Isleham priory: an alien Benedictine priory 100m west of St Andrew's Church


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Isleham priory: an alien Benedictine priory 100m west of St Andrew's Church
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Cambridgeshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TL 64171 74468

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.

Isleham priory is well documented from its foundation around AD 1100 to the period of its demise in the early 15th century. As an alien house from its foundation the site is of particular interest, reflecting the division of land in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. The chapel is a notable example of Norman church architecture which, whilst illustrating gradual changes through the 13th and early 14th century, remains substantially unaltered. It is also thought to retain sections of the original floor beneath the earth accumulated during its period of use as a barn. Earthwork remains of the associated agricultural complex survive in the pasture to the north of the building. The combination of a surviving priory chapel and evidence for the economic basis of the community is extremely rare, and the earthworks are well preserved. The platforms will retain the buried remains of the agricultural buildings and other features, and the silts within the ditches will contain artefactual evidence related to the period of occupation. The economy of the site is also illustrated by the warren and fishponds, both of which were designed to provide a constant and renewable supply of food for the community, and to create additional revenue for the priory. The monument is accessible to the public.


The alien Benedictine priory at Isleham is situated on the northern side of the present village, some 100m to the west of the parish Church of St Andrew. The village itself is located at the tip of a low chalk spur, beyond which the ground slopes gently northwards towards Isleham Fen. The only standing priory building is the Chapel of St Margaret of Antioch (a Grade I Listed Building) to the north of which lie the buried foundations of the conventual buildings and the earthwork remains of the associated agricultural complex.

The chapel is located just to the north of the angle between Church Street and Mill Street. It is a single linear structure, c.30m in length, which is divided into two rectangular sections (the nave and chancel) with an apsidal sanctuary at the eastern end. The walls are approximately 1m-1.2m thick, composed of limestone and local clunch rubble, partly laid in herringbone pattern, partly in horizontal courses. Barnack limestone was used for the plinth around the base of the walls, the internal arches, and the earlier doorways and windows. The exterior has been repaired on numerous occasions in a variety of stone, tile, brick and flint, but the structure has remained essentially unaltered since its construction around AD 1100.

The nave measures about 8m by 14m and about 6m high, the roof having been raised by approximately 1m at a later date. There are two narrow slit windows in the north wall, each with rounded heads and deeply splayed internal recesses. These, like the single slit windows in the south and west walls, are original, as are the three bull's eye (circular) windows arranged in the triangle of the west gable. The nave is separated from the chancel by a semicircular arch of two orders (an order is a column entire, consisting of base, shaft, and capital, with an entablature) supported by responds with two half-round columns, cushion capitals and splayed bases. The chancel is slightly shorter and about 1m narrower than the nave, the division marked by external corners supported by alternate vertical and horizontal quoins (long- and-short work). The earth floor, both here and in the sanctuary, is raised by about 0.15m above that of the nave and separated by a modern concrete step inserted beneath the chancel arch. The chancel originally contained three slit windows similar to those in the nave. However, in the 13th century the south window was enlarged, and at the same time a square aumbry (or cupboard recess) was cut into the north wall next to a new doorway with a pointed arch. The doorway in the north wall of the nave was either added during this period, or altered to match. A further doorway with a shouldered, or Carnaervon, arch was inserted in the south wall of the chancel around 1300, and the window on the north side was similarly altered. The round-headed sanctuary arch was demolished in the 19th century, although the rectangular attached piers remain, both pierced by beam slots for a wooden partition or rood screen. The sanctuary is about 6m in length and of much the same internal width as the chancel. The walls, however, are about 0.3m thinner, and the difference is again marked by external corners with long-and-short work. The rounded end of the sanctuary, or apse, is supported by four external pilasters which, together with the slight inward curve at the top of the interior walls, indicate that it was originally covered by a semi-domed, vaulted ceiling. Of the three windows in the apse only the east window remains unaltered. The previous narrow loops to the north and south were replaced by taller lancets in the 13th century.

