By Lizzy Drake
(Remains of Leiston Abbey. Photo credit Holly Stacey)
In the English county of Suffolk, not too far from Sizewell Nuclear Power Plants (both A and B), there is a stunning set of ruins marked out with the distinct English Heritage signage along the road, guiding visitors to a small car park. It's easily missed and upon arrival, one might feel a little out of place as children of various ages rush into the medieval barn which is off limits to the public and echoes out slightly off-key notes from violins, violas and the odd recorder. Clamber out of the car park and down the gravel path behind another building, however, and the views of crumbling masonry, delicate brickwork and flint in mortar will take your breath away as the shell-like remains of Leiston Abbey reveal themselves.
Currently managed by English Heritage, there are educational signs with interpretive and highly detailed artwork enabling the visitor to 'see' history on the site where the ruins now stand. This is no mere footwork of where monastery or abbey used to stand – there are still some staircases, second floors and high arched walls where roof-lines were once held.
(Looking out a doorway onto the canons' farmland)
Having a rich history before dissolution, the Abbey was founded by the White Canons of the Premonstratensian Order in 1182 by Ranulph de Glanville, who was also the founder of Butley priory (also in Suffolk). 'A History of the County of Suffolk: Part Two' states: ' By the foundation charter, this abbey, dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin, was endowed with the manor of Leiston, and with the advowsons of the churches of St. Margaret, Leiston, and St. Andrew, Aldringham. These churches, as stated in the charter, Glanville had first granted to the Austin canons of Butley, but they had been by them resigned. The founder stated that he made these gifts for the good estate of King Henry, and for his own soul's sake, and for that of his wife Bertha, and their ancestors and successors.'
(Leiston Abbey refectory)
However, although the founding and construction was successful, the site location, while inspirational to Ranulph de Glanville's eyes, didn't hold up well on such waterlogged, soggy ground and it wasn't until 1350 that the abbey was brought to a new locale.
The Ufford Connection
While the first abbey was founded and constructed in the 12th century, a new patron, Robert de Ufford, the then Earl of Suffolk, came to the abbey in the 14th century, building and 'refounding' the abbey in a more stable location as the first was in a notoriously swampy area by the sea (and having had many complaints from the high volume of mosquitoes and boggy marshland). This new location worked well for the abbey and it thrived.
(English Heritage info board - what the abbey may have looked like)
The History of the County of Suffolk quotes, 'In 1350 the advowson or patronage of this abbey, which had escheated to the crown by the death of Guy de Ferre without issue, was granted to Robert de Ufford, earl of Suffolk. A few years later the new patron became the munificent refounder of the abbey; for the first abbey church and the buildings, which were placed inconveniently near the sea, becoming too small, Robert earl of Suffolk, in 1363, erected new and larger buildings about a mile eastward, in a better and somewhat higher situation.'
The Abbey Ruins as we see them now
(Leiston Abbey ruins)
As visitors walk along the remains of the abbey, they will come to the centre of monastic life, the cloister, or 'covered walkway' which led to the Cellarer's, a range of different small structures were used for storage and overseen (managed) by the 'Cellarer' who, during the abbey's active life, had the important role of overseeing all goods and distribution. It can easily be imagined that these areas were bustling with activity – grains being collected from harvest and put to storage, the retrieval of winter feed for the cattle and even the food stores for the cannons themselves. To the right of the cloister lay the remains of the refectory, where the canons ate their meals together as biblical passages were read during their meals. In these ruins, there are some remains of stairs and passages that may have been short cuts from the Cellarer's and possibly to chapel. Now mossy and grassed over, it has been claimed by nature, but still holds echoes of the past. To the front is the Chapter House, where everyday business of the running of an abbey took place, and finally, to the far left corner, some steps lead to the abbey church, now built over and used by the young musicians.
(remains of the chapter house)
The Abbey in Henry VIII's time
Over time, much of the stone was reused as needed in the county and a Tudor farmhouse built over part of where the abbey church once lay. English Heritage run the ruins, and although there is currently no visitor centre, their information boards and interpretive artwork, bring the ruin to life. Just, don't forget to bring some waterproofs and a camera.
-House of Premonstratensian canons: Abbey of Leiston, Pages 117-119
-A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.
-English Heritage, Leiston Abbey
Lizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing careen in the genre. The First Elspet Stafford book, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.
When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.
You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake@wyvernwings)