprises a single area
which contains the late fourteenth century gatehouse and barbican of the
Augustinian monastery, an outer precinct surrounded by a moat and containing
the earthwork remains of a wide variety of ancillary features and buildings,
the walled inner precinct containing the foundations of the abbey church and
other cloister buildings and the buried remains of additional structures, the
site of the medieval road that predated the abbey, the remains of the
fourteenth century bridge that underlie modern College Bridge, and a large
number of monastic fishponds. In addition, after the Dissolution of the
Monasteries, Henry VIII refounded the abbey as a college of secular priests
and a school for fourteen boys, re-using buildings of the former monastery.
This college was suppressed by Edward VI in 1547 and demolished by Sir Vincent
Skinner in 1610. Out of the remains, Skinner built a stately house which
subsequently collapsed. The site of this house also lies within the inner
The best preserved standing remains are of the abbey gatehouse. This is a
three storey structure built largely of brick and originally rendered with
white mortar. It was built in the 1360s and enlarged and defended after
licence to fortify was granted to the abbey in 1382 and appears to have had an
administrative function since it contained the Abbot's exchequer and
courthouse. Three floors were built above a central gate-passage. The first
housed a great hall with a fireplace and an oriel window. The second and third
contained a complex of passages and rooms and included a large room on the
second floor originally divided by wooden partitions. In addition there were
eight privies and a latrine. The gate-passage underneath is vaulted and leads
at the rear to two original oak gates which date to the fourteenth century.
The front of the gatehouse is richly ornamented but has lost most of its
battlements on which originally stood statues of men-at-arms and artisans.
Other statues stood in niches on the front wall and a number of these survive.
Approaching the gatehouse from the front is a barbican consisting of two
parallel brick walls 38m long and ending in round turrets. This was built
c1382 and is believed to have ended in a drawbridge which led over a now
filled-in extension of the moat. It incorporates the remains of an earlier
bridge across the moat. Wing-walls flank the gatehouse to north and south and
turn at right-angles to enclose the inner precinct.
The moat is at its widest in front of the gatehouse where it measures c 20m
across and is still partially water-filled. It extends for c 300m to north and
south then turns east for c 400m to meet East Halton Beck, enclosing a
precinct of c 29 hectares. Fed by the moat are at least two separate groups
of fishponds. The northernmost group lies north-east of the church. The
southernmost lies outside the south-east corner and consists of a small
detached pool adjacent to a group of three small pools and one larger
surrounded by a moat. An arm of the main moat which crosses the precinct north
of the gatehouse may also have served as a fishpond, as may a similar ditch
crossing south of the cloister buildings. A number of other ditches can be
seen crossing the precinct and are part of the system of water-management
works which served the monastery.
An extensive survey of the earthworks visible in both the inner and outer
precincts indicates the survival of walled or ditched enclosures and the
foundations of many buildings of various sizes in addition to smaller
enclosures or pens. None of these have been excavated and so their functions
cannot yet be precisely determined. However, they will undoubtedly conform to
the usual range of monastic ancillary buildings and include, for example,
storehouses, workshops, and barns. Documentary evidence already points to the
existence at Thornton Abbey of barns, granaries, a brewhouse and bakehouse, an
extensive guesthouse and possibly also a mill. It is also clear that the home
grange (or chief monastic farm) lay in the north of the area of the
scheduling. Many of the other documented buildings will lie within the walled
inner precinct which also contained the abbey church and cloister buildings.
Although little remains standing of the cloister buildings, the foundations
remain and were excavated by Charles, first Earl of Yarborough in the 1830s.
Much of the ground-plan was thus uncovered and a typical monastic layout
However, excavation was not carried out below the level of the latest remains
and so details of the layout of the first cloister and church, built at the
monastery's foundation, are, at present, not understood. The earliest visible
remains are of the vaulted undercroft of the east cloister range. These date
to the early thirteenth century and indicate a range of small rooms, one of
which has been interpreted as the warming house. These stood beneath the first
floor dorter or monk's dormitory. A passage or slype separated the warming
house from the rest of the range until it was blocked in the fifteenth century
or later. North of the undercroft are the late thirteenth century remains of
the vestibule and a narrow room interpreted as the parlour, where necessary
conversation was permitted. The vestibule leads into the chapter house which
is still partially standing. This octagonal structure was begun in 1282 and
was floored in 1308. The surviving walls are decorated with window tracery
which is assumed to have mimicked actual windows in the sides which are no
longer standing. The remains of the stone seat which lined the walls of the
chapter house can be seen on either side of the entrance into the vestibule.
