Leiston Abbey (second site) and moated site


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1014520

Date first listed: 13-Apr-1949

Date of most recent amendment: 18-Nov-1996


Ordnance survey map of Leiston Abbey (second site) and moated site
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Suffolk

District: Suffolk Coastal (District Authority)

Parish: Leiston

National Grid Reference: TM 44454 64215


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. The Premonstratensian order, or "White Canons", were not monks in the strict sense but rather communities of priests living together under a rule. The first Premonstratensian establishments were double houses (for men and women), but later they founded some 45 houses for men in England. The Premonstratensian order modelled itself on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion and founded all its monasteries in rural locations.

Leiston Abbey is considered to include some of the finest surviving monastic remains in Suffolk and is one of the most completely preserved examples of a Premonstratensian monastery in England. The fact that it is the second of two sites occupied by the abbey, and that the first site is also preserved, gives it additional interest, allowing the direct comparison of two chronologically and topographically distinct sequences in its history. The standing and buried remains included within the monument retain archaeological information concerning the physical and social organisation of the abbey and its development, up to and including its dissolution and adaptation as a farmstead, complementing the historically documented record. The evidence for earlier occupation of the site, perhaps indicative of manorial status, is also of particular interest and offers the prospect of a direct comparison between the economic regimes centred on the moated site, the abbey and the post- Dissolution farmstead.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The second site of Leiston Abbey is on a gentle, south facing slope c.1.75km north of the centre of Leiston and c.3km south west of the site of its original foundation in the coastal marshes south of Minsmere. The monument includes most of the standing and buried remains of the monastic church and conventual buildings, together with adjacent earthworks and water control features, including a moated site.

Leiston Abbey, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, was founded at Minsmere in 1182 for 26 canons of the Premonstratensian order by Ranulph de Glanville, Chief Justiciary to Henry II. The original endowment included the manor of Leiston and the churches of St Margaret, Leiston and St Andrew Aldringham, both of which, according to the foundation charter, had formerly been granted to the Augustinian canons of Butley Abbey, of which de Glanville was also patron, and the abbey was further enriched by later endowments and appropriations. The annual value of the abbey holdings is given in the taxation roll of 1292 as 130 pounds 15s 7d, and in the valuation of 1535 as 181 pounds 17s 1d, the largest part of which derived from the manor of Leiston. Because the abbey in its original location was prone to flooding, the canons were granted a papal licence in 1363 to move to a more favourable spot inland at Leiston and, although the original site was retained as a monastic cell, the church and other buildings on it were demolished and stone from them reused in the construction of the new abbey, built at the expense of Robert de Ufford, who had been granted patronage of the abbey by the crown in 1350. In 1380 the new buildings, with the exception of the church, were extensively damaged by fire. During the second half of the 15th century the numbers of canons recorded present at official visitations ranged between 13 and 18, including the abbot. The abbey was among those suppressed in 1536 and in 1537 was granted, with its possessions, to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The site was later occupied by a farmstead, and parts of the church and monastic buildings incorporated in the farmhouse and various associated outbuildings.

The ruined walls of the church and conventual buildings, which are Listed Grade I and are in the care of the Secretary of State, form the core of the monument, and immediately to the east of these are the buried remains of other features, including the masonry foundations of buildings. To the north and west there are various earthworks, also believed to be of medieval origin, including two ponds and a partly ditched enclosure which forms an outer court with upstanding remains of two more buildings of monastic date. The principal entrance to the monastic precinct was probably to the north or north east of the church, on the line of the track which still provides access.

The surviving walls of the church and other monastic buildings are constructed predominantly of flint rubble and mortar, with some septaria (local, nodular mudstone) and randomly set reused blocks of imported limestone, including fragments of architectural mouldings. Imported stone, much if not all of it obtained from buildings on the original site, was also used for the quoins and architectural details of the buildings, including the moulded surrounds of doors and windows and the facing of piers where this survives. The upper parts of many of the walls are patched with brick of medieval type, which also occurs in the construction of many of the arches, above the stone surrounds. Much of the stonework in situ in the walls of the conventual buildings is reddened by burning, presumably in the documented fire of 1380.

