Sawtry Abbey: A Cistercian abbey on the southern edge of Sawtry Fen


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Huntingdonshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TL 19672 82480

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.

Sawtry Abbey is the only Cistercian monastery in Cambridgeshire, and is well documented from its foundation in the 12th century to the period of the Dissolution. Although the walls of the main buildings have been robbed, floor surfaces and other buried features will survive which, given the period of about 90 years between the abbey's foundation and the consecration of the church, will include extensive remains of earlier timber structures. Evidence for the abbey's economy is provided both by documentary sources, and by the well preserved earthworks within the surrounding precinct. The warren and fishponds, would have provided a constant and renewable supply of food and income to the abbey, and the putative mill may indicate the wider cultivation of the high ground on which the abbey stands.

The relationship of the site to the settlement of Sawtry Judith illustrates both the impact of the foundation on an existing community and its subsequent interaction with the secular world.


The monument includes the remains of Sawtry Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1147 by monks from Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire, on land granted by Simon de St Liz, Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon.

The abbey lies near the tip of a low clay spur on the southern edge of Sawtry Fen, to the east of the Great North Road (A1) and some 2km to the south east of the modern village of Sawtry. The remains take the form of a group of earth works contained within an area of pasture measuring approximately 400m north east to south west by 300m. The foundation charter dictated that the abbey be isolated within a precinct defined by ditches, some of which remain visible around the edges of the field.

The north western side of the abbey precinct (on the edge of the fen) is marked by a modern drainage channel, 30m in width, which superseded a narrower ditch depicted on earlier maps. The modern drain is linked to the Monks' Lode some 400m to the north east, so named as it is thought to have been constructed shortly after the abbey's foundation, providing a navigable link to Whittlesey Mere (a large freshwater lake formerly located about 6km to the north) and from there to the River Nene and other major routes across the fens. The lode is mentioned in the chronicles of Ramsey Abbey since its construction encroached on Ramsey Abbey's established rights to the mere and the surrounding fens. However, a settlement in 1192 allowed the lode to remain for the purpose of bringing stone for the Sawtry Abbeys's construction. The abbey was approached by land along the spur from the west and the entrance is marked by an inverted section at the northern end of the south western precinct ditch, in the western corner of the pasture. The precise location of the gatehouse is uncertain, although its presence is indicated by numerous fragments of stone and tile in the ploughed field immediately to the south east. The south western boundary ditch, which probably marks the extent of the precinct, runs in a straight line cutting across the neck of the spur, and reaching maximum dimensions of 10m in width and 2m in depth. At the south eastern end it forms a T-junction with the Duke's Drain, a modern channel which is considered to have partially replaced the earlier boundary. The Duke's Drain continues to the north west for about 70m before turning sharply to the south east, away from the abbey. The original ditch diverges from this angle and returns up the slope for about 70m, parallel to the south western side of the precinct. The ditch, now about 5m wide and 1m deep, then turns to the north east passing through a double bend and extending towards the eastern corner of the pasture. The boundary is visible as a cropmark from the air continuing across the arable field to the north east, where it describes a broad curve turning northwards to a junction with a linear feature extending c.350m from the northern corner of the pasture. Two rectangular enclosures are also visible within this part of the precinct from the air, the southern of which survived with visible ditches and ponds until the 1960s when it was incorporated in the ploughed field. This area of the precinct, beyond the pasture, has since been badly degraded by ploughing and is not included in the scheduling.

At the highest point within the precinct so defined, roughly in the centre and within the permanent pasture, lie the remains of the main monastic buildings including the church (completed in 1238 and consecrated by Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln) and the claustral range. The buildings were demolished shortly after the Dissolution, and the process of stone robbing continued into the 19th century. In the 1860s, the occupant of the adjacent Abbey Farm recruited navvies, recently released from the construction of the Great Northern Railway, to remove the stone from the wall foundations for road making. The resulting trenches provide a ground plan of the main walls and the location of the columns, which was first recorded by S Inskip Ladds between 1907 and 1912. The church was approximately 60m in length, with short transepts, and two rows of seven columns in the nave separating the aisles. The inventory taken during the demolition of the site includes the quantity of lead from the church roof, naming specific origins in the case of the north aisle (St Martin's Aisle) and the south transept (The Requiem Aisle). The amount of lead (measured in cloth yards) suggests that the church roof was quite elaborate, and may have included a lantern structure over the crossing. The cloisters are clearly visible to the south surrounding a open area or garth, 30m square. The wall lines of the eastern claustral range include evidence for the chapter house and dorter, and on the south side are the remains of three rooms, thought to be the kitchen, refectory and warming house. The west range, although recorded by Inskip Ladds as the lay brothers' dormitory, is no longer visible. The abbot's house, a rectangular structure measuring 15m by 8m, lies to the south east of the claustral range, to the north of which are several less well defined platforms indicating the position of the abbot's kitchens and the infirmary. The foundations of these latter buildings have not been disturbed. A broad ditch running south from the cloisters, and linked to the bend in the centre of the south eastern precinct ditch, represents the main drain from the complex.