All further alterations relate to the reuse of the chapel as a barn after the Reformation. The south sanctuary window was expanded to form a square aperture with a brick surround, now covered by a wooden shutter. Similar alterations were made to the window above the south door in the chancel, and both chancel doors were blocked. In the 16th or early 17th century a large barn door with a round-headed brick arch was inserted in the south wall of the nave, removing all traces of an earlier doorway in the same location. The raised roof line of the nave is thought to date from the late 17th or 18th century. The eaves and the west gable were extended in matching stone (which was also used to infill the bull's eye windows), although the parapets and the east gable were completed in brick. This work may have caused or threatened subsidence, since at around the same time two brick-clad, three stage buttresses were added to the west wall. Two further sloped buttresses (also in brick) were attached to the western end of the north wall of the nave, and a brick revetment was constructed along the base on this side, replacing part of the original limestone plinth. The tiled roof is in two levels with a semi-conical continuation over the eastern apse, reclad by the Ministry of Works after 1944. Some of the main roof timbers are thought to date from the previous century.

The priory is not considered to have developed sufficiently to have required a full claustral range, and the chapel is thought to have been the most southerly building in the complex, as well as the only building in stone. However, the sloping ground which extends for about 6m from the south wall of the chapel is included in the scheduling, in order to provide protection for the archaeological relationship between the chapel and the remains of any buried surfaces extending towards Church Street, the position of which is thought to relate to the siting of the priory.

The area immediately to the north of the chapel is enclosed by a clunch and brick wall, attached to the north west corner of the nave and the south east side of the apse. The wall, which has recently been renovated, post-dates the priory and relates to the later reuse of the chapel. It is, however, thought to reflect an earlier boundary enclosing the conventual buildings which, given the historical evidence for the limited scale of the priory, would have been essentially domestic in character. As well as the buried remains of these structures, the enclosure may also contain the monks' cemetery, situated on the north east side of the sanctuary.

The pasture to the north of the walled enclosure contains the remains of agricultural buildings and other features related to the economy of the priory. The field, almost completely covered by earthworks, measures approximately 240m north to south and 90m east to west. In the centre of the longest axis is a sunken track or hollow way, 200m in length, which is thought to have served as the main access to the priory's fields around the southern edge of Isleham Fen. The northern half of the hollow way measures about 8m across and 1m deep; gradually becoming wider and shallower towards the south, where it terminates in a shallow slope, 18m wide, some 40m to the north west of the chapel. This route aligns with the present course of Mill Street to the south, and was probably linked by a track skirting the western end of the chapel. The erosion of the hollow way reflects prolonged activity associated with a series of barns and other agricultural buildings located to either side, represented by a series of rectangular enclosures, or platforms. The most southerly platform on the east side of the track measures about 25m square and is raised by about 0.3m above the surrounding ground level. The northern edge is defined by a low bank (0.5m high) which projects at a right angle from the side of the hollow way. To the north of this bank a second enclosure, measuring about 30m wide, extends for c.35m towards the edge of a dry pond. A third platform is defined by a shallow ditch 20m to the north, and there are slight traces of two further platforms, similarly divided, extending into the north east corner of the field. There is a single platform to the west, the southern edge of which is marked by a low bank extending at right angles from the end of the hollow way. This measures about 55m north to south and includes the whole width (40m) between the hollow way and the edge of the field. In the southern part of this platform is a second oval pond, largely infilled, which may have been used for watering stock. The northern edge of the platform is raised about 0.3m counteracting the natural slope, and is marked by a low bank and a shallow external ditch. The latter leads to a breach in the western scarp of the hollow way. This boundary is broken by a narrow gap in the centre of the bank and a corresponding causeway across the ditch, providing access to the area to the north. This area, measuring about 160m by 90m, is not subdivided, and contains a series of three largely infilled fishponds aligned across the centre, roughly parallel to the hollow way. The southern pond is c.35m in length, 8m across and 0.4m deep. The central pond is a similar depth, slightly wider and c.14m long, and the smallest pond to the north measures 11m by 7m, being also the deepest at 0.9m. The ponds are separated by intervals of approximately 8m, each with slight traces of interconnecting channels. To the north of the ponds is an undulating bank, 50m in length, orientated east to west parallel to the northern boundary of the field. The bank, which is thought to be a pillow mound (or breeding place for rabbits), has a rounded profile and varies between 0.4m and 0.7m in height, and averaging 10m in width. The warren area would have comprised the entire area to the north of the platform on the western side of the hollow way, and a slight outward slope near the field boundaries to the north and west indicates the position of the original hedges or fences used to control the stock.