The church, which is c.63m in length overall, is cruciform in plan and includes an aisled nave c.28m long at the western end, a central crossing where the canons' choir will have been situated, with transepts to north and south, and a square ended presbytery flanked by two square ended chapels at the eastern end. The north chapel, called the Lady Chapel, is in ecclesiastical use and is excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath it is included. The walls of the nave and the arcades which separated the nave from the aisles are no longer visible, although foundations will survive below the ground surface. Most of the outer walls of the south aisle and the eastern part of the north aisle wall, comprising more than half its total length, were incorporated in post-medieval buildings, however, and still stand to almost their full height, displaying the remains of original features which include the blocked openings of large windows with pointed arches. The earliest part of Abbey House, dated to the 17th century and Listed Grade II, was built on to the south aisle wall, within the area of the aisle itself, and this building is excluded from the scheduling, together with those parts of the medieval standing structure which it contains. Also excluded is a 19th century extension of the house, built on the line of the west wall of the church, and a 20th century addition to the south; the ground beneath these features is however included. The post-medieval walls of the building which formerly stood on the north side of the north aisle wall have been demolished.

The eastern piers of the central crossing of the church, parts of the walls of the transepts on either side, the walls at the eastern end of the presbytery, and of the chapels to either side of it also stand to almost their full height and contain original features which include the remains of a pair of window openings at clerestory level in the south wall of the south transept, the arch of a large window with the stubs of stone tracery in the opposite wall of the north transept, window openings at the east end of the presbytery and the two chapels, also with the remains of tracery, an arcaded niche in the south wall of the presbytery, and a double arched arcade between the presbytery and the Lady Chapel to the north of it. The arches of this arcade, the window openings in the outer north wall of the chapel, and the arched opening between the chapel and the transept to the west and the choir to the south of it, are all blocked. The chapel, which was used as a granary in the post-medieval period, has been reroofed. The south wall of the southern chapel, dedicated to St Michael, includes two arched doorways to what was probably a sacristy (used for the storage of vestments and church vessels), the walls of which no longer survive above ground, although the outer face of the chapel wall shows traces where they abutted.

The outer wall of the presbytery at the eastern end is faced with the remains of elaborate flushwork (ornamental stone tracery infilled with knapped flint) and the east wall of the Lady Chapel with a chequer pattern of stone and flint. The eastern end of the Chapel of St Michael is faced more simply with closely set knapped flint. Many architectural details of the church are consistent with the date of its construction in the second half of the 14th century, but the interior of the building also includes elements of 12th, 13th and early 14th century stonework from the earlier abbey, reconstructed unaltered on the new site. Notable amongst these are the remains of capitals of attached columns in the east piers of the crossing, the columns and arches of the openings between the transepts and the chapels to the east of them, and the surrounds of the east windows of the chapels.

The remains of the conventual buildings of the abbey, which include walls standing in many places to a height of at least 4m, are ranged around three sides of a cloister c.27m square adjoining the south wall of the church. Parts of a string course, marking the upper edge of the pentice roof above the cloister alleys, can be seen in the inward facing walls, and remains of the cloister arcade will be preserved below ground, although nothing of it is recorded standing above ground except a pier in the north west angle, within the area now occupied by the modern extension of Abbey House. The principal entry to the cloister from the outer part of the precinct is a passage through the west range, fronted by a porch which is dated to the late 15th or early 16th century and is the latest identifiable structure of the monastic period on the site. The partly ruined wall and polygonal turret on the north side of the porch, faced and ornamented externally with brickwork which includes elaborately moulded detail, stand high enough to show that the structure was originally of up to three storeys. On the inner face of the turret is an arched doorway into a small chamber at ground floor level, with a similar doorway at first floor level opening on to the foot of a stair leading upwards. The north wall includes a blocked window opening in an arched niche with rectangular hollow shafts to either side which are interpreted as cisterns for rain water from the roof. A limited excavation on the south side of the porch revealed the footings of the corresponding turret and wall, the outlines of which are now marked in concrete, and also discovered evidence for an earlier structure underlying it. The porch and entrance passage, now roofless, were originally vaulted, and the corbels and springing of the vault can still be seen in their walls. A door opening in the north wall of the entrance passage leads into the main part of the undercroft of the west claustral range, whose walls also retain evidence of vaulting. This is divided into two parts, the larger of which was divided into three bays on either side of a central arcade and lit by internally splayed openings in the outer, western wall. Part of the east wall of a smaller room to the north of this is incorporated, much altered and restored, in the west face of the modern extension of the post-medieval house, and is therefore excluded from the scheduling. This undercroft will, according to the usual monastic practice, have been used principally for storage. The floor above, of which only fragments of wall remain, probably contained the abbot's apartments and perhaps accommodation for guests. To the south of the entrance passage is another small undercroft, at a lower level cut into sloping ground and entered separately by a door opening in the south wall, with steps down. The surviving footings of the wall in the south west angle are thickened and thought to have formed the base of a stair to the upper floor.