A further building, also indicated by robbing trenches, is located some 60m to the south of the main abbey complex. This structure measured about 50m in length and 16m wide, with aisles to north and south separated by two rows of seven columns, and a small square annexe at the eastern end. This is thought to be the guest house, and its size and elaboration is consistent with the abbey's requirements in the 12th and 13th centuries, when it was used as a royal resting place conveniently situated near the Great North Road. The southern corner of this building has been destroyed by the enlargement of an adjacent pond, since it was first recorded in 1907-12.

Within the precinct boundaries are the earthwork remains of numerous features related to the economy of the abbey. About 70m to the north west of the guest house lie the remains of a second rectangular structure, similar in size to the guest house but orientated north to south. The ground plan has been greatly disturbed by later digging, although it is possible to recognise the basic outline of a large barn or stables. A ditch runs south from this structure towards the pond by the guest house. A second, water filled pond (which has not been enlarged) to the east of the barn, probably served as a watering place for animals.

The Hundred Rolls in 1279 recorded fisheries within the ditch, and fishponds also appear in the inventory of the abbey holdings (the Valor Ecclesiasticus) compiled in 1534, prior to the Dissolution. A series of four fishponds lies immediately to the east of the abbot's house, on the eastern boundary of the pasture. Three of the ponds average about 30m in length and 9m across, each containing deep deposits of waterlogged silt. These are arranged side by side and orientated north east to south west, while the fourth is aligned across the eastern ends. This last pond is water filled and about 10m longer and nearly twice the width of the others, having been dredged around the turn of the century. A shallow leat connected to western corner of the southern fishpond leads to a series of three smaller ponds contained within a shallow terrace to the south of the Abbot's House. These measure about 12m by 8m. Two are arranged side by side, the third located slightly further down the slope and linked by a narrow channel. The connecting channels are dry and only one of the ponds retains water. The others, like a further group of four similar sized ponds in the eastern corner of the field, are largely filled with accumulated silts. To the north of the church and the modern track which crosses the site, a number of ditches and enclosures extend down the slope towards the fen edge. At the northern end of the pasture a large square depression, 55m across, lies with a broad terrace within a deep ditch and bank flanking the base of the scarp. This feature, which is between 1m and 2m deep, is thought to have been seasonally flooded and drained to provide a fertile cultivation bed, although the drains have become blocked and the depression presently holds water for much of the year. A well, or springhead, in the centre of the depression (enlarged in the 1860s, reputedly as part of a search for mythical abbey treasures) probably provided the main source of water. In addition to a channel leading directly to the precinct ditch (now a broad marshy area) the beds may also have been drained by a ditch, 4m wide and 1.5m deep, which extends from the southern corner and encloses a second garden area immediately to the south. This area, which measures c.50m by 60m, has not been lowered, and contains two rectangular fishponds, each about 20m by 15m, and 1.5m deep. Some 40m to the south west a shallow ditch runs down the slope, parallel to the enclosure, and there are three more ponds (largely infilled) in the intervening space. Earlier surveys depict three further ditches across the slope to the south west, separated by intervals of between 40m and 60m. These are no longer visible, having been buried by upcast from the construction of the adjacent drain in 1979. These ditches were interpreted by Inskip Ladds as `docks' related to the former Monks' Lode. This is unlikely, however, since they lie some 2m-3m above the level of the fen, and even allowing for the later shrinkage of the peat, could not have been linked to the navigation. They may however have served as unloading and storage areas for materials brought along the water course, particularly in the early period when materials were needed for the abbey's construction. A small rectangular building located between the central ditches on this side (again marked by robbing trenches) is considered to be a store house. By the mid 14th century the lode had become impassable, and these areas may by then have been converted to other uses, probably further cultivation areas.

Along the south western side of the precinct is a strip of land, c.50m in width, bounded on one side by the precinct ditch, and on the other by a sinuous ditch, 6m wide and 0.5m-0.9m deep. This area is divided in two by a south east facing scarp, the southern half being level and almost completely featureless apart from a pillow mound (a breeding place for rabbits) near the southern end. The mound, orientated east to west, is about 28m long, 9m wide and 0.8m high, with a flattened top. The warren area was doubtless secured by a perimeter fence, perhaps sited on the internal enclosure bank, remnants of which survive along the south western and south eastern sides. The northern half of this area contains numerous scarps, banks, mounds and hollows, mostly thought to have resulted from later quarrying. However, a large sub-circular mound (c.14m in diameter) with a central depression, located near the northern end of the inner ditch, may represent the foundations for a windmill; perhaps the mill mentioned in the Valor Ecclesiasticus.

