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 225
of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The
Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of
canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they
came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to
distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th
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
revenue. The Augustinians 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 Augustinian house of St Botolph's, Colchester, survives well both as ruins
and buried remains. The upstanding remains, particularly the west end of the
church, contain elaborate architectural detail which is unusual on an English
building of this date. Limited excavation has shown that the foundations and
crypt at the east end of the church survive below ground and, similarly, the
claustral buildings are also known to survive well as buried features.
As the site is on a slope there will have been a considerable build up of
material in the southern area of the precinct. This will mean that many of the
structures within the precinct will be well preserved in deep deposits.
It is known that the priory was the first Augustinian foundation in Britain,
and one of the most important, and the site is, therefore, important for the
study of the introduction and development of the order into England.
St Botolph's is one of many medieval structures surviving in Colchester which
are important in establishing a picture of how medieval Colchester developed
and how its separate institutions related to each other. The proximity of St
Botolph's to the town and to other urban monasteries, its continuing use as a
parish church and its street front rents illustrate the important role
monastic foundations played in the life of a medieval town.
St Botolph's is a site accessible to the public and is thus an important
educational and amenity resource in the town.
The monument includes the Augustinian Priory of St Botolph situated on a
south facing slope south of Priory Street in the centre of Colchester at the
southern gateway in the town wall. Founded in c.1100, it was the first
Augustinian house to be established in Britain. The site lies on a series of
terraces running east-west with the highest to the north. Towards the centre
of the site are the ruins of the priory church which are Listed Grade I and in
the care of the Secretary of State. Immediately to the south, and terraced
below it, are the buried remains of the claustral buildings. The gatehouse was
situated to the west providing access to the priory from St Botolph's Street.
Terraced above the priory church to the north and west are the remains of the
parochial cemetery and, to the east of the church, that of the priory.
In plan the monastic church is cruciform, aligned east-west, with the nave
separated from the presbytery to the east by the monastic choir. The church is
59m in length and 27m wide at the crossing. The transepts extended either side
of the crossing tower and had single chapels to the east, flanking the
presbytery. Part excavation of the eastern end of the church has uncovered
the foundations of the transepts and presbytery and the complete plan of the
church is now laid out in the grass.
The upstanding ruins of the church include the west end and the arcades and
walls of the nave. The west wall, which survives to a maximum height of 12.5m,
contains a central doorway with intricate carving on the capitals of the
shafts and is flanked by two additional, smaller, doorways. Above the doorways
are two rows of intersecting blind arcading with small windows set within it.
In the centre, above the arcading, are the remains of a large circular window
flanked by two round arched windows. A partial row of blind arcading survives
above this. Antiquarian drawings show that the gable, which was situated above
the last line of arcading, now missing, contained further round arched and
round windows and was flanked by two turrets. These drawings also show that
the west end was originally flanked by two large towers which reached to the
same height as the gable apex. Of these towers, the northern tower no longer
survives above ground level, however the base of the southern tower is still
visible and is lit by two small lights. Much Roman brick and tile were reused
in the church's construction as well as imported stone from France. The facade
would originally have been rendered in plaster though this has not survived.
The western end of the nave arcades survive to the level of the clerestory.
Each arcade originally consisted of eight columns, seven of which survive in
the northern arcade and four in the southern. The north and south walls of the
nave also survive almost to their full length and height. The recent
excavation uncovered evidence for a crypt located underneath the crossing.
Adjacent to the south of the church are the buried remains of the claustral
buildings which are terraced in to the slope and sit lower than the church.
Evidence for the southern side of the cloister was uncovered when the present
Parish Church of St Botolph, situated 30m south of the priory church, was
built in 1838. In the centre of the cloister was an open area (or garth) and a
walkway enclosed to the north by the church and to the south, east and west by
ranges of claustral buildings. The locations of the buildings within the
cloister are known as they would be laid out following a pattern dictated by
the procession of the monks around it. The eastern range, running south from
the south transept, would have, typically, included the chapter house, the
dorter and reredorter. The southern range would have included the refectory
and kitchens. The western range would have been used for storage but may have
included other domestic buildings such as the brew house. Possibly within the
cloister or elsewhere in the precinct would be the abbot's house and,
typically to the south east of the cloister, would have been the infirmary. At
St Botolph's there is evidence from a historical map that a stream formerly
ran east-west approximately on the line of St Botolph's Church Walk. This
would have been particularly important in the location of the cloister and the
infirmary as they would both have required a good water supply. The area of
the cloister garth, between the modern church of St Botolph and the priory
ruins, is used as a garden and is the setting for a war memorial.
The exact boundary of the precinct is unknown but its extent to the north
would have been confined by the ditch outside the town wall. The boundary is
therefore considered to lie along Priory Street between the town ditch and
the parochial cemetery north of the priory church. Situated on the western
side of the precinct are a row of rents, properties built by the priory to
house lay brothers or rented out as a source of income. These no longer
survive above ground level though the original plots can still be traced in
the existing property boundaries of the houses to the east of St Botolph's
Street. Building work at one of these houses, number 38, exposed fragments of
what are believed to be the remains of the monastic gatehouse. The rents and
gatehouse are not included in the scheduling. As the precinct was restricted
to the north and the west it would have extended mainly to the south and the
east. The southern area of the precinct will contain other buildings related
to the economy of the priory. As well as the possible existence of an abbot's
house and infirmary, the location of the stream makes it likely that a mill, a
common feature of monastic sites, as well as other service and industrial
buildings may also survive as buried remains. To the east of the priory church
would have been the private cemetery of the canons. Part excavation has shown
that graves do survive in this area though the extent of the graveyard is
The priory was founded by a community of priests already resident in
Colchester. Part excavation has shown that the priory church was built on
the site of an earlier structure possibly an earlier church from where the
priests may have already been administering to a local parish. Two of their
number, Norman and Bernard, travelled to France to study the Augustinian
orders at Beauvais and Chartres. On their return the order was adopted by the
community and work began on the priory c.1104. As the order was small and poor
the church was not completed until 1177 when documentary evidence suggests the
church was dedicated. The priory became quite wealthy and important; both
Henry I and Richard I granted it considerable areas of land in Essex. Whereas
all other Augustinian foundations were under the control of the local bishop,
St Botolph's and Waltham Abbey were exempted. In 1116 Pope Paschal II granted
St Botolph's authority over all other Augustinian foundations in England.
The site remained in use by Augustinian canons until 1536 when it was
suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the priory and its
lands were granted to Sir Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor. The nave of the
church remained in use as a parish church while the east end of the church and
the claustral buildings were probably dismantled for building stone. The
church had fallen out of use by the Civil War when it suffered considerable
damage during the siege of Colchester in 1648.
Situated to the north and west of the priory church is the parochial cemetery.
The cemetery was probably already in use by the time of the priory's
foundation and continued in use as the graveyard of the Parish Church of St
Botolph after the dissolution of the priory and even after the parish church
had been moved to the southern part of the site in 1836-1837. Some higher
status 19th century burials, within elaborate monuments, took place in the
ruined nave of the priory church. The graveyard still contains gravestones
relating to the latest phases of burials on the site.
Excluded from the scheduling are the modern Church of St Botolph, Listed Grade
B, the wooden sheds, the war memorial, the two water tanks to the south east
of the site, concrete posts, display boards as well as all tarmac and concrete
surfaces though the ground beneath all these features is included.
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.