The priory is thought to have been founded around AD 1100, either by Count Alan of Brittany, or one of his immediate successors. Count Alan was one of a number of Breton lords who supported William the Conqueror, and by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, he held several estates in Cambridgeshire, including lands at Isleham, Linton and Swavesey. the priory is not mentioned in Domesday Book, but was probably founded shortly after, when the Benedictine monastery of St Jacut Sur Mer, near St Malo in Brittany was granted land in both Isleham and Linton (30km to the south).

The two priories established at this time were confirmed in the possession of St Jacut by Pope Alexander III in 1163. Neither is thought to have been particularly large, and both were run directly from the mother house with a few Breton monks assisting priors appointed by the abbot. Isleham, with its range of agricultural buildings was probably organised primarily to manage the gift of land. However it did not prosper or expand, and in 1254 the monks were moved to the sister house at Linton. In 1280 the title to the property was again confirmed to St Jacut, and in 1291 the taxation records of Pope Nicholas IV record it as still held by the prior at Linton. The property is therefore thought to have continued in use, probably operated by lay brothers or tenants, although the elaboration of the chapel windows and doors towards the end of the century indicates that some religious function was maintained.

In the 13th century the priory was involved in a number of disputes over local tithes with the adjacent parish church, which was rebuilt during this period, on the site of a pre-Conquest predecessor. In the 14th century the nature of the disputes became more serious as Isleham, like many alien foundations, suffered as a result of the growing conflict between England and France. At the onset of the Hundred Years War in 1337 both Isleham and Linton were confiscated by Edward III, but as Brittany was not allied to the French cause, both properties were later returned. Nevertheless, renewed attempts were made to replace the prior with an English monk throughout the 14th century, and in 1414 both properties were finally seized by the Crown under the Statute of Leicester, to prevent the contribution of revenue to enemy territory. In 1440, following a period of leasing, the Isleham property was granted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and either then or after the Reformation, the chapel was converted into a barn. A map of Isleham dated 1807 depicts the walled enclosure around the north of the chapel, and the area of the former agricultural buildings further north is shown as pasture. The chapel and enclosure were termed `Priory Homestead and yard' in the 1848 Tithe Award, and the accompanying map shows an additional building attached to the north west corner of the nave. Both this and a further structure (added to the north wall of the enclosure in the latter part of the century) were demolished after the chapel ceased to be used as a barn in 1914. In 1944 Pembroke College placed the chapel in the guardianship of the Minstry of Works and it was subsequently repaired.

The electricity pole and water trough in the field to the north are both excluded from the scheduling, together with all fences, fence posts and gates, although the ground beneath all these items is included. The enclosure wall to the north of the chapel is similarly excluded apart from the foundations which are thought to retain evidence of an earlier boundary.

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:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
St. Andrew's Church, Isleham and the Priory Church of St. Margaret
Haigh, D, The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire, (1988), 45
Hivernel, F, Taylor, A, Reck, J, The Normans in Cambridgeshire, (1986)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire, (1977), 416
Radford, R, 'Archaeological Journal' in Isleham Priory Church, , Vol. LXXIV, (1967), 252-253
DoE information board in chapel, Radford, R (?), Priory Church, Isleham,
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
Title: A Plan of the Isleham Lordship in Cambridgeshire Source Date: 1807 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: CRO 311/P1
Title: Isleham Tithe Map and Award Source Date: 1848 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: CRO P98/27/1
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Edition Source Date: 1900 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:


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

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