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 the only foundation of the Premonstratensian order known in
Suffolk. On the original site of the abbey, the boundaries of the monastic
precinct can still be traced and, although much of the area within those
boundaries is under arable cultivation, crop marks which have been recorded by
aerial photography demonstrate the survival below ground, not only of the
foundations of the abbey church and conventual buildings, but of a wide range
of other buried features of monastic date, which will retain archaeological
information concerning many different aspects of the life, organisation and
economy of the monastic community as a whole. Organic remains which are likely
to be preserved in waterlogged deposits in the lower fills of the fishpond and
water control features will also retain evidence of the local environment
during the medieval period. The fact that this is the first of two sites
occupied by the abbey, and that the second site is also well preserved, gives
it additional interest, allowing the direct comparison of two chronologically
and topographically distinct sequences in its history.
The original site of Leiston Abbey, from which the community was removed in
1363 to a new site 3.37km to the south west, is located on a low island in the
coastal marshes on the south side of Minsmere, 250m inland from the present
shoreline. The monument includes the buried remains of the monastic church and
conventual buildings, various ditched enclosures, and a large fishpond with
associated water management features, set within a monastic precinct which is
still defined in part by existing field boundaries. Also included are the
ruins of a chapel on the site of the monastic church, and a World War II pill
box camouflaged within the walls of the chapel.
Leiston Abbey, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, was founded for 26 regular
canons of the Premonstratensian order in 1182 by Ranulph de Glanville, Chief
Justiciary to King Henry II, and was endowed with the manor of Leiston and the
churches of St Margaret, Leiston, and St Andrew Aldringham. Other endowments
followed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and in the taxation roll of 1291, the
annual value of the abbey is given as 130 pounds 15s 7d. The austerity and
seclusion from the world sought by the Premonstratensian order are manifest in
the original choice of location for the abbey, but the disadvantages and
inconvenience of such an isolated and marshy site became increasingly
apparent. In 1344, because of their impoverishment caused by frequent
inundations by the sea, the abbey obtained a licence to acquire further lands
and rents to the value of 20 pounds and, in 1363, a papal licence to remove to
a new site at a more favourable location inland. The church and other
buildings on the old site were demolished and the stone from them reused in
the construction of the new, paid for by Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk,
who had been granted patronage of the abbey in 1350. The precinct of the old
abbey was, however, retained as a small cell of the new, with a chapel
dedicated to St Mary. John Green, last abbot but one, resigned his
office to live here as an anchorite in 1531.
The foundations and foundation trenches of the demolished buildings, together
with other features, survive below the ploughed surface of a modern field and
form crop marks which have been recorded in aerial photographs, showing the
layout of the abbey in some detail. The monastic church and conventual
buildings occupy the highest point of the island, and the ruins of the later
building, identified as the Chapel of St Mary referred to in documentary
sources, stand within the eastern end of the nave of the church.
Lower down, to the north, is a fishpond, surrounded by water channels, and
to the south of this are remains of ditches defining two large,
sub-rectangular enclosures. At the eastern end of the site there are traces of
an extensive complex of smaller, rectilinear ditched enclosures.
The area to the north of the pond and its associated features is under grass
and contains features surviving as earthworks. It is bordered by an earthen
bank which is aligned parallel to the principal medieval water channels and is
understood to follow the boundary of the monastic precinct on that side. At
the eastern end of the monument, the drain surrounding the ploughed field
marks the limit of recorded features known or thought to be of medieval date.
On the south east side, the probable line of the boundary is indicated by the
linear crop mark of a ditch and bank or wall, running north east-south west
and partly alongside the inner edge of the modern drain which surrounds the
field. This feature terminates in a short, inward return, perhaps marking an
entrance to the precinct. West of this point there is no continuation visible
in the aerial photographs, but the precinct boundary is believed to coincide
largely with that of the modern field.
The church, as defined by crop marks, was cruciform in plan, with transepts to
north and south of a crossing east of the nave, and measured c.70m in overall
length. The nave was c.38m in length by c.13m and apparently without aisles.
