Snelshall Benedictine Priory: a moated priory site and fishponds north of Briary Plantation


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1011308

Date first listed: 19-Jan-1968

Date of most recent amendment: 22-Oct-1993


Ordnance survey map of Snelshall Benedictine Priory: a moated priory site and fishponds north of Briary Plantation
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Buckinghamshire

District: Aylesbury Vale (District Authority)

Parish: Whaddon

National Grid Reference: SP 81623 34476


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 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.

Although there is now no surface trace of the buildings of Snelshall Priory, the earthwork complex is largely complete and well-defined, and archaeological remains will survive below ground. The water management system with its complex of drainage channels and fishponds allows an insight into the problems faced by the monastic community in occupying such a low lying site and the way in which they attempted to solve them. The abandonment of the site with little subsequent disturbance indicates that archaeological survival of cultural material within the site's confines will be good. The wet nature of the situation may also allow organic survival in the various ditch fills. It is also thought likely that environmental evidence relating to the landscape in which the community existed will survive, particularly in the sediments of the fishponds. Viewed in terms of its relationship to other medieval monuments in the area, such as Tattenhoe moat and village remains which lie only 1.4km to the east, the site represents an important element in a very complete picture of the medieval landscape surviving in this area.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument contains the extensive earthwork remains of Snelshall Priory and includes the site of the monastery buildings themselves, the perimeter moat, fishponds and drainage system. The priory is believed to have been founded around 1147 as a cell of Lavendon Abbey by Premonstratensian canons. By 1204 this cell had failed and the site passed into the hands of the Benedictine order, the monks occupying the site sometime before 1219. This Benedictine foundation, dedicated to St Leonard, seems to have enjoyed a degree of prosperity for a while, a tower being added to the priory church in 1224. The site continued in Benedictine hands up until its dissolution in 1535 when materials from the site are said to have been re- used to construct a new chapel at Tattenhoe. There is a record of the house and precincts of the dissolved priory being sold into secular hands in May 1620. Subsequently the site remained in use as part of an agricultural holding with the site of the priory buildings occupied by a farmhouse described as having a stone base with a wooden superstructure, the north side of which was supported on some of the arches of the cloister. Occupation of the site ceased sometime before 1830 when the farmhouse was demolished and the site abandoned to pasture. Today nothing survives above ground of the priory buildings or of the later farm buildings. However extensive earthworks and buried remains relating to the priory do survive. These include the perimeter boundary ditch of the priory complex which averages 6m wide and 1.2m deep and is complete throughout its length forming a rectangular enclosure 268m north-west to south-east by 238m north-east to south-west. In places, particularly along the western side of the enclosure, a low bank 4m wide and 0.4m high runs along the inner edge of this ditch. The ditch does not appear to have been designed principally for defence but rather to provide drainage for the interior of the enclosure. The site is low lying and any occupation of the site on a long term basis would have required adequate drainage provision. The interior of the enclosure is sub-divided by a series of ditches and slight banks into rectangular plots. The banks average 0.2m high, while the ditches are more pronounced averaging 2.2m wide and 0.4m deep. These appear designed to assist drainage of the interior while also marking the extent of small possible garden plots. The ditches feed into a series of rectilinear ponds which would have served as fishponds and drainage sumps. The largest of these survives water-filled and lies orientated north-east to south-west with dimensions of 95m by 12m. It is cut into the land surface with the spoil thrown outwards to form flanking embankments along the north-west and south-east edges of the pond. A second smaller pond is similarly orientated and has dimensions of 31m by 10m; it lies some 40m south-west of the former. A third probable dry pond measuring 20m south-west to north-east by 10m transversely lies some 80m to the north-west of the latter. All are interlinked by the internal system of ditches described above. Although there is no visible surface evidence of walling, either of the priory buildings themselves or of the later farm buildings, there are two rectangular platforms each defined by shallow ditches averaging 4m wide and 0.5m deep, which are again linked into the internal drainage system and which are considered to represent the site of the main building complex. The most southerly platform lies adjacent to the north side of the second fishpond and has internal dimensions of 35m by 24m. The more northerly platform lies some 80m north-west of the larger fishpond and has internal dimensions of 34m north-east to south-west by 26m transversely. The ditch surrounding the north, east and south sides of this platform is linked by shallow drainage ditches with the perimeter moat to the north-west and the large fishpond to the south-east. An oval depression 12m by 8m in the interior of this platform probably represents later disturbance. All modern structures and boundary features are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them 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.

Legacy System number: 19061

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire: Volume I, (1905), 352-353
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 57,77
Jenkins, J G, 'Bucks Record Soc.' in Cartulary of Snelshall Priory, , Vol. 9, (1952)
Conversation with CAO,
Doc 372/22 no 7 BAS Muniment Rm., Caleddar of Deeds, Bucks Record Soc.,

End of official listing