The Former Augustinian Priory of St John the Baptist, Latton, Essex
Archaeological survey of the landscape surrounding the remains of Latton Priory during grant-aided repairs has identified the site of an annual fair granted by Edward III to the priory’s patron in 1332.
Location and history
Latton Priory Farm is located 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) south-south-east of Harlow town centre. It overlies the site of a small Augustinian priory and contains, within its later agricultural buildings, the remains of the early 14th-century priory church of St John the Baptist.
Like many small Augustinian houses, Latton is poorly documented.
Neither the date of its foundation nor the identity of its founder are known, though it is likely that a priory existed on the site from the late 12th century.
The priory church and its claustral buildings were rebuilt in the early 14th century and set within a trapezoidal precinct defined by a moat. The rebuilt priory was surprisingly grand given its small community, which had dwindled to a solitary canon (the clerical monks who formed Augustinian communities) by 1534, obviating the need for a forced suppression during the dissolution of the monasteries.
Planning and designation context
The site is protected by three statutory designations: two listings respectively cover the upstanding remains of the priory church and the 18th-century farmhouse, and a scheduled monument designation covers the wider landscape of the monastic precinct. The scheduled area is defined by the line of the northern arm of the moat and by a series of prominent linear earthworks to the south and east. The schedule description assumes that evidence for the church’s lost nave and a standard claustral arrangement will survive beneath the farmyard.
The land to the north of Latton Priory Farm has been identified as part of the new Harlow and Gilston Garden Town within the emerging Local Plans for Harlow and Epping Forest. Initial proposals were likely to affect the setting of the scheduled landscape in the form of new housing proposed close to the precinct’s northern boundary.
Heritage at Risk casework
New research into the historic upstanding remains of Latton Priory and the wider monastic landscape was initiated by a request by the Heritage at Risk team to support the grant-aided consolidation of the post-medieval barns adjoining the priory church. The deterioration of these barns had allowed water ingress to damage the soft Reigate stone of the crossing piers, leading to Latton’s addition to the Heritage at Risk Register in 2014. The consolidation work on the barns and scaffolding of the crossing provided an opportunity to conduct detailed analysis of the fabric of the priory church as part of a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary non-invasive study of the wider monastic landscape.
Beginning in 2016, architectural and archaeological investigators from our Cambridge office began work at Latton, supported by colleagues from our Remote Sensing and Aerial Investigation and Mapping teams.
This project sought to interpret the numerous surviving earthworks, to reappraise the standing buildings in the light of new archival research and to locate buried elements of the lost priory plan.
Analytical earthwork survey
The major component of the Latton Priory project was an analytical earthwork survey covering an area of 5.7 hectares (14.4 acres) which included both the scheduled area and the visible earthworks beyond it.
A pairing of Total Station Theodolite and high–precision Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) equipment was used to record the earthworks across a combination of rough open pasture, gardens and the heavily wooded areas of the moat and a former monastic pond.
The surveyed area formed four distinct sections, each containing earthworks of quite different character. The inner precinct, defined by the farmyard and the remaining visible arms of the medieval moat, now survives as the farmhouse garden, characterised by a manicured lawn and less pronounced earthworks. The ‘Upper Mead’ to the east of the moated precinct and ‘Grove Field’ to the south - terms taken from historic maps - comprised rough pasture with clearly defined earthworks, some aligned uncomfortably with the precinct suggesting quite complicated phasing. To the north east, outside the scheduled area, an elongated, triangular field was seen to correspond with an area called the ‘Foreberry’ in the 17th century.
Given this area’s lack of statutory protection and the potential threat from encroaching development, interpretation of this ‘Foreberry’ became a priority for the project.
Geophysical survey and aerial mapping
In 2008, a magnetometry survey of the garden south of the farmhouse had failed to identify any significant anomalies. To complement the analytical earthwork survey, however, further geophysical survey using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was conducted over the garden and the wider precinct of the priory, and most significantly over the concrete yard surfaces of the modern farmyard. The combination of GPR and Earth Resistance Survey identified clear buried deposits relating both to the lost elements of the church and priory plan and to the infilled moat and wider landscape.
