Remains of Eye Priory at Abbey Farm


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Remains of Eye Priory at Abbey Farm
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Mid Suffolk (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TM 15255 74070, TM 15341 74036

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.

Eye priory is central to the history of Eye, which was a feudal centre of great local importance during the medieval period. The excavations conducted on the site of the priory church and conventual buildings in 1926 demonstrated the survival of foundations and other remains below ground and enabled the reconstruction of an outline plan of these buildings, and these remains will retain much additional archaeological information concerning the construction and history of the priory up to and after the Dissolution. Slight earthworks to east and south of the church and claustral complex indicate the survival of associated remains which will provide further information on the organisation of this part of the monastic precinct. The standing building which survives to the north west is a good example of a high status, late medieval brick building and adds further to the interest of the monument.

The monastic fishponds are also of particular interest. Medieval fishponds were artificially created pools of slow moving fresh water, constructed for the purpose of cultivating, breeding and storing fish to provide a constant and sustainable supply of food. Groups of up to twelve ponds, variously arranged in a single line or in a cluster and joined by leats have been recorded. The ponds may be of the same size or of several different sizes, each pond being stocked with different species or ages of fish. The size of the pond was related to function, with large ponds thought to have had a storage capability, whilst smaller, shallower ponds were used for fish cultivation and breeding. Fishponds were maintained by a water management system which included inlet and outlet channels carrying water from a river or stream, a series of sluices, and an overflow leat wich controlled fluctuations in water flow and prevented flooding. The tradition of constructing and using fishponds in England began during the medieval period and peaked in the 12th century. They were largely built by the wealthy sectors of society, with monastic institutions and royal residences often having large and complex fishponds.

The fishponds of Eye priory are a very well preserved example of such a large and elaborate monastic system and will provide valuable evidence for the way in which they were managed. Organic materials, including evidence for the local environment in the past, are also likely to be preserved in waterlogged deposits in the ponds and associated leats.


The monument, which is in two separate areas of protection, includes the known surviving extent of Eye Priory, situated on the north side of the Hoxne road, approximately 150m east of the River Dove and 550m ENE of the centre of the medieval town of Eye.

The visible and buried remains in the first area include the foundations of the priory church and adjacent conventual buildings, and a series of fishponds which survive as earthworks to the north of these. In the second area is a late medieval building which still stands in part to the north east of the site of the conventual buildings and east of the fishponds.

The Benedictine priory, dedicated to St Peter, was founded soon after 1086 by Robert Malet, Lord of the Honour of Eye, as a cell or daughter house of the Abbey of Bernay in Normandy, although it may not have been fully established until the beginning of the following century. The priory was richly endowed and the annual value in 1291 was assessed at 124 pounds, 10 shillings and 9 pence. The endowment, however, included the churches, tithes and other revenues from the coastal town of Dunwich, and the income from this source declined as the town was destroyed by the incursion of the sea. As an `alien' priory dependent on a French abbey, its revenues were seized by the Crown during the wars with France in the 14th century and it was further impoverished as a result. The link with the abbey of Bernay was broken in 1385 when the priory was recognized as denizen of England in a charter granted by Richard II, and by the second half of the 15th century its fortunes had recovered sufficiently for building works and repairs to be undertaken. In the early 16th century the community numbered up to ten monks, including the prior, and in 1535 the total recorded income was 184 pounds, 9 shillings and 7 pence. The priory was suppressed in 1537 and the site granted to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was then Lord of the Honour of Eye.

The area to the south and east of the priory church appears to have been raised artificially to form a level platform, and the boundary of the monastic precinct along the northern side of the Hoxne road at this point is marked by a steep scarp up to 2m high. The principal entrance to the precinct was through a gatehouse which is said to have stood near the road to the south of the site of the priory church, probably close to the present entrance to Abbey Farm. The masonry footings of the gatehouse, although still visible in 1862, had been levelled by 1881, but foundations or foundation trenches are likely to survive as buried features. A broad, curvilinear depression, which runs ENE from a point east of the present entrance from the road, and then northwards towards the prior's lodging and the west door of the priory church, probably represents the earthwork remains of a sunken track or hollow way leading from the gatehouse into the precinct.

