Newenham Abbey


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1011671

Date first listed: 31-Aug-1956

Date of most recent amendment: 03-Apr-1995


Ordnance survey map of Newenham Abbey
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Devon

District: East Devon (District Authority)

Parish: Axminster

National Grid Reference: SY 28728 97364


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. 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.

The rural location of Newenham has meant that the layout of the abbey has been preserved and that its design can be determined from the existing structures and antiquarian records. The buried remains are extensive and relatively unharmed by subsequent activity. The abbey is in close proximity to the town of Axminster, which emerged as a major centre for cloth manufacture in the medieval period. This association is a good example of the inter-relationship between Cistercian land use and the regional economy.


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Newenham Abbey is situated to the south east of the town of Axminster in agricultural land on the eastern edge of the wide floodplain of the River Axe. The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of an abbey of the Cistercian order in occupation from 1246 until 1539. The abbey conforms to the traditional monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of two-storied buildings were grouped around the central open square court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings farther from the nucleus. The visible remains exist as ruined and adapted structures consisting of parts of the abbey church and west range incorporated into the buildings of Lower Abbey Farm, which is Listed Grade II. The buried remains are far more extensive and include a barn and a chapel beneath the buildings of Higher Abbey Farm, which is also Listed Grade II. A small stream flows past the site and north westwards to the Axe. The walls are of coursed rubble construction with fine ashlar quoins, utilising local limestone. Architectural mouldings are in limestone and a grey lias, which would have produced a polychrome effect in the original structures. The layout of the nucleus of the abbey has been reconstructed from a number of field observations and documentary sources. The cloister stood to the south of the church and had sides of some 36m square. Documentary evidence suggests that the cloister-walks were enclosed on their inner sides. The 13th century abbey church was of cruciform plan, aligned east-west, and over 80m in length, with a nave some 23m wide, and evidently aisled on both sides. The transepts were about 19m in width and were aisled on their east sides to each accommodate three chapels. This layout indicates that the church had a narrow presbytery, a design that was in general outmoded with the Cistercians in the 13th century. A substantial section of the south wall of the nave is incorporated into the modern farm buildings. It is about 14.1m in length and survives to a height of 3.8m. It contains two large recesses with round arches, 2.4m wide, and 0.9m deep in a total wall thickness of about 1.3m. They retain some fine ashlar quoins, and the remains on the west side of a third recess indicates that these features were evenly spaced along the outer face of the nave, providing seats and/or storage space in the north cloister walk. The west end of the nave wall has a return to the south which forms the east wall of the west range. The nave arcades were constructed on substantial foundations, probably to assist in the support of a tower above the crossing. The pulpitum (screen between the nave and the monks quire) was also built on a substantial wall, which may be the relic of an intermediate phase of construction. A burial has been uncovered in the interior of the church, and at least part of the floor was tiled. A substantial section of the east wall of the west range of the cloister survives as the east wall of the farmhouse of Lower Abbey Farm. It is 1.3m in thickness, and extends the entire length of the house, some 19m, and apparently its full height of two stories. The wall contains a square-headed moulded doorway, 1m wide, and now blocked, which is visible inside the rear porch of the house. The doorway has been interpreted as leading from the cloister into the monks parlour, the only room in the abbey in which conversation was permitted. It is probable that some of the transverse walls within the farmhouse incorporate medieval fabric. The west range appears to have been about 60m in length, with its north end abutting the south wall of the nave of the church. On the evidence of the buildings of the south range, the west range would have been about 9m in overall width. In addition to the parlour, the ground floor of the range was traditionally used in part for storage. The first floor would have contained the dorter (dormitory) of the lay brothers. To the east of the cloister, the site of the south transept and east range is visible as an area of uneven ground in a pasture field. The chapter house appears to have been some 19m in width; the remainder of the range would have been narrower. Antiquarian investigations have established that the chapter house had a paved floor and a vaulted ceiling. Traditionally this range would have also contained the sacristy (vestry), and the monks dorter (dormitory) on the upper floor. The recorded remains of the south range include a kitchen, located at the west end, which was 15m by 9m, and contained two fireplaces and late 14th or early 15th century windows; and the refectory (dining hall), of some 25m by 9m, adjacent to the kitchen, with its long axis at right-angles to the cloister, and with diagonal buttresses at its outer corners. This arrangement of kitchen and refectory is a characteristic Cistercian design. Another characteristic Cistercian feature is that both east and west ranges extend to the south of the cloister and south range. The reredorters (toilets) would have been in the close vicinity of their associated dorters (dormitories). The cultivated field to the south east of the cloister has produced building debris, and may contain the site of the lay brothers' reredorter. Traditionally, the infirmary would have been located to the east of the east range, and this area has also produced building debris. An essential part of the design of all abbeys was the provision of a supply