The eastern range of the cloister, opposite, contained the dorter (canons' dormitory) on the upper floor which no longer survives. The plan of the ground floor is defined on the west side by standing walls, and on the east side by exposed wall footings and buried foundations. The most important component, facing centrally on to the cloister, is the chapter house, where the canons met to discuss the business of the abbey. This is rectangular in plan, measuring c.13.5m east-west by c.7.5m and is entered from the cloister through the remains of a door opening with arched windows to either side of it, one of them retaining a moulded stone surround. Immediately to the north of these is an arched doorway to a vaulted chamber adjoining the south transept of the church and identified as a bookroom or perhaps a sacristy, predating the one adjoining the chapel to the north east. Part of a brick vault survives on the south side of this chamber and the south wall includes four arched niches for cupboards. In the north western angle of the chamber is the entrance to a turret, still standing to almost its full height and containing the night stair which gave access from the canons' dorter to the church, through an adjacent door in the south wall of the transept. The chamber is subdivided by a later north-south wall, inserted in an arch of the vault opposite the entrance and partly covering one of the niches, and by an east-west wall between the stair turret and the entrance from the cloister. To the south of the chapter house is a through passage and, beyond this, the ruins of a large, vaulted undercroft identified as the warming house, in the west wall of which is a brick lined fireplace and chimney. The rest of the eastern range, which extends some 23m beyond the adjoining south range is marked by upstanding fragments of walls on the west side, and the outer (west) face of one of these fragments preserves the outline of the vaulting of a building which is no longer visible above ground but which extended westward, parallel to and c.13m south of the south claustral range. At the southern end of the east range, running east-west, are the remains of the rere dorter (latrine block), including the upstanding masonry of the lower part of the north wall and a high, arched opening in the eastern end wall. Wall footings at the west end suggest a corresponding opening, probably for an east-west drain to carry water to flush the latrines. Excavations have revealed also a narrow drain running north-south below an arch, now blocked, in the north wall. The south claustral range is the best preserved of the three, with outer walls standing to a height of up to c.12m and displaying many features, including evidence of a complex sequence of alterations, some of which are of post-medieval date. It includes the remains of two storeys; an undercroft which is built, like the southern end of the west range, into a terrace in the natural slope, and the refectory above it, on a level with the cloister alley. The blocked arch of the entrance to the refectory is near the western end of the north wall, and immediately to the east of this, in the side facing on to the cloister alley, are the remains of the laver (washing place), visible as a wide, arched niche above a bench which supported the trough. (The laver was an important feature of a monastery, of spiritual and ceremonial as well as social significance, and was often elaborately decorated and fitted with piped water and drainage). In the gable wall at the west end of the refectory is a large, arched window opening above a shallow recess, and at a lower level in the southern wall are the blocked openings of the internally splayed windows which lit the undercroft. Towards the eastern end of the undercroft are the footings of a cross wall, inserted probably in the late 14th century to create a separate room beneath the end of the refectory where, according to monastic custom, there will have been a dais on which the abbot and officers of the abbey sat. This lower room had a brick vault, the outline of which can be seen in the east wall, and was entered by a narrow arched door (now blocked) at the north end of the east wall, with steps down from a through passage beyond. At the opposite end of the same wall is the arched opening to a stair constructed in the thickness of the angle and south wall and probably leading to a pulpit from which readings were given during meals. At the extreme eastern end of the south range, between the through passage and the east range, are the remains of the day stairs from the cloister to the dorter. The monastic kitchen probably lay to the south of the refectory, where the uneven ground surface indicates the survival of buried foundations.

In the ploughed field east of the claustral buildings aerial photographs have shown the presence of the buried remains of a large rectangular structure, probably the infirmary hall, and the survival of masonry foundations and robbed foundation trenches, representing more than one phase of construction, has been confirmed by a geophysical survey and a limited excavation. Beyond these, the excavation also discovered a ditch up to 4m wide and c.1.6m deep running SSW-NNE and thought to mark the eastern boundary of the monastic precinct. From approximately the point where the projected line of this ditch meets the field boundary to the north, c.67m north east of the abbey church, a slight bank c.0.5m high, which appears to be a continuation of this boundary, runs westwards, following the southern side of the access track from the road (B1122) to a point c.60m north of Abbey House. Slight rectilinear earthworks between the western end of this bank and Abbey House probably mark the site and buried foundations of another building or buildings, perhaps including a gatehouse.

