Swainby medieval settlement, Premonstratensian abbey, grange and field system, immediately east of Swainby Grove


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1021137

Date first listed: 24-May-1951

Date of most recent amendment: 22-Dec-2003


Ordnance survey map of Swainby medieval settlement, Premonstratensian abbey, grange and field system, immediately east of Swainby Grove
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: North Yorkshire

District: Hambleton (District Authority)

Parish: Swainby with Allerthorpe

National Grid Reference: SE 33589 85524


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 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.

A monastic grange was a farm owned and run by a monastic community, independent of the secular manorial system. Their function was to provide food and raw materials for the parent monastic house, and to provide surpluses for sale for profit. A monastery might have more than one grange and the wealthiest houses had many. Frequently a grange was established on lands immediately adjacent to the monastery, but other granges could be found wherever the community held lands. On occasion these could be at some considerable distance. Granges are broadly comparable with contemporary secular farms although the wealth of the parent house was frequently reflected in the size of the grange and the architectural embellishment of the buildings. Additionally, because of their monastic connection, granges tend to be much better documented than their secular counterparts. No region was without monastic granges. The original number of granges is not known but can be estimated at several thousand. Only a small percentage can be accurately located on the ground today and many of these have had their archaeological remains destroyed. In view of the importance of granges to medieval rural and monastic life, all sites exhibiting good archaeological survival are identified as nationally important.

Fishponds are artificially created pools of slow moving freshwater constructed for the purpose of cultivating, breeding and storing fish to provide a constant and sustainable supply of food. The size of the pond was related to function, with large ponds used for storage whilst smaller, shallower ponds were used for fish cultivation and breeding. Fishponds were maintained by water management systems which included inlet and outlet channels carrying water from a river or stream, a series of sluices set into the bottom of dams and along the channels and leats, and an overflow leat which 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 difficulties of obtaining fresh meat in the winter and the value placed on fish as a food source may have been factors which favoured the development of fishponds. The practice of constructing and maintaining fishponds declined after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century although in some areas it continued into the 17th century. Documentary sources provide a wealth of information about the way fishponds were stocked and managed. The main species of fish kept were eel, tench, pickerel, bream, perch, and roach. Large quantities of fish could be supplied at a time. Once a year, probably in the spring, ponds were drained and cleared.

The plans of medieval rural settlements vary enormously, but where they survive as earthworks, their most distinguishing features include roads and minor tracks, platforms on which stood houses and other buildings such as barns, enclosed crofts and paddocks. Additional buried remains such as rubbish pits, yard surfaces, and spreads of deposits such as smithing wastes also frequently survive, but will not necessarily show as upstanding earthworks. Medieval rural settlements were supported by a communal system of agriculture based on large, unenclosed open arable fields. These large fields were divided into strips (known as lands) which were allocated to individual tenants. The cultivation of these strips with heavy ploughs pulled by oxen-teams produced long wide ridges and the resultant `ridge and furrow' is the most obvious physical indication of the open field system. Individual strips were laid out in groups known as furlongs defined by terminal headlands at the plough turning points and lateral grass baulks. Furlongs were in turn grouped into large open fields. Well-preserved ridge and furrow, especially in its original context adjacent to settlement earthworks, is both an important source of information about medieval agrarian life and a distinctive contribution to the character of the historic landscape.

The earthworks at Swainby represent a remarkably well-preserved medieval landscape which is of national importance as much for its medieval settlement and field system remains as it is for those related to the abbey and later grange.


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


The monument includes earthwork and buried remains associated with a Premonstratensian abbey that was founded at Swainby, but then moved to Coverham 23km to the west.

The Domesday Book notes that in 1086 Swainby formed a single manor that was part of Count Alan's Honour of Richmond. This was tenanted by Ribald Lord of Middleham, whose descendant Helewise granted land at Swainby to the Premonstratensian Order for a new abbey. The grant is thought to have been made by Helewise when she was widowed in 1188, and it was confirmed by Henry II who died in 1189. Helewise's son, Ranulph Fitz-Robert, moved the community of canons from Swainby to Coverham in 1212-14, probably so that it was closer to his castle at Middleham. It is thought that the land at Swainby was retained by the abbey. Most of the monument's earthworks are considered to relate to the subsequent use of the area as a monastic grange, a managed estate providing food and revenue for Coverham Abbey. Swainby passed into private ownership sometime after 1536 when the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII.