of fresh running water. At Newenham the main water source was the stream running north west to the Axe. In the vicinity of the monument the present course of the stream is artificial; from the topography it appears that its original course was in the area of the south range. The stream would have been culverted to the east of the cloister, probably in a series of channels designed to separate fresh water for the kitchens and lavatoria (washing places), and then utilise the water flow for conducting foul water from the reredorters (toilets) to the river. A culverted drain runs eastwards beneath the kitchen, formerly the dairy, of Lower Abbey Farm, and an arched drain has been recorded to the immediate east of the refectory (dining hall). In the post-medieval period the lack of maintenance to the monastic water-courses probably led to flooding at the south end of the farm, which resulted in the stream being re-channelled. This involved making a deep cutting into the rising land to the north east of the church in order to avoid the debris and foundations of the ruins. A further diversion of the stream appears to have resulted from the construction of the railway embankment in the 19th century. Traditionally the monastic graveyard was located to the immediate north or north east of the church, and reports of bones being found in the banks of the stream in this location confirm both this assumption and that the stream has been diverted. Part of a stone wall, 0.8m thick and aligned north/south, was observed in the north bank of the stream at the point where it turns west around the north of the church. This may be the eastern boundary of the graveyard. The depth of the wall indicates that at least part of the profile of the higher ground to the north east of the church is artificial. The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a wall. Documentary sources state that in the mid 13th century the conventual buildings were enclosed with a moat. There are no visible earthworks to give any indication of this feature. The precinct enclosed 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 would have been of timber or cob construction. At Newenham the monastic tithe barn was located some 150m to the south of the cloister. It was about 30m by 9m with external porches in the centres of its longest sides, with a chamfered plinth and quoins in limestone ashlar. The chapel stood to the south of the barn, on the opposite side of the farm track. It was aligned approximately east/west and was about 13m by 7m overall. The presence of a chapel in this location is important. Cistercian abbeys frequently included a separate place of worship for lay people, and this was often located near a gatehouse. It is possible that the remains of a gatehouse exist in the area of Higher Abbey Farm. The abbey was founded in 1246 by Reginald and William de Mohun following their granting of land to the Cistercian order. It was colonised by monks from Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, and dedicated to St Mary. A copy of the Cartulary exists for the period 1246 to the mid 14th century which, together with the Register of the Bishops of Exeter, outlines some events in the construction of the abbey: Bishop Bronescombe (1257-80) presented six altars to the church; in 1270 three altars on the north side were consecrated, and in 1277 three altars on the south side, and the high altar, were consecrated. In 1304 the warming-house had been built, and a bakehouse was completed together with a section of the cloister walk enclosure. Between 1325 and 1328 further sections of the cloister walk, including one towards the infirmary and lavatoria (washing place), were enclosed. In 1333 the sanctuary was refloored. Between 1338 and 1361 a new refectory was completed and a vaulted ceiling constructed in the warming-house. In the period 1250-57, it is recorded that the conventual buildings were enclosed with a moat. The abbey gained substantially in wealth from grants of land, and in the manner of the Cistercian order set up at least four grange farms, in addition to the home farm, for the utilisation of its estates. On the eve of the Black Death in 1348 the abbey supported 23 monks (which the plague reduced by 20 monks), 3 lay-brothers, and 88 secular persons living within the precinct. 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. This was greatly assisted by the Crown's sequestration of the roofing lead, although Newenham is reported at this time as being roofed with slate and tile. Following their disposal by the Crown, parts of the buildings were often converted to habitable use, and this pattern was followed at Newenham. The ruins were exploited as a convenient source of high quality building stone and architectural fragments are built into a number of houses in Axminster. In 1539 the abbey was granted by the Crown to the Duke of Suffolk, and at the beginning of the 17th century was acquired by the Petre family. By 1605 a house was in existence on the site, and a map of 1616 shows the house on the site of the present farmhouse, together with the frater (dining hall), west part of the south range, and south part of the west range in use as buildings, and the outline of the chapter house. The map also shows the barn and chapel to the south of the abbey. Parts of the ruins of the abbey were recorded by Swete in 1795. In 1797 most of the barn was destroyed by fire. In 1827/8 Davidson excavated within the chapter house and revealed a paved floor with an in situ column base, and recovered a quantity of architectural fragments. A plan and description were made by Davidson in 1843. The chapel did not exist after 1861. In 1937 Everett made a plan of the ruins which illustrated the loss of fabric since 1843. The scheduling comprises one area enclosing what is currently recognised as the extent of the abbey. Within the designated area the following are excluded: both the Grade II Listed farm dwellings, all modern farm structures, concrete driveways and hard-standings, power-cable poles, and all fence and gate posts, although the ground beneath all these features 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: 24843

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Griffiths, D, Newenham Abbey, Axminster, (1985)
Allan, J, Silvester, R, 'Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings' in Newenham Abbey, Axminster, , Vol. 39, (1981), 159-171

End of official listing