The division between the crossing (the area where the canons' choir was
normally situated) and the presbytery at the east end of the church is marked
by foundations, perhaps for steps or sills for a choir screen, which can be
seen to continue the lines of the east walls of the transepts inwards to a
wide central opening. The presbytery was of similar width to the nave and
also aisleless, as was normal in churches built by the Premonstratensian
order. The foundations of a rectangular structure measuring c.14m north-south
by 6m east-west, which can be seen over (or abutting) the south end of the
southern transept, may belong to the later use of the site, following the
removal of the main body of the community to the new abbey.
The conventual buildings were grouped around a cloister c.30m square on the
north side of the church. The plan of the east range, abutting the north
transept of the church, is the most clearly defined. At the southern end of
the range are the remains of the chapter house, where the abbot and canons met
to discuss the daily business of the abbey. This is rectangular and measures
c.17m east-west by c.12m. The remainder of the range extends northwards c.37m
beyond this, well beyond the northern claustral range, and is c.11m wide.
According to the usual monastic arrangement, this will have contained the
dorter (canons' dormitory) on the upper floor, above an undercroft subdivided
into various apartments such as the parlour and warming house. These
subdivisions of the ground plan are clearly visible in the air photographs,
which also show the outline of the rere dorter (latrine block) across the
northern end of the range and extending eastwards. The crop marks reveal no
precise details of the other two ranges, but to the north of the angle between
the north range, which contained the refectory, and the west range, they show
part of a separate building which, on the evidence of its location, was
probably the kitchen.
A crop mark recorded to the east of the church suggests the presence there of
a large, rectangular building which, by analogy with other monastic sites, is
likely to have been the infirmary. The monastic cemetery probably lay to the
north of this and east of the dorter range, where the crop marks indicate a
large enclosure. Beyond this, at the eastern end of the monument, is the
complex of small, ditched enclosures, laid out grid fashion, which probably
included gardens and paddocks, perhaps with associated agricultural or service
The abbey fishpond, the remains of which lie to the north west of the abbey
buildings, was linked to a system of artificial water channels which will have
supplied the monastery with fresh water for domestic use, including
sanitation, as well as for agricultural purposes, and also included drains for
foul water. These features are now largely infilled, but survive below the
ploughsoil and produce well defined crop marks. The fishpond, which is still
marked on the ground surface by an area of soft, damp soil, is sub-rectangular
in plan and measures c.78m east-west by c.46m. Two short channels connect the
pond to a broad leat which runs parallel to it on the south side, from the
western end of the precinct to the rere dorter, which required a water supply
for flushing the latrines. This leat and other, connected channels,
constituting a system of supply and drainage, form a rectangular enclosure
around the pond. The junction of the channels at the north west corner of the
enclosure is obscured by a modern drainage ditch, but they appear to have been
connected with a sinuous channel, embanked on the east side, which survives as
an upstanding earthwork in the uncultivated part of the precinct to the north.
The flow of water around the system and in an out of the fishpond will have
been controlled by sluices, remains of which are also likely to survive below
ground. Ditches linked to the principal leat on the south side appear to form
part of the same system, and also define two large rectangular enclosures.
Across these run narrower ditches which are probably of different date, though
on the same alignments as the larger features.
In the north west corner of the marshland enclosure to the north there is a
rectangular raised platform, measuring c.30m east-west by 10m, which probably
supported a building.
The ruined chapel above the site of the monastic church is rectangular, with
dimensions of c.15m east-west by 8m. The walls are constructed chiefly of
coursed flint rubble in the lower part, but the upper parts above door height
are of different build, containing random fragments of reused ashlar and stone
mouldings, as well as some brick. They retain various blocked and altered
openings of medieval date, including an arched doorway on the south side, and
a blocked window with original plastered reveals on the south interior wall.
Photographs taken early this century show the gable ends survivng to full
height, although the upper parts of these have now fallen.
The pill box, which was constructed within the eastern half of the building
during World War II as part of the coastal defences, is of brick faced with
cement, with firing embrasures utilising openings in the north, south and east
sides of the earlier building, and an entrance on the west side.
The modern field gate and the modern bridge are excluded from the scheduling,
although the ground beneath them is included.
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.