The remains of the priory church and conventual buildings, which were the core of the monastic complex, lie some 60m to the north of the road and the precinct boundary. An inventory of the priory made at the time of the Dissolution provides some details of the buildings which then existed, including, in addition to the church, four chambers, a parlour, a hall (refectory), a pantry, kitchen, bakehouse and brewhouse. Little is visible of the church above ground other than some large blocks of fallen flint rubble masonry in the area of the eastern half, but the east end is marked by raised mounds. Limited excavations carried out in 1926 located buried foundations of the principal walls in several places, allowing the overall plan to be reconstructed and showing that it was very similar if not identical to that of the church of the mother house at Bernay which still survives. The church was approximately 59m in length overall with a nave of five bays measuring about 30m in length internally, flanked by aisles to north and south. To the east of the nave was a crossing with transepts to north and south, each transept having an apsidal chapel to the east. The crossing would have contained the monks choir, perhaps extending into the east end of the nave, and to the east of the crossing was an apsidal ended presbytery about 15m in length internally, flanked by shorter, apsidal ended aisles.

The conventual buildings were ranged around a quadrangular cloister adjoining the north side of the church and measuring about 28m on each side. The east claustral range, which included the chapter house where the monks met to discuss the business of the priory and an upper storey containing the monks dormitory, extended northwards from the north transept of the church and was approximately 52m in length, projecting about 21m beyond the north range. The chapter house, which adjoined the transept, measured about 17m in overall length by about 8m in width and had an apsidal east end. To the north of it are the foundations of an undercroft of six bays which supported the dormitory above. This was divided into apartments which, according to the usual arrangement of monasteries, would have included a warming house with a fireplace. The reredorter (latrine block) is thought to have stood at right angles to the north end of this. The house known as The Abbey, which adjoins the north east corner of the site of the church, incorporates part of what is believed to have been the prior's lodging and the south end of the west claustral range, although little of the original structure is visible on the exterior which has been refaced and partly rebuilt with brick and reused stone. The house is a Listed Building Grade II. The range would have included an undercroft used for storage, with an upper storey which probably contained apartments for guests. The foundations of a cross wall of the undercroft were identified about 4m to the north of the house. The location of the north claustral range, which contained the monk's refectory, has also been determined. Part of the footing of the south wall survives below the south wall of a later outbuilding, and the east end of the north wall was located by excavation. The excavations of 1926 also produced evidence that there were two phases of building. The first phase comprised the construction of the east end of the church, including the crossing and transepts, the north wall of the nave and the chapter house and the part of the east range immediately to the east of the chapter house. No evidence was found to suggest that the church and other buildings were completed before the commencement of the second phase, which included the construction of the nave and nave aisles of the church, the rebuilding of the east range north of the chapter house and the construction of the north and west claustral ranges, all on an alignment slightly to the north and east of the axes of alignment of the earlier parts.

Buried remains of other buildings are likely to survive around the cloister, including a kitchen, which would have been close to the north range, and possibly an infirmary to the east of the east range. The monk's cemetery was probably to the east and south east of the church, following the usual monastic arrangement, and a slight, north facing scarp which runs eastwards from the church, and a low, broad bank which extends southwards from opposite the south transept towards the road may mark the northern and western boundaries of this.

