Earthworks at the Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
The Abbey, Abbey Lane, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridge, CB25 0NQ


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Statutory Address:
The Abbey, Abbey Lane, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridge, CB25 0NQ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

East Cambridgeshire (District Authority)
Swaffham Bulbeck
National Grid Reference:


Remains of a Benedictine nunnery, founded in the C12, surviving as earthworks and buried deposits.

Reasons for Designation

The remains of a Benedictine nunnery, founded in the C12, surviving as earthworks and buried deposits are scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: for the buried and earthwork remains which contribute to an understanding of the form, plan and architectural detail of the nunnery; * Potential: for the stratified archaeological deposits which retain considerable potential to increase our understanding of the physical characteristics of the buildings. Buried artefacts and sediments will also have the potential to increase our knowledge of the social and economic functioning of the Benedictine community within the wider medieval landscape; * Group value: for the strong group value with the Grade I listed Abbey and the Grade II listed wall which provide a visual context and further contribute to the understanding of the site.


Nunneries were established for women living communal lives of structured religious devotion. Most of the major religious orders including Benedictines, Augustinians, Cistercians, Franciscans and Dominicans made separate provision for religious women, but many houses were small, usually with fewer than 12 nuns under a prioress, and poorly endowed. The earliest nunneries in England were founded in the C7 but most had fallen out of use by the ninth. A much larger second wave of foundations, or re-foundations, belong to the C12 and C13. Nunneries typically followed the ‘Benedictine’ layout with church and domestic buildings arranged around a cloister, with ancillary buildings, all set within a defined precinct. Documentary sources suggest that at least 153 nunneries were founded in England, of which the precise locations of only about 100 are known. Many nunneries survived until suppressed by Acts of Parliament in 1536-1540, after which their fate was indistinguishable from that of their monastic counterparts.

The Abbey at Swaffham Bulbeck originated as a Benedictine nunnery, probably founded in the second half of the C12, either by Isabel de Bolebec who became the wife of the 3rd Earl of Oxford around 1209, or by her parents. The first contemporary mention of a Prioress of Swaffham is a reference to land held by her in Silverley in 1199. At its foundation the priory was endowed with the church of Swaffham Bulbeck and 4 virgates (a virgate is around 30 acres) of surrounding land; later more land was acquired in the parish.

The medieval undercroft is the only structure relating to the priory which remains. It was probably a warehouse or storeroom for the Prioress's lodging or a guest house occupying the first floor hall above, placed as a wing to the main conventual group. Little is known about the layout of the priory at this stage and all the associated claustral buildings were lost in the proceeding centuries. It is known, however, that the priory had a gatehouse as it was destroyed in 1368 when a servant fell asleep leaving a candle burning which fell on his bed and burnt him as well as the gatehouse. A general process of decay in the buildings and finances towards the end of the C14 is suggested by Bishop Fordham's action in 1395 in granting 40 days' indulgence to any who contributed to the repair of the church, cloisters, and other buildings of the priory, as well as to the maintenance of the nuns. During the C14 and C15 it was usually exempt from taxation because of its poverty. The priory always remained small and was never rich, although it did have some distinguished patrons.

After the dissolution of 1536 the site was occupied by a farm. A former servant of the man who farmed there in the mid-C16 remembered the convent, a dovehouse, two barns, stables and other buildings within the walls of the Priory. Since then nearly all identifiable remains of the church and surrounding claustral buildings were destroyed by clunch quarrying. On Chapman’s map of Newmarket (1768) the Abbey is depicted along with two subsequent farm buildings to the south-east. The priory was then acquired by William Hamond of Haling Park, Surrey, who rebuilt the first floor in 1778, adding an attic. The medieval walls of the undercroft were refaced in clunch, and the clasping buttresses at all four corners and the full-height porch containing the stairwell were built at this time. The Enclosure map of 1800 shows there was an extension on the north-east corner of the building along with an additional building to the north-west and two more buildings to the south-east, all presumably farm buildings.

William Hammond later built a new farm nearby, and by 1835, it was recorded in The Topographical Dictionary of England that the Abbey was occupied by paupers. The Census from the mid- to late C19 shows that the Abbey continued to be let as tenements; in 1871, for instance, the house was occupied by three families, totalling 26 people. The first edition Ordnance Survey (OS) map of 1887 shows that all the surrounding farm buildings had been demolished by this date, and the north-east extension on the Abbey itself had also been removed. A square plot of land directly to the north of the Abbey is divided into four strips, apparently used as an orchard. This is no longer depicted on the second edition OS map of 1902. In 1910 the land and property was bought by the Allix family, who owned the neighbouring Swaffham Prior House.

