Anglo-Saxon occupation site and site of Athelney Abbey on Athelney Hill


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Sedgemoor (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
ST 34330 29271

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 Anglo-Saxon occupation site and site of Athelney Abbey, which encompass the twin summits of Athelney Hill, are known to contain below ground archaeological remains on the eastern summit which relate to the post-Conquest monastery, which traditionally occupied a position directly above the site of the Benedictine monastic foundation established by King Alfred, and further below ground remains relating to the Saxon occupation of the western summit on the site of the suspected Alfredian fort. The archaeological evidence will provide information about the lives of both the secular and monastic inhabitants of Athelney Hill and the tasks upon which they were engaged. In addition, important contemporary documentary sources such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles provide historical references which underpin the significance of Athelney as a place of refuge for King Alfred in his struggle against the Danes (the name Athelney means island of princes) at an important time in the early history of England. The monument will also provide information on the development of the monastic occupation of the abbey site and its architectural development from its acknowledged pre-Conquest origins until the time of the Dissolution.


The monument includes the remains of Athelney Abbey and the remains of features associated with Anglo-Saxon occupation. The site occupies Athelney Hill, a natural island raised above the surrounding lower lying ground of the Somerset Levels and moors. The island, known as the Isle of Athelney, is formed by a long low hill aligned from east to west with two summits separated by a lower saddle of land. It lies just to the east of the Anglo-Saxon burh of Lyng to which it was connected by a causeway, the course of which appears to have been overlain by the medieval Balt Moor Wall. Both the burh and part of the Balt Moor Wall are the subject of separate schedulings. The Anglo-Saxon occupation site and Athelney Abbey both survive as buried features and the evidence for their remains comes from a wide range of sources including contemporary historical documents, geophysical survey and from limited excavation. It is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 878 King Alfred had a stronghold constructed on the Isle of Athelney, traditionally believed to be sited on the western summit which would have been protected by the surrounding, but now drained, marshland. Geophysical survey undertaken in 1993 has demonstrated occupation in this area in the form of ditches which appear to have been filled, at least in part, by ferrous material. Field walking of a metal working area identified in the survey produced iron slag which is considered to be of Saxon date. The earliest known reference to the monastic site comes from a contemporary document in which it is mentioned that Alfred founded a monastery around the year AD 879, or a little later, on the eastern summit of the Isle of Athelney. More details of the monastery were recorded in the 12th century by William of Malmesbury who described the church as a unique structure being centrally planned with four apses. Further references to the monastic site appear in the 14th and 15th centuries where details of its disrepair and subsequent rebuilding have been described. From these references it can be demonstrated that the monastery remained in ecclesiastical use until its dissolution in 1539. Antiquarian excavations of the site on or close to the summit of the hill have recorded the remains of graves and revealed the foundations of the church, a medieval chapel (possibly the oratory which is specifically mentioned in a document of 1462), and a vault containing human remains. Pillar bases, masonry fragments (some painted), and fragments of window tracery have also been recorded. The 1993 geophysical survey confirmed the location of the medieval church and also detected the presence of other ancillary buildings indicating that the post-Conquest remains extend further to the south east than had previously been known. Following the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, the buildings had become derelict by 1633 and totally demolished by the 1670s, the stone probably being used in the construction of nearby Athelney Farm at this time. Also included in the monument, located on the east summit in the area of the monastic site is the Alfred Monument, which is a Listed Building Grade II, an inscribed obelisk set on a plinth and erected in 1801 to commemorate the site of the monastery founded by King Alfred. Two medieval floor layers were revealed during restoration work on the obelisk in 1985, one of which was tiled. All fencing, gates, gateposts and water troughs together with the wall which encloses the Alfred Monument are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath these features 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
The Victoria History of the County of Somerset - Lyng, (1911), 99-103
Clapham, A, Engliah Romanesque Architecture147-8
Keyes, S, Lapidge, M, Asser's life of King Alfred, (1983)
Gater, J A, 'Proceedings of Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society' in Somerset Archaeology, (1993), 142-3
Gater, J A, 'Proceedings of Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society' in Somerset Archaeology, (1993), 142-3
10540, (1988)


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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