The Benedictine Abbey of St John


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1015015

Date first listed: 22-Jan-1965

Date of most recent amendment: 31-Jan-1997


Ordnance survey map of The Benedictine Abbey of St John
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Essex

District: Colchester (District Authority)

National Grid Reference: TL 99789 24728

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.

The Monastery of St John was founded by one of William the Conqueror's most powerful subjects and, from its inception, it controlled interests in the locality which made a major contribution to the development of the medieval town. The standing remains of the abbey are now limited to sections of the precinct wall and the abbey gatehouse, itself a fine example of 15th century architecture and accessible to the public. However, the largely undisturbed nature of the greater part of the precinct ensures that buried evidence from many phases of occupation will survive, often accumulated to considerable depths. In addition to structural remains, this evidence will include artefacts (valuable as a means of establishing dates and as an indication of the lifestyle of the inhabitants), further skeletal material (indicating aspects of health, life expectancy and the treatment of illness and disease) and environmental evidence related to horticulture within the precinct and the diet of the community. Documentary evidence allows further insights into the development of the monastery, and the economic and social role which it held in relation to the town. The social role, in particular, has already been studied by part excavation of the parochial cemetery adjacent to St Giles' Church and the survival of the church itself (not included in the scheduling) adds significantly to our understanding of the relationship between the monastery and the parish within which it was set. The excavated evidence and surviving remains of the pre-Conquest church are especially important. Such buildings are rare. The discovery of this example within the later precinct clearly demonstrates a continuity of religious occupation, and the continued use of the church site as a parochial cemetery in the 12th century is of particular interest. Part excavation of the Roman cemetery, which underlies the northern part of the precinct, has provided important information concerning the occupation of Roman Colchester - the earliest Roman town in England. Further burials remain preserved within the precinct which, by comparison with other cemeteries surrounding the town (in particular the extensive cemetery excavated at Butt's Road) will enable detailed study of the dynamics of the Romano-British population. The development of the abbey site in the period after the Dissolution, and particularly the construction of a formal garden within the precinct, is considered highly significant. Formal gardens were intended to express wealth and refinement and to provide appropriate settings for high status residences. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, these tended to comprise regular or symmetrical patterns of flower beds, paths terraces and lawns which would create vistas related to the main building. A significant part of the garden layout related to the post-Dissolution reuse of St John's Abbey has survived in the form of visible earthworks, from which the wider arrangement of the garden can be inferred. Two features of particular interest are the prospect mound, located at the highest point within the garden, and the axial walkway, which is considered to indicate the position of the post-Dissolution house. The remains of the house itself, perhaps incorporating the former abbot's lodgings and other components of the former monastery, are thought to survive as buried features within the western part of the monument.


The monument includes the buried and visible remains of the Benedictine Abbey of St John which is located on the southern outskirts of Colchester town centre, largely within the grounds of the Garrison Officers' Club. Also included in the scheduling are the buried remains of a small pre-Conquest church which preceded the foundation of the monastery, and part of one of the extensive extra-mural cemeteries associated with the Roman town and later subsumed within the area of the monastic precinct. In addition, the monument includes the buried remains of a 17th century house established after the Dissolution of the abbey and the remains of its associated formal gardens, some of whose terraces are still visible within the Club grounds. The Roman cemetery was discovered in 1972 prior to the construction of the St Botolph's Circus. The excavation uncovered 34 inhumations on the south west side of the present roundabout (in the north eastern corner of the later precinct) which were dated from coin evidence, pottery and other grave goods to the period around AD 270. Although these burials were removed, the cemetery to which they belong is thought to extend further south within the area of the former monastic precinct. Documentary sources indicate that a parish church, founded by a priest named Sigeric, stood on the hillside to the south of the town prior to the Norman Conquest. A small structure was partly uncovered during the 1972 excavations in the area. This area has since been landscaped to form the steep verge on the south side of St Botolph's Circus. The building, which had rubble foundations and reused Roman masonry incorporated in the lower course of the walls, is considered to be Sigeric's Church of St John the Evangelist. The excavations revealed a narrow structure, around 6m wide, orientated east to west and divided into three cells, the eastern cell, or chancel, having an apsidal east wall. The southern edge of the building and the greater part of the western cell were not excavated. These remain preserved toward the top of the verge, and are included in the scheduling.