The abbey buildings are believed to have been within the field to the east of East House, probably partially extending into the field to the south. Here there is a complex of earthworks with raised platforms and depressions centred over 100m north of the area marked as the site of the abbey on the 1:10,000 Ordnance Survey map. Two possible large platforms lie about 80m south east of East House. One, approximately 10m by 40m, lies east-west. The second is slightly narrower, but extends over 50m northwards from the east end of the first. These may be the building platforms for the church and a cloistural range respectively, the latter providing accommodation for the canons. Just beyond the hedge line to the south, just north of the drain marked on the 1:10,000 map, there is another L-shaped arrangement of earthworks, marked by depressions. The northern depression is approximately 15 sq m, open to the south, with a low bank dividing off its eastern third. It is sharply defined and may be the remains of a cellared building. The southern depression is more rounded in profile and extends westwards, cutting into the rising hillside. Where Healam Beck turns sharply eastwards, to the east of the possible large platforms, there are the earthworks of a dam and another smaller building platform interpreted as the site of a watermill. Leading to this from the south there is an extensive water management system including ponds, embanked leats and possibly the straightened watercourse of the beck south east of Swainby Grove. This probably developed out of a supply system constructed for the abbey to provide water for drinking, washing and sanitation. It is known from contemporary documents elsewhere that this was typically seen as a very high priority by newly established monasteries. However it is also appears to have been used for fish farming and to maintain a water supply to the mill, so it is believed to have been maintained as a working part of the later grange. The main components of this system include a broad embanked leat that runs the full length of the field to the south of the abbey, uphill from and 30m-50m west of the modern course of the beck. There is evidence that this was split into a series of compartments, presumable for fish farming. This leat was fed from a large triangular pond approximately 300m south east of Swainby Grove which also appears to have fed at least three rectangular fishponds that are cut into earlier ridge and furrow. The triangular pond is cut through by the modern course of the beck and lies at the downstream end of a straightened length of watercourse just over 200m long. This canalised section of Healam Beck may also be medieval in origin as at its southern end there is another embanked pond. However the original meandering course of the beck, which can be seen as a normally dry channel to the south east, also leads into the triangular pond.

To the north of the abbey earthworks, running uphill westwards from the beck and overlain by the northernmost outbuilding of East House, there is a broad trackway. This is formed by a stoney causeway in the valley bottom, and a hollow way on the hillside. This leads to another area of earthworks including building platforms, lengths of low boundary banks and ditches, and hollowed areas interpreted as former yards. These earthworks mainly lie within the corner of the field to the north of a small tree plantation and they extend approximately 100m eastwards from the field boundary. The plantation is not marked on the 1:10,000 map but lies to the west of the irregular boundary, west of East House. A hollowed trackway runs southwards from the main area of earthworks along the top of the hill slope towards Swainby Grove. Between this track and the field boundary to the west there are further building platforms, some lying within the plantation. These remains are typical of the earthworks of medieval settlements and are interpreted as part of the original village of Swainby. The settlement probably originally extended into the fields to north and west. However as this extent and the level of survival in these areas, which have been intensively ploughed, is unknown, the area to the north and west is not included in the monument. The village of Swainby may have been deserted following the establishment of the abbey, but it probably continued as a small settlement for peasant workers employed by the abbey and later grange.

Much of the area of the monument is covered by the ridge and furrow of the settlement's arable field system. The ridge and furrow to the north and east of Swainby Grove appears to respect the earthworks of the abbey and are thus thought to be contemporary or later. The ridge and furrow in the large field south east of Swainby Grove appears to be earlier than the abbey. It is certainly earlier than the ponds and the straightening of the beck, all of which are cut through the ridges. This ridge and furrow is also broader, typically 10m between furrows rather than the more typical 5m-6m. Like all of the ridge and furrow at Swainby, the ridges follow the reversed S-shape that is the characteristic result of medieval ploughing practice. Also later than the broad ridge and furrow is a square embanked enclosure containing further low earthworks. This lies approximately 200m ESE of Swainby Grove and may have been for livestock management. Two further small enclosures lie within the northern-most field of the monument. The first is just over 800m north west of Swainby Grove. This measures 14m by 22m and lies just beyond the header bank of the ridge and furrow to the west. To the east the area was probably used as a water meadow, being within the floodplain of the Swale. There are no earthwork signs of medieval ploughing or other activity here and thus this area is not included in the monument. Also just outside the area of ridge and furrow, but within the monument on the north side of the field, there is another small enclosure, which includes a small building platform.

A number of features are excluded from the scheduling: these are East House and its associated out-buildings as well as all modern fences, walls, stiles, gates, cattle grids, bridges, water troughs, telegraph poles, and all road and path surfaces; however the ground beneath all these features is included. Fence lines defining the boundaries of the monument lie immediately outside the protected area.

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: 34730

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Beresford, M W , 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Lost Villages of Yorkshire Part IV, , Vol. 39, (1951)

End of official listing