To the north west of the claustral complex, c.57m from the west end of the monastic church, are the remains of an outer court, surrounded on three sides by a ditch and including two stone buildings which are partly of monastic date. The first building, which is Listed Grade II and was used as a barn in the post-medieval period, is on the east side of the court and is rectangular with dimensions of c.23m north-south by c.10m. The east and west walls, although much patched and altered, display original features which include the blocked opening of an arched doorway and the north jamb and sill of an adjacent blocked window opening in the west wall, and an arched niche in the interior face of the east wall. The second building, known as the Guesten Hall, which is aligned ENE-WSW and stands on the north side of the enclosure, c.10m east of the north end of the first, and incorporates the south wall and a large part of the north wall of another medieval building of two storeys, identified as probably a guest hall of later 14th century date. Limited excavations and observations prior to and during the restoration and development of this building for modern use located the footings of the east and west walls and the east end of the north wall and established the overall dimensions as 24.7m east-west by 8.6m. The standing walls display evidence of post-medieval alterations but also retain original medieval features including limestone quoins, limestone and brick jambs of blocked or altered windows in both upper and lower storeys, and the brick arch of a doorway at first floor level in the south wall. This door is reached by an external stair of modern construction, replacing an original which no longer survives, although a survey of the wall prior to restoration recorded sockets on either side of the door where it was probably attached. Both buildings have been converted for modern use and are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

The ditch around the north, west and south sides of the court is c.5m wide and c.1.5m deep and is now dry, but it is considered to be the remains of a moat, possibly predating the construction of the abbey on the site. The enclosure, including the ditch, has maximum overall dimensions of c.77m north-south by c.53m east-west. The southern arm of the ditch terminates at the east end in a rectangular pond, c.32m east-west by 22m, which is probably a later enlargement. A channel links the east end of the northern arm to a large, rectilinear pond to the north east. This pond, which measures c.62m north east-south west by 12m overall, is one of a pair. Both are more than 2m deep and fed by surface drainage, and are thought to be the remains of another moat, although it is possible that they were adapted for use as fish ponds or supply ponds during the monastic period. The second pond, which is rectangular and measures c.30m north-south by c.10m, lies east of the first at a distance of c.10m at the northern and c.27m at the southern end, and the two together define the east and west sides and the south west angle of an enclosure, with maximum overall dimensions of c.65m east-west by c.55m north-south. The surface of the interior of the enclosure is raised c.0.5m above the level of the ground to the south.

Further, regular earthworks believed to be of medieval date are visible under pasture in a paddock immediately to the south of the first enclosure. They include two rectangular terraced platforms, c.0.5m high, one above the other on a south facing slope. The platforms each measure c.50m east-west by up to 45m and are bordered on the east side by a shallow ditch c.5m wide, which connects with east end of the pond at the southern end of the enclosure ditch to the north and will have functioned as an outlet channel.

A number of features within the area are excluded from the scheduling; these are the Lady Chapel (Listed Grade I), Abbey House (Listed Grade II), the buildings known as the Guesten Hall and a barn (both Listed Grade II), a modern building containing studios which lies to the north of the monastic church, a masonry and timber building of post-medieval construction, situated within the moated enclosure to the south of the Guesten Hall, post- medieval and modern walls between the buildings in the moated enclosure, the modern retaining wall and surface of a terrace on the south side of the Guesten Hall; also excluded are the fragmentary head of a medieval standing cross mounted on a modern concrete shaft to the north of Abbey House, a modern altar standing at the east end of the monastic church, modern inspection chambers within the area of the church nave and cloister and to the south of the south range, service poles across the site, a small brick structure 20m north east of the church, in the angle of the field, modern field and garden fences, a timber railing on the boundary of the car parking area, and the iron rail fencing surrounding the area in the care of the Secretary of State, with all associated gates, the English Heritage compound and huts, a signpost in the car park area to the east of the barn, information boards, including supports, garden steps and the modern surfaces of yards, paths and tracks; the ground beneath all these features is, however, 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: 21405

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Cox, J, The Victoria History of the County of Suffolk: Volume II, (1907), 117-119
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 190
Clapham, A W, 'Archaeologia' in The Architecture of the Premonstratensians, , Vol. 73, (1923), 137-141
CUCAP BYZ 27-29, (1976)
Filmer-Sankey, W, LCS 001: summary of excavations, (1990)
Filmer-Sankey, W, LCS 001: summary of watching brief, 1984,
Gill, D, LCS 001: `Guestenhall' survey of standing walls, (1990)
HPG Information File, Sherlock, D, Leiston Abbey: notes on excavation by V Fenwick, (1985)
HPG Information File, Sherlock, D, Leiston Abbey: notes on Porch, (1984)
LCS 001: summary of excavations, (1985)
Letter in HPG information file, (1988)
Print, Johnson, Isaac , Leiston Abbey, Suffolk, (1821)

End of official listing