The Benedictine Abbey of St John was founded by Eudo de Rie, Dapifer (or steward) of William the Conqueror, in August 1095. The extent of the abbey is recorded on historic maps, particularly on John Speed's map of Colchester in 1610, and can still be traced on the ground. The precinct covered a roughly rectangular area of the hillside overlooking the medieval town, measuring approximately 240m east to west and 300m north to south, and now bounded by St John's Green to the north, Napier Road to the south and Mersea Road and Flagstaff Road to the east and west. The south western quarter of the precinct is overlain by a 20th century building complex belonging to the Defence Clothing Textile Authority (DCTA), and is not included in the scheduling. Elsewhere, the majority of the precinct is largely undeveloped and will contain buried foundations of the abbey buildings and other related features. The east wall of the abbey precinct still stands alongside Mersea Road, heavily buttressed towards the northern end in order to support a drop in ground level of up to 4m from the interior. The medieval construction in flint, Kentish ragstone and reused Roman brick, is still visible in places despite extensive refacing work in 16th century brick and numerous later repairs. It is included in the scheduling together with an adjoining length of the southern precinct wall which remains upstanding for approximately 65m, running broadly parallel to, and 50m to the north of Napier Road. Sections of the precinct wall also survive within the modern boundary wall on the western side of the monument, between the Flagstaff Road entrance to the DCTA and the outbuildings on the south side of Abbey House, and are included in the scheduling. A short section, containing fragments of decorative masonry from the abbey buildings (and therefore clearly repaired after the Dissolution) extends northwards for around 10m from the DCTA guardhouse. This is separated by a short length of modern replacement wall (not included in the scheduling) from a further length of the original structure which continues for around 22m towards the Abbey House outbuildings. This northern segment retains medieval work at the core, but displays considerable alteration from the late 16th and 17th centuries when it was utilised as the external wall of a building. The blocked windows and doors of this period remain clearly visible. To the north, the precinct wall ran along the south side of what is now Southway, and to the east and south of St John's Green. A small section of the medieval wall extends for around 15m to the west of the abbey gatehouse and is included in the scheduling, although its continuation (towards Abbey House) is a 19th century brick replacement which is not included in the scheduling. A further section survives as the lower part of the west wall of No.19 St John's Green, forming part of this house and therefore not included in the scheduling. The excavation in 1972 investigated a 140m section of monastic wall at the north eastern corner of the precinct which has since been removed by the construction of St Botolph's Circus. As elsewhere around the circuit, this wall appeared to be 16th century in date though the excavation demonstrated that later refacing had obscured the original 12th century structure. The 15th century gatehouse, situated towards the centre of the northern precinct boundary and now the principal entrance to the Officer's Club, is the is the only abbey building to remain standing. It is Listed Grade I, preserved as a displayed monument in the care of the Secretary of State, and included in the scheduling. The building, of two stories and corner turrets, is built in stone with panels of flint flushwork. The lower part of the structure is substantially original, retaining the elaborate lierne vaulting above the carriageway and pedestrian access which run between four-centred arches to north and south. The upper chamber, northern facade and turrets were heavily restored in the mid 19th century, and are believed to be faithful copies of the original work. To the east of the gate is the now roofless, two storied porter's lodging, which is accessible via a square headed doorway in the eastern wall of the carriageway. Traces of a spiral staircase to the upper floor are visible in the north east corner, although the floor itself is only evident from the series of joist holes in the walls. A doorway in a recess on the western side of the entranceway originally provided access to a second building, now demolished. The foundations will be preserved beneath the garden of the Officers' Mess. Speed's map of 1610 shows the location of the abbey church to the south of the gatehouse, and the lines of some of the buried foundations of the church and claustral range were recorded as grass parch marks here in 1958. The only detailed depiction of the church is a southern elevation in Morant's History of Essex 1748, which may not be strictly accurate. This drawing shows a massive cruciform church with a large tower over the crossing surmounted by a parapet and a smaller central turret. It also shows a chapel next to the chancel and a round tower at the west end of the nave. The cloister was originally located on the northern side of the church but, following a fire in 1133 which destroyed a large part of southern Colchester as well as part of St John's, it was moved to the southern side. However, some sources suggest that the move happened earlier, and was intended to distance the monks from the noise of the town. Benedictine abbeys were invariably built to a standard plan and it is therefore