Leiston Abbey (first site) with later chapel and pill box


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Leiston Abbey (first site) with later chapel and pill box
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Suffolk Coastal (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TM 47267 65997

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 buildings.

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.

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
Cox, J, The Victoria History of the County of Suffolk: Volume II, (1907)
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
CUCAP BYZ 27-29, (1976)
CUCAP BZ 27-29, (1976)
Rope, R G A, (1992)


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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