The monastic fishponds and associated water management features occupy a roughly rectangular area with maximum overall dimensions of about 163m NNE-SSW by 123m, situated to the north of the conventual buildings. The system was fed by a leat from the river to the west which supplied water to a channel running along the western side of the fishpond complex and also to a conduit between 5m and 8m wide around the southern side, immediately behind the site of the reredorter, which carried water to flush the latrines and was lined with flint masonry, a short length of which is exposed on the south face. The leat to the west has been partly infilled, but the eastern end, about 10m in length, remains open. A drain which runs parallel to the east side of the complex at a distance of approximately 14m probably represents part of the outlet of the system. At the northern end of the complex of fishponds is a moat-like, water filled feature up to 12m wide, surrounding a sub-rectangular island measuring about 65m ESE-WNW by 50m. In the centre of this enclosure are three narrow, rectangular ponds, aligned on the same long axis. The largest pond measures approximately 45m by 7.5m and the other two, which lie to the north of and parallel to it, measure approximately 22m by 5m and 12m by 5m respectively. The surrounding moat-like feature was fed through an inlet, which probably contained a sluice, issuing into the western arm from the adjoining supply channel. Approximately 21m to the south of the southern arm of the moat-like feature and parallel to it is a large, roughly rectangular pond, measuring about 80m by 20m, the western end of which is connected to the adjacent channel by the remains of a short inlet, visible as a shallow, dry depression. About 11m to the south of this, at the southern end of the complex, are two more features. The western of these is a large, roughly square pond measuring approximately 35m across, to the east of which is another moat-like feature about 7.5m wide. This surrounds a sub-rectangular island with dimensions of approximately 51m east-west by up to 20m, containing a rectangular pond measuring approximately 22m east-west by 7m. The western pond is separated from the conduit around the southern and western sides by a low earthen bank.

The standing building in the second area of protection, located some 62m to the north west of the claustral complex, is dated to around 1500 and is a Listed Building Grade II. It is constructed of brick and is of two storeys, measuring approximately 24m NNE-SSW by 10m and displaying a number of original features. In the west wall, slightly to south of centre, is a blocked doorway with chamfered brick jambs and four centred arch, and the lower storey on this side was lit by four equally spaced windows, each of two lights. In three of these windows the central mullion is missing, but the other survives intact, with later blocking. Above them, in the upper storey, are four narrow lancet windows, a central narrow, square headed opening and, towards the southern end of the wall, a rectangular window opening with chamfered jambs, which was originally of two lights and is possibly a later insertion. In the southern gable end of the building are the remains of another two light window at ground floor level and, above this, the lower part of a larger window, originally of two lights also, with chamfered stone jambs. The east wall shows evidence of more extensive alteration, with several inserted openings, but includes an opening with chamfered jambs at ground floor level and remains of an arched window in the upper storey. The standing building was damaged in a fire in the 1920s and the roof replaced, but photographs exist to show its appearance before the fire. Its function is uncertain, although it appears to have been designed for residential use and it is thought that it may have been occupied by the steward of the manor of Eye. It is evident that the building originally extended further to the north. The north gable end, which appears to include later blocking, is constructed of brick and reused ashlar, probably quarried from other priory buildings, and set back slightly from the end of the west wall can be seen a stub of continuing brickwork, abutting a post medieval farm building. Further to the north on the same alignment, below the wall of the later building, is a massive block of flint masonry about 4m in length, thought to be part of the footings of a building of earlier medieval date. This is included in the scheduling, although the building above it is excluded.

The house and the farm building, all outbuildings and greenhouses, together with garden walls, raised garden beds, all modern paving and the surfaces of modern driveways, paths and yards, inspection chambers, and all fences, gates and pergolas 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
Cox, J, The Victoria History of the County of Suffolk: Volume II, (1907), 72-75
Paine, C, The History of Eye, (1993), 12-14
'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in Inventories of Monasteries Suppressed in 1536, , Vol. 8 Pt 1, (1892), 105-108
Fairweather, F H, 'Antiq J' in Excavations on the Site of the Priory Church and Monastery Eye, , Vol. 7, (1927), 299-312
Paine, C, Aitkens, P, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in Excursions 1987: Eye Priory, (1988), 323-324
Paine, C, Aitkens, P, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in Excursions 1987: Eye Priory, (1988), 224
Suffolk R O Ref. HD 1538/83, (1650)


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.

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