possible to reconstruct the probable layout of the abbey after the fire. To the south of the church, the range along the eastern side of the cloister would have contained the chapter house, dorter (dormitory) and reredorter (latrines). The south range would have contained the frater (refectory) and kitchens, and the cellarer's range would have stood to the west. The abbot's house will have been located elsewhere in the precinct, probably to the west of the claustral buildings. The abbey would also have contained an infirmary, guest house and a variety of other domestic buildings, stabling and barns. The monks' cemetery would have been located near the eastern end of the abbey church. Part of the 12th century parochial cemetery was revealed during the 1972 excavations. This had been established on raised ground overlying the area of the pre-Conquest church, the soil containing fragments of burnt masonry suggesting that the landscaping took place after the fire in 1133. A total of 15 lined graves and 18 shallow unlined graves were found cut into this surface, and it was evident that the graveyard continued to the south and probably to the west around the Parish Church of St Giles which was constructed in the northern part of the precinct between 1133 and 1171. The church still stands, having recently been converted into a masonic centre. It is Listed Grade II and is not included in the scheduling. The construction of the surrounding car park in 1973 completely removed any archaeological deposits in the immediate vicinity of the church. This area is not included in the scheduling. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 and passed into the hands of Sir Thomas Darcy in 1544. In 1547 the site was under the control of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and was then bought by John Lucas in 1548, who converted some of the abbey buildings, probably the abbot's house, into a residence which remained the family seat until the mid 17th century. During this period the precinct wall was repaired, using stone from the abbey buildings which, with the exception of the church, were gradually demolished. The broad terraces which survive across the eastern part of the former precinct are thought to represent a formal garden associated with the Lucas' house. The terraces, utilised by tennis courts in the latter part of this century, descend from a level area in the south east corner of the precinct, forming part of a symmetrical pattern bisected by a narrower terraced walkway extending across the centre of the slope from east to west. The principal buildings of the post-Dissolution house are thought to have been located towards the western side of the precinct, where ranges are shown on both Speed's 1610 map and Chapman and Andre's town plan of 1777. The terraced walkway would therefore have originally led from the house providing the main axis of the garden in a manner characteristic of the period. Traces of the pattern of terraces can still be seen in the areas of lawn surrounding the northern perimeter of the DCTA complex, clearly demonstrating that the garden earthworks formerly spanned the full width of the precinct. A large oval mound known as `The Mount' stands at the highest point within the precinct, adjacent to the surviving section of the southern precinct wall. It appears on maps from the late 18th century and is interpreted as a prospect mound, a frequent feature of post-medieval garden design, from which the house and gardens could be viewed and appreciated.

The house served as a Royalist stronghold during the siege of Colchester in 1648, suffering considerable damage as a result. The remaining abbey buildings (with the exception of the gatehouse), appear to have been demolished after the site was used to house Dutch prisoners in the 1660s and, there are no references to occupation after the mid 18th century. The abbey grounds passed to various owners prior to being acquired by the War Office in 1860.

With the exception of the abbey gatehouse, all buildings are excluded from the scheduling; also excluded are all modern surfaces, all fences and walls (with the exception of the surviving sections of the precinct wall), and all modern features such as lamp posts, benches and the fixtures of the tennis courts; the ground beneath all the above items 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: 26307

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1984), 303-4
The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1984), 303-4
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 24-32
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-35
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-235
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 40-46
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 24-32
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-235
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Essex, (1954), 137
Conversation with Club Secretery, Gosling, L, (1996)
Title: Source Date: 1610 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Source Date: 1777 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester Source Date: 1610 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester Source Date: 1610 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester Source Date: 1777 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester Source Date: 1777 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Essex Source Date: 1777 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Source Date: 1870 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:

End of official listing