Extending beyond the south eastern precinct ditch towards the edge of the pasture is a small fen-edge brickworks represented by an area of shallow earthworks. There are numerous small quarries dug to extract clay, and a small mound with a central depression has been identified as a kiln. Fragments of late 17th and 18th century brick have been found across this area, and although on the basis of these dates, the brickworks is not directly associated with the abbey, it does demonstrate part of the use of the site after the abbey's Dissolution. A ditch leading south from this area to the angle of the Duke's Drain was related to this process, as also were a number of ditches and hollows in the field to the south which have been degraded by ploughing since 1980 and are not included in the scheduling.

The abbey was founded on land previously owned by the Countess Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and grandmother of Simon de St Liz. The Domesday Survey of 1086 attributes to Judith a manor of 10 hides, with a settlement whose population of 28 included a priest. The abbey was endowed with the manor and, in keeping with the Cistercian tradition of isolation from the secular world, the village (known as Sawtry Judith) was probably cleared.

Although some of the area of the former village may have been incorporated within the abbey precinct, recent fieldwork has identified a large area of settlement evidence in the arable field immediately to the south west. The pottery from this area includes Stamford and St Neots wares from the 11th and 12th centuries, as well as earlier material suggesting occupation in the early 6th and 7th centuries and the Romano-British period. Pottery from the 13th and 14th centuries was also found. This may represent rubbish from the abbey, although equally it could indicate that the settlement re-emerged when the rules regarding isolation were relaxed and additional labour was required to manage the abbey estate.

The settlement remains beyond the precinct have been deep ploughed and are generally not considered to survive in good condition. However, the importance of the archaeological relationship between the abbey and the development of the settlement is such that a 30m wide margin along the south western precinct boundary is included in the scheduling as a sample of the settlement remains.

The abbey's foundation charter was confirmed by each successive Earl of Huntingdon, through the late 12th and 13th centuries, including three Scottish Kings, David I, Malcolm IV and William the Lion. During this period the abbey attracted several further endowments including a grant from King Stephen of 200 acres of land near Gamlingay, and two granges were established to the south at nearby Grange Farm and Archer's Wood.

Nevertheless, although the abbey was well regarded, particularly as a giver of alms, it neither expanded nor became wealthy, and in the 14th century the abbot was frequently in debt. These circumstances may have led to the involvement in secular affairs mentioned above, since the Valor Ecclesiasticus records an annual income of over 55 pounds derived from rents on lands and cottages.

The names of all 22 abbots are known, from Abbot Hugh at the foundation to William Angell at the Dissolution in 1536. By this time the abbey contained only 12 monks and 22 conversi, or lay brothers. This may be a reflection of the poverty of the house, although the numbers may have previously been reduced by induced retirement. In the following year the site and its lands were granted to Sir Richard Williams (alias Cromwell), and the monastic buildings were demolished soon after.

All water troughs, fences, fence posts and gates are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath 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.

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Books and journals
Haigh, D, The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire, (1988), 76-77
Haigh, D, The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire, (1988), 76-77
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 115-117
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 115-123
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 121
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 117-23
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 121
Brown, A E, Taylor, C C, 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' in Cambridge Earthwork Surveys: IV, , Vol. 70, (1980), 121
Inskip Ladd, S, 'Cambs and Hunts Archaeology Society Transactions.' in Sawtry Abbey, , Vol. III, (1914), 295-374
Inskip Ladd, S, 'Cambs and Hunts Archaeology Society Transactions.' in Sawtry Abbey, , Vol. III, (1914), 295-374
Inskip Ladd, S, 'Cambs and Hunts Archaeology Society Transactions.' in Sawtry Abbey, , Vol. III, (1914), 295-374
Inskip Ladd, S, 'Cambs and Hunts Archaeology Society Transactions.' in Sawtry Abbey, , Vol. III, (1914), 295-374
CUCAP, AKO 32-35, (1965)
CUCAP, AMX 28, (1966)
CUCAP, AMX 28-33, (1966)
CUCAP, CPJ 73, (1981)
CUCAP, RC8-CM 2/3, (1981)
CUCAP, RC8-EE 236-7, (1982)
Discussion of farming practices, Juggins, A, Sawtry Abbey, (1994)
Juggins, A, Sawtry Abbey, (1994)
RCHM(E), The Monuments of Huntingdonshire, (1926)
RCHM(E), The Monuments of Huntingdonshire, (1926)
The SW precinct ditch, Stocker, D, Sawtry Abbey, (1994)


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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