Coggeshall Abbey


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1018865

Date first listed: 12-Dec-1953

Date of most recent amendment: 19-Mar-1999


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

County: Essex

District: Braintree (District Authority)

Parish: Coggeshall

National Grid Reference: TL 85461 22277, TL 85553 22361


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 Cluniac order had its origins in the monastic reformations which swept across continental Europe in the tenth century. The reformations which occurred were partly a response to the impact of Viking raids and attacks on established monastic sites in the preceding century but were also a reaction against the corruption and excesses which were increasingly noted amongst earlier establishments. The Cluniacs were amongst the most successful of the new reformed orders that developed. The founding house of Cluny in south-east France was established in AD 910. Here the community obeyed a stringent set of rules which, amongst other things, involved celibacy, communal living and abstention from eating meat. The ideals of the Cluniac reformers passed on to England in the tenth century. Influential Cluniac houses had been established in England by 1077. Once established, Cluniac houses were notable for the strong links they maintained both with the founding house of Cluny in France and also with other houses of their order. Most Cluniac houses in England were established near major towns and they particularly sought locations in valley bottoms within the protection of a nearby castle. Cluniac monasteries are notable for highly decorated, elaborate buildings. Cluniac houses are relatively rare, with some forty-four houses known in England, and all examples exhibiting good survival of archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Although Coggeshall Abbey was founded as a Savignac monastery (indeed it is notable as the thirteenth and last establishment of that order in England), in terms of layout it is largely indistinguishable from the planned monasteries of the Cistercian Order, to whom it soon belonged.

As a lesser known Cistercian house, Coggeshall Abbey nevertheless achieved a position of considerable influence in the region during the four centuries between its foundation and suppression. Despite the fact that many of the buildings were demolished shortly after the Dissolution, the buried remains of the church and other claustral buildings are known to survive well, and the standing parts of the claustral range provide a vivid insight into the abbey's original appearance. Of particular importance is the sophisticated use of brick during all stages of the monastery's construction. It has been argued that the primary building phases represent the earliest use of purpose-made brick in medieval England, and are therefore of outstanding historical and archaeological interest.

As the wider area of the precinct has since undergone comparatively little subsequent development, buried evidence for a range of other structures and activities will also be preserved. One such aspect of communal life is clearly represented by the abbey fishponds which, in addition to ensuring a consistent supply of food, would also have enabled the members of the Order to comply with religious strictures on their diet.


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


The monument includes the buried and visible remains of the Savignac, later Cistercian, monastery of St Mary and St John, situated alongside the River Blackwater some 0.5km to the south east of the centre of Coggeshall. The scheduling includes two areas of protection: one concerned with the site of the church, conventual buildings and other features within the abbey precinct to the west of the river, the other concerned with a flight of contemporary fishponds arranged alongside the river's eastern bank.

The abbey church and the majority of the conventual buildings survive only as foundations and buried remains, although portions of the eastern arm of the claustral range (which originally formed a square around an open garth to the south of the church) still stand, retained within and alongside Abbey Farm: a post-Dissolution country house and modern farm. Parchmarks caused by underlying masonry have been recorded across the lawns to the north of the present house, and together with some very small scale excavations in the 1950s, indicate that the abbey church was approximately 61m in length, laid out in standard cruciform plan with an additional chapel on the north side of the nave. To the south of the church were located the cloisters, refectory, dormitory and other buildings. Further limited excavations in the 1950s revealed the well preserved foundations of the chapter house attached to the south transept of the church, slightly to the north west of the present house. These remains included tiled floors and seats and a brick-lined grave, possibly that of Ralph, the sixth abbot. The present house does contain some earlier fabric, believed to represent the infirmary hall which was formerly attached to a parlour immediately to the south of the chapter house. The house continues in use as a private residence; it is Listed Grade I and is excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath is included.