The north range of the cloister comprised, as was usual, the abbey church. The
surviving foundations indicate a late thirteenth century building with
alterations made to the nave in the early fourteenth century when another
aisle, the southern, was added. A chapel dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury
(Becket) was built off the north side of the presbytery at this time and a
Lady Chapel was built behind the high altar later in the same century. The
early fourteenth century alterations to the nave were made at the same time as
the building of two new cloister ranges, the west and south, begun in 1322-3.
These almost certainly replaced earlier buildings, the foundations of which
will survive beneath the visible remains of the later. The fourteenth century
west range consisted of a vaulted undercroft of seven double bays. This would
have been used for storage and the first floor rooms above would have been
either lay-brothers' accommodation or possibly the lodgings of the earlier
abbots. A second roughly identical undercroft, formed the ground-floor of the
south range which would have housed the monks' frater or refectory on the
first floor. The remains of other cloister buildings have not yet been
excavated but these will include an infirmary, often found to the east of the
east range adjacent to the abbey cemetery, kitchens which were usually built
to the south of the south range, and the reredorter or latrine which usually
adjoined the dorter (dormitory). Prior to the foundation of the abbey, a road
ran through the area that was to become the monastic precinct. When the
monastery was established, this road was diverted round the north side of the
precinct along its current route but the remains of the pre-monastic road will
survive in the precinct. In addition, where the later road crossed East Halton
Beck a bridge was built and has been rebuilt on the same site down to the
present day. Incorporated into the modern structure are the substantial
remains of a fourteenth century bridge.
The monastery was founded as a priory in 1139 by William LeGros, Count of
Aumale, and was raised to the status of abbey in 1148. It was colonised by
twelve black canons from the Augustinian priory at Kirkham in North Yorkshire
and became one of the richest Augustinian houses in the country. As noted
above, after its suppression in 1539, Henry VIII refounded it as the College
of the Holy Trinity whose establishment was part of the King's plan to create
new dioceses and secular schools whose purposes included the ministration of
the sacraments and the education of young boys. The college lasted only
six years, however, then the gatehouse and a number of other buildings were
granted to Henry Randes, Bishop of Lincoln, who went on to acquire the whole
site freehold. In 1575, his son sold it to Sir Robert Tyrwhitt whose own
grandson sold it in 1602 to Sir Vincent Skinner. An account of Abraham de la
Pryme, written in 1692, indicates that Skinner demolished the buildings and
from the stone built a house on the west side of the abbey plot within the
moat; that is, inside the abbey precinct. This house is said to have collapsed
without visible cause. Skinner then built another house on the site. Trenches
north-east of the gatehouse, dug when building stone was removed from the
site, are thought to indicate the position of one of the Skinner houses. In
1720, the site passed to Sir Robert Sutton, in 1792 to George Uppleby and, in
1816, to Charles, First Lord Yarborough whose son carried out the excavations
of the cloister ranges. The gatehouse and cloister buildings have been in
State care since 1938. They and the Barbican, precinct walls, remains
of the church and Abbot's Lodge are Grade I Listed, while the coachhouse and
the ruins of the south precinct gateway, the garden and orchard walls and the
bridge are Listed Grade II. A number of items within the area are excluded
from the scheduling though the ground beneath is included. These are the
buildings of Abbey Lodge Farm (Abbot's Lodge), all modern walling and fencing,
the surfaces of all paths and drives and all English Heritage fixtures and
fittings. In addition, only the medieval fabric of College Bridge is included
in the scheduling. The modern fabric, and the surface of the modern road which
crosses the bridge, are excluded.
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.
Legacy System number: 13377
Legacy System: RSM
Books and journals
Clapham, A , Baillie Reynolds, P K, Thornton Abbey, (1989)
Clapham, A , Baillie Reynolds, P K, Thornton Abbey, (1989), 102-3
Coppack, G, English Heritage Book of Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 142
Coppack, G, English Heritage Book of Abbeys and Priories, (1990)
Coppack, G, English Heritage Book of Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 102-3
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 418,441
Pevsner, N, Harris, J, Antram, N, The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire, (1989), 400
Dated 21 February 1992, Coppack, Glyn (PIC PIAM), Letter to Bill Startin (MPP PIAM),
Extracts from the diary of Abraham de la Pryme, (1692)
In SMR (PRN 2244), Atkins, Caroline, Thornton Abbey precinct, (1980)
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