In 1972 the Royal Commission for the Historic Monuments of England (RCHME) carried out a survey which identified a number of earthworks immediately to the west, south and south-east of the house, concluding that post-dissolution activity had ‘obliterated all identifiable remains of the church and claustral buildings’.

An evaluation at The Abbey in 1997, prior to the construction of a new detached double garage and store directly north-east of the house, found medieval (late C12 to early C14) building remains including a substantial wall foundation on the same alignment as the house, but offset by 2m north from the undercroft wall.

Further archaeological work carried out in 2015-2016, prior to the installation of underfloor heating in The Abbey, identified four broad phases of medieval activity. An in situ Romanesque column base was revealed in the undercroft, on a slightly different alignment, which may relate to an earlier C12 building. The second phase related to the construction of the present undercroft in the C13 which included buttresses to the north elevation. Additional clunch foundations to the north of the undercroft suggested a range of buildings, possibly part of the same wall found in the 1997 evaluation of the garage block. The third phase consisted of a series of repairs to the fabric of the undercroft in the C14-C15, followed by a phase of demolition of the buildings north of the undercroft.


Remains of a Benedictine nunnery, founded in the C12, surviving as earthworks and buried deposits.

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: the scheduled area includes the buried archaeological deposits associated with the nunnery, including the below ground remains beneath the Grade I listed Abbey, beneath the Grade II listed wall and beneath the garage/ store, and the earthworks to the north and north-east.

DESCRIPTION: the Abbey is located approximately 1km to the north-east of the main village of Swaffham Bulbeck. It is situated just to the north-east of the centre of the square plot of land forming the grounds of The Abbey, the C13 undercroft of a Benedictine Priory incorporated into a house in the C18. Directly to the north-east is a single-storey timber building, built as a garage and store in the late 1990s. About 18m to the east of The Abbey is the Grade II listed fragment of clunch wall, around 3.65m high, which is possibly medieval but more probably dates to the C18 or C19 with re-used materials from The Abbey. On the western side of the clunch wall two septic tanks have been inserted under what is now a courtyard garden.

In the undercroft of The Abbey an in situ Romanesque column base was revealed during archaeological work carried out in 2015-2016. It is on a slightly different alignment and may relate to an earlier C12 building. Additional clunch foundations to the north of the undercroft suggesting a range of buildings were also revealed. The fabric of the undercroft was subject to a series of repairs in the C14-C15, followed by a phase of demolition of the buildings north of the undercroft.

Directly to the north-east, below-ground medieval building remains (late C12 to early C14) were discovered during an evaluation in 1997 prior to the construction of the single-storey timber garage. The remains include paving, a substantial wall foundation on the same alignment as the house, but offset by 2m north from the undercroft wall, and a possible buttress, as well as fragments of painted window glass and stone roof tiles associated with the medieval priory. The medieval structural remains are 0.7m below existing ground level, and were reported in 1997 to be in a good state of preservation despite some disturbance from tree roots and a former garage and its demolition.

Immediately to the north and north-east of the house, the RCHME survey carried out in 1972 identified low scarps and banks which were on a similar alignment to the house and so thought to be associated with it.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING: the area of protection includes the buried remains of the medieval nunnery with a surrounding 1m buffer for the protection and preservation of the monument. The northern boundary follows a field boundary, the eastern boundary takes in the listed wall, the southern boundary extends across the southern side of The Abbey, and the western boundary then goes northwards to join up to the northern field boundary.

EXCLUSIONS: the Grade I listed Abbey, the Grade II listed wall to the east, and the timber garage to the north-east, as well as all modern paths, surfaces and fences, are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all of these is included.


'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Swaffham Bulbeck', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 226-229. British History Online [accessed 4 September 2020].
Roberts, J. 1997. Medieval Building Remains Adjacent to The Abbey, Swaffham Bulbeck. Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Field Unit report no. 137 (unpublished)
'Swaffham Bulbeck', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire, Volume 2, North-East Cambridgeshire (London, 1972), pp. 96-115. British History Online [accessed 4 September 2020].
The Abbey, Abbey Lane, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire: Archaeological Monitoring (Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited, April 2016)
The Abbey, Swaffham Bulbeck: Heritage Impact Assessment (Purcell, December 2014)


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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