Traces of the cloister walk (with evidence of plain tile paving) were also uncovered in the 1950s, leading south towards the dorter (the monks' dormitory) at the southern end of the eastern claustral range. Only two walls, those to the south and east, now stand to mark the position of the dorter. These show clear evidence that the hall was vaulted to support a substantial upper storey, presumably the dormitory itself. It is also apparent however, that the vaulting was preceded by an earlier building phase dating from around 1180, during which the lower walls were pierced by numerous brick-lined segmental arches. These arches were subsequently blocked, probably about 1220, to provide extra support for the additional storey. The eastern wall of the dorter serves as one side of a narrow corridor-like chamber, also dated to around 1220, which retains both original stories over its full length of some 12m. The ground floor is linked to the dorter undercroft by a doorway set within one of the earlier archways, and a similar doorway once connected the corridor with the infirmary hall to the north. The upper floor, which retains vestiges of painted wall plaster, is thought to have served as the abbot's private chamber since it is connected to the abbot's lodging - a rectangular hall set across the southern end of the dorter and sharing its southern wall. This hall is thought to date from around 1190. The lower storey may have served as the abbot's dining hall, although it has been considerably altered over the years for farm use. The upper floor has seen less disturbance and is still clearly recognisable as a chapel - containing both a niche (or aumbry) and a piscina. The abbot's lodging and the corridor, both Grade I Listed buildings, are included in the scheduling.

A detached rectangular building stands a few metres south of the abbot's lodging, orientated north east-south west in line with the river rather than north-south in common with the rest of the range. This is considered to be the abbey guest house. The building measures some 7.6m by 4.8m and, although tall enough for two stories, only contained one. Both the east and west walls are pierced by four tall lancet windows. Doorways were originally placed at the western ends of the north and south walls, although only the northern round headed archway survives - the southern wall having long since been removed to allow cart access. Excavation of the floor of the guest house in the 1950s demonstrated successive uses as a stable, a kitchen and a building store. A straw-burning heating system was installed within the structure in the 1980s, at which time the floor was reinforced with concrete and a new chimney added. These modern features are excluded from the scheduling, although the original fabric of the Grade I Listed building (together with the later roof) is included.

The standing monastic buildings and most of the excavated foundations are composed primarily of flint and chalk rubble. Most significant, however, is the use of brick for the quoins, buttresses, pillars and decorative mouldings. These roll-moulded and composite forms were produced locally (probably at Tilkey on the outskirts of Coggeshall) for the particular requirements of the abbey, and include some of the earliest examples of medieval brick construction in the British Isles.

Little is known of the remaining components of the southern and western claustral ranges, although the layout probably followed a basic pattern routinely adopted by Cistercian houses. The south range is therefore likely to have to included the kitchen, refectory and reredorter (latrines), whilst the western arm probably consisted mainly of the cellarer's hall and stores. The northern part of the western range has been observed as parchmarks and a small area was excavated in the 1950s to reveal the foundations of a pentagonal lavatorium (or washing place) and evidence for a comprehensive rebuilding phase in the mid-15th century. The south western part of the claustral range is mainly overlain by later farm buildings.

Other buildings, particularly more prosaic structures related to the economy of the abbey, would have been detached from the cloisters although still set within the precinct which separated the monastery from the secular world. The precise outline of the abbey precinct is not recorded, although its minimum extent is thought to have been retained as a property boundary after the Dissolution. The scheduling of the abbey site reflects the position of this enclosure, which was recorded on an estate map of 1639 and which has also appeared in part as a cropmark recorded from the air. The boundary crosses the field to the north of the abbey church at a distance of some 80m (thereby allowing ample space for the monk's cemetery) before turning south along the eastern side of St Nicholas' churchyard and along the western boundaries of the farmyard towards Abbey Mill. The eastern side of the precinct may have been marked by the River Blackwater, this section of which is artificial - dug by the monks to supply the mill. The channel has since been recut and it is not included in the scheduling. Similarly, the site of the original abbey mill was significantly altered in the 18th and 19th centuries and is also not included. St Nicholas' Church, facing the town on the western edge of the precinct, was built in the early 13th century using brickwork comparable to that of the main abbey buildings. It is thought to have originated as a gatehouse chapel, although it may have acquired a broader role after the abbey relinquished control over the parish church in 1223. After 300 years spent as a barn following the Dissolution, the chapel was restored between 1860 and 1890 and returned to ecclesiastical use. The building remains in use as a place of worship, is Listed Grade I and not included in the scheduling.

The fishponds to the east of the river extend over a distance of approximately 140m, within the narrow strip of land between the canalised River Blackwater and a smaller channel called the `Back Ditch'. At present the ponds appear as three shallow and largely dry rectangular depressions - those to north and south measuring some 20m square, and the central pond similar in width but some 75m in length. The 1639 estate map depicts a similar layout, but with the northern pond subdivided and the division between the central and southern pond located somewhat further to the north.