This analysis of the landscape surrounding Latton priory was further enhanced by interpretation of lidar (airborne laser scanning) and aerial photographs supported by historical plans and maps. Covering an area of 9 square kilometres centred on the remains of the priory, this process identified a number of former hollow ways, ponds and medieval field boundaries, as well as evidence of earlier occupation from the prehistoric and Roman periods.
In the absence of monastic records relating to the foundation and endowment of the priory, documentary research focused on the secular manorial records of Latton parish. The absence of a central authority or constitutional apparatus for founding Augustinian houses and the flexibility of the Rule which allowed the canons to adapt to the desires of their patrons, made patronage of an Augustinian house particularly attractive to socially mobile members of the 14th-century English gentry.
Our attention was drawn to the lords of Mark Hall manor, whose ancestors had been credited with founding the priory, and to Augustine La Waleys in particular, who acquired Mark Hall manor in 1317, together with the advowson or right to patronage of the priory church, which the Lords of Mark Hall held until the dissolution.
The most significant finding from this multi-disciplinary study was the realisation that the triangular enclosure delineated by significant earthworks to the north-east of the priory can be identified as the site of an annual fair.
This enclosure formed part of the eastern approach to the priory via Priorie Lane, with visitors required to pass through the enclosure before reaching the causeway across the moat into the priory precinct. Controlling access to the priory in this way would have allowed the collection of tolls during the annual fair.
Depicted on the estate map of 1616 adjoining the priory precinct and labelled as the ‘Foreberry’, this enclosure is comparable to the ‘Forbury’ at Reading Abbey (Berkshire), the ‘Forbury’ at Leominster Priory (Herefordshire) and the ‘Bury’ at St Osyth’s Priory (Essex). Each were sites of fairs granted by the King to those houses. At Latton, a fair, to be held on the feast day of St John the Baptist, was granted by Edward III in 1332 to Augustine La Waleys, the priory’s patron. It is significant that at Latton the grant was made to the patron and not to the priory, likely providing Le Waleys with a way of recouping some of his investment and marking the date of the completion of the priory’s rebuilding in 1332.
The GPR survey was also successful in locating the buried remains of the priory church’s lost nave, a northern porticus ie a small room (indicating a plan comparable to that of the priory at Beeston Regis), the corner of the western range of the cloisters and more fragmentary evidence for a chapter house and a possible Prior’s lodge, the latter under the gardens south of the farmhouse. These findings served to validate a number of the assumptions which underpinned the statutory protection afforded to the site.
The upstanding remains of the priory church were comparatively well understood. However, detailed analysis of the fabric concluded that a free-standing buttress was constructed of 12th century bricks of a type manufactured at nearby Waltham Abbey, possibly indicative of both the priory’s original appearance and links with a larger, well-established Augustinian House.
Impact of the research
This wider study of Latton Priory has identified the ‘Foreberry’ fair site as being of high significance, despite being outside of the scheduled area.
The research is timely as it could inform the final Masterplan for the proposed Garden Town. The most recent proposals (early 2020) reserve the land closest to the ‘Foreberry’ as a ‘Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space’. The Latton research also serves as a model for reconstructing the history of a poorly documented monastic house using a combination of non-invasive archaeological techniques and a reappraisal of secular manorial documentation. It has allowed the production of a reconstruction drawing of the priory, which will ultimately be presented on interpretation boards when the remains of the Priory become more accessible as part of the Garden Town landscape.
About the author
Matthew Bristow (MIfA
Senior Archaeological Investigator at Historic England
Matthew combines his Historic England role as a Senior Archaeological Investigator within the Policy and Evidence Group with a role at the Institute of Historical Research where he is a Lecturer in Landscape Studies and the Architectural Editor of the Victoria County History.
Bristow, M. et. al. 2017, Latton Priory, North Weald Bassett, Essex, Research Report Series 23/2017 (Swindon) ISSN 2059-4453
Linford, N., Payne, A, & Pearce, C., 2016 Latton Priory Farm, North Weald Basset, Essex: Report on Geophysical Surveys, April 2016, Research Report Series 29/2916 (Swindon) ISSN 2059-4453
Page, W. & Round, H. (eds) 1907, A History of the County of Essex: Volume II. London: Constable. Volume II is also available online
Powell, W. R. (ed.) 1983, A History of the County of Essex: Volume VIII, Oxford, OUP. Volume VIII is also available online
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