Reasons for Designation
From the time of St Augustine's mission to refound Christianity in AD 597 to
the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries formed an important facet of both
religious and secular life in the British Isles. 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, 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
centre of a wide network including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals,
farming estates and tenant villages.
Some 225 of these religious houses belonged to the Order of Saint Augustine.
The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of
canons - or priests - living under the rule of Saint Augustine. From the
twelfth century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes,
running almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching
in parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their
Denny Abbey is unusual in housing three very different religious orders
successively, and is the only known Franciscan nunnery in England to have
surviving architectural remains. The documentary evidence for the site is
exceptional, and shows Denny Abbey as being the only property in England
transferred directly from the Benedictines to the Knights Templars. Apart from
the survival of medieval ecclesiastical buildings, dating from the 12th to the
late 14th centuries, excavations have demonstrated the high potential for
survival of archaeological remains in which waterlogged deposits have provided
samples of seeds and beetles important for interpreting the lifestyle of the
inhabitants and reconstructing the environmental conditions at the time.
Denny Abbey is a monastic priory complex which was the home of three
successive religious orders from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
The main precinct is situated on a raised platform of land containing the
remains of two standing medieval buildings, a church and a refectory, both of
which are listed Grade I. The rest of the precinct includes the below ground
remains of ancillary buildings constructed at various times by the three
religious communities. Around Denny can be seen a series of earthworks
including a causeway to the south-east, now truncated, but once connecting the
religious settlement with the village of Waterbeach. There is a hollow way to
the north of the precinct and banks representing field and stock enclosures to
the south and west. In the field to the west of the current approach road are
two rectangular fishponds.
Historical documentation reveals that the site was established as a dependent
priory of Ely cathedral around 1159. The Benedictines began to build a small
church of cruciform plan but in 1170 it became the property of the Knights
Templars who modified the church considerably and added a further building.
Unlike other examples, the Templars did not turn Denny into a normal
preceptory. Instead, it became a home for the aged and infirm members of the
Order. Following the decline of the Knights Templars, the site was acquired by
the Franciscans who established a nunnery from about 1339. Beside the new
church of rectangular plan, they built a refectory and domestic claustral
buildings to provide segregated accommodation for the nuns and guests and
apartments for the Countess of Pembroke, the Order's principal benefactor. The
establishment was finally closed down around 1539 following the Dissolution of
Monasteries. Eventually, the property was converted to a farm and passed to
Pembroke College, Cambridge, who placed it in the care of the Ministry of
Works in 1947. Excavations undertaken at the west end of the Templar church in
1971 revealed remains of a 13th century garderobe or privy, while others
conducted between 1984 and 1985 in the refectory uncovered the internal
arrangements of the nuns' dining hall.
Today, part of the monument is used by a working farm. There are new
buildings, barns and a swimming pool in the NW area, and a cottage close to
the abbey which is currently occupied. A newly recut open-drain is also
located between the main priory complex and the fishponds. All above ground
parts of buildings, walls and access roads are excluded from the scheduling,
although the ground beneath them is included. The swimming pool and modern
open-drain are totally excluded from the scheduling.
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.