Although the cartulary has not survived, a reasonably full picture of the abbey's history can be gathered from the writings of Ralph, abbot from 1207 to 1218, as well as from later charters, wills and associated manorial records. The abbey was founded by King Stephen around 1140, favouring the Savignac Order from the Mortain region of Brittany - of which Stephen was also the Count. The land chosen for the abbey was provided by his queen, Matilda, having formerly belonged to her father, Count Eustace of Boulogne, and included the manor of Coggeshall. Although work commenced under the authority of the Savignacs, this order collapsed in 1147 and a Papal Bull of 1148 placed all its former properties under the control of Citeaux. Consequently, by the time of the abbey church's completion in 1167 (signified by the dedication of the high altar) the abbey was fully part of the Cistercian Order. The following year the second abbot, Simon de Toni, returned to his own Abbey of Melrose having apparently supervised the transfer of authority and the final stages of the church building.

The abbey continued to prosper throughout the 13th century, developing the local wool trade and acquiring various lands and rights through both royal and local grants. Despite these sources of wealth, however, the abbey is known to have become impoverished in the later 14th century, partly as a result of mismanagement and partly due to the Crown's imposition of expensive corrodies (pensioned livings within the precinct) for various favoured subjects. This practice may have developed in later years. The will of Sir John Sharpe, dated 1518, makes reference to his having held the lease of a `mansion and lodgings at Coggeshall Abbey'. Sir John's lease has not survived but that granted to his successor, Clement Harleston, places the mansion next to the infirmary. Harleston also had exclusive use of St Katherine's Chapel, on the north side of the nave of the abbey church.

Following inspections by Cromwell's commissioners in 1535 and 1536, Abbot William Love was dismissed and replaced by the more compliant Abbot of Tower Hill, Henry More. More surrendered the abbey to the Crown in 1538, at which point it was handed, together with all its lands and appurtenances, to Sir Thomas Seymour. Seymour exchanged the abbey site for other lands in 1541 and as this transfer required a survey, we know that the abbey church was already levelled by this time. The timber framed mansion formerly occupied by Sharpe and Harleston was retained after the Dissolution. A fireplace in an east facing outside wall shows that it was later partly subsumed within the new house constructed around the skeleton of the infirmary by Anne Paycocke and her husband, Richard Benton in 1581.

The house, now the principal residence of Abbey Farm, was much altered in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, although it still displays many of its earlier features, including 16th century chimney stacks, oriel windows and the west porch.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; Abbey Farm House and all other standing buildings (with the exception of the corridor, abbot's lodging and guest house), all other modern strutures related to the farm, the farmhouse and its gardens; all modern fixtures and fittings, such as the heating unit installed in the guest house and related pipework, all fences fenceposts and gates, and the modern made surfaces of all driveways, yards, roads and paths; the ground beneath all the above features is, however, included in the scheduling.

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: 29426

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Doubleday, AH, Page, W, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1907), 126
Doubleday, AH, Page, W, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1907), 125
Doubleday, AH, Page, W, The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1907), 125-9
Kowles, D, St Joseph, JKS , Monastic Sites from the Air, (1952), 133
Medlycott, M, Coggeshall: Historic Towns Project Assessment Report, (1998)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Essex, (1954), 251
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England, (1954), 251
Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, , An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, (1922), 165
Cutts, , 'Trans. Essex Archaeology Society' in Archaeological Account of Coggeshall Abbey, , Vol. OS i, (1848), 166-70
Gardner, J S, 'Journal of the British Archaeol Ass (3rd Series)' in Coggeshall Abbey and its Early Brickwork, , Vol. 3/18, (1955), 19-32
Gardner, J S, 'Journal of the British Archaeol Ass (3rd Series)' in Coggeshall Abbey and its Early Brickwork, , Vol. 3/18, (1955), 19-32
Gardner, J S, 'Journal of the British Archaeol Ass (3rd Series)' in Coggeshall Abbey and its Early Brickwork, , Vol. 3/18, (1955), 19-32
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
Estate Map - Essex Record Office, ERO D/Dop, (1639)
Estate Map - Essex Record Office, ERO D/Dop, (1639)
Extensive urban Survey Report, Medlycott, M, Coggeshall: Historic Towns Project Assessment Report, (1998)
Nos 9/10 - 9/16, DoE, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, Braintree District, Coggeshall Parish, (1966)
RCHME, Monuments of Essex, (1922)
RCHME, Monuments of North-East Essex, (1922)

End of official listing