Ritual Religion and Ceremony

The Monastic Orders

Where above and below ground monastic sites are known they are usually scheduled so there are few opportunities for major research excavation. Any excavation is usually in response to management issues, improvement of services or as development mitigation. Within towns and cities occasional evidence for monastic buildings is revealed during mitigation but in general these sites are not specifically targeted. However across the region a handful of monastic sites have been investigated in some detail benefiting from a range of up-to-date survey techniques and tree ring dating. Some of these sites have been included in community landscape projects which have combined survey techniques with documentary research and excavation. Recent publication of the numerous excavations undertaken over the past thirty years at Norton Priory (Ch) is a major step forward in understanding monastic sites.

The region does have one longstanding major monastic research excavation at Poulton (Ch) where the remains of a medieval chapel and cemetery (see burial) were revealed. The investigations aimed to find the site of a Cistercian Abbey that went out of use in the 13th century. Although these are yet to be discovered, the site has revealed evidence dating from the Mesolithic onwards and is very significant for other eras such as the Iron Age and Roman period.

There was a major research programme on the Monastic site of Cultram Abbey (C) through the Solway Wetlands Partnership Scheme. This aimed to extend knowledge of the impact of Cistercian monks on the landscape of the Solway Plain by investigating the abbey and its surrounding environment. Excavations took place at the Abbey with two trenches excavated south of the Church. The project built on the work of WCAS, which started in 2006 as unfunded research. The group are gradually building up a picture of the abbey over its turbulent history from the foundation in 1150 by King David I of Scotland until the dissolution in 1537. The aims and objectives of the project reference the initiatives of the NWRRF and included geophysics and palaeoenvironmental analysis. One result is a pottery sequence for the site with some 650 fragments found. There is an interim excavation report with final reports forth coming.

The project was supervised by Grampus Heritage, working with local volunteers from WCAS. The site of the east range of the cloister was identified along with a possible chapterhouse (Fig. 23). One trench investigated a building identified in 2014 revealing two rooms, one with a latrine and fireplace and another with a central cooking hearth. The building was found to be located above an earlier extraction pit perhaps for material used during one of the earlier construction phases of the monastery. Artefacts included decorative floor tile, tokens and a pilgrim badge. Evidence for disturbed burials and two undisturbed medieval grave slabs were also found. (Graham et al 2015).

In 2008 the earthwork remains of the Premonstratensian Abbey at St Mary-in-the Marsh, Cockersand (L) were surveyed by English Heritage as a response to coastal erosion. The survey utilised existing LiDAR data provided by the Environment Agency and has established the Abbey precinct boundaries and identified the locations of what may be other abbey structures (Fig. 24). It also identified medieval ridge and furrow, which suggested the monks had a home farm as well as inland granges. The survey has also located a possible medieval slip way which is rare in a monastic context and relates directly to the coastal context of the Abbey, suggesting the main approach to it was from the sea (Burn et al 2009)

In 2010 English Heritage also undertook a rapid assessment of the site of Stanlow Abbey (Ch), a Cistercian abbey and grange rapidly succumbing to vegetation. The assessment included documentary research and established the site had a long history of occupation, becoming a country house after the Dissolution (Ainsworth et al 2010). An extensive watching brief in the Conference House Whalley abbey (L) in 2005 (Neil 2006; 2007), and smaller investigations before and since that date, confirmed that a substantial part of the Abbot’s House was reused as the core of the post-Dissolution manor house.

Scientific analysis and dating techniques, recommended in the NWRRF, are also being applied to monastic sites. The English Heritage dendrochronology programme has investigated the great hall and north range of Whalley Abbey (L). A single site sequence was produced spanning AD 1362-1559. For the Great Hall, the timbers appear to be contemporary, with an estimated felling date of 1493-1518 (Arnold and Howard 2015), broadly confirming the felling-date range for timbers in the floor below the great hall – 1478-1508 (Bridge 2007). A bell-casting pit was revealed and partly excavated as part of the 2005 works (Neil 2006; 2007), but detailed assessment of the finds assemblages, and radiocarbon dating has not yet followed. In 2016, re-building of a late17th C garden wall revealed that it was constructed from reclaimed stone – including over 300 architectural fragments – identifiable as being derived from the abbot’s house, nave, and cloisters (Neil forthcoming). The stable, thought to be late 16th C appears to be earlier than expected with the timber felled around 1520 (Arnold and Howard 2015 4 & 8). Survey of the stable in advance of a new use allowed enhancement of the former Lancaster University Archaeological Unit’s unreported work from the 1990s. (Neil 2014).

Tree ring dating was also used to date oak timbers from excavations at Brunel Court, Preston a site thought to be associated with the Franciscan friary founded in c.1260. (L) (Fig. 25). Though bone preservation was minimal timbers derive from coffins were retrieved. There was not enough sapwood surviving to indicate the date of felling but a series of terminus post quem dates were consistent with the known date of the Friary, although one tree would have been over 250 years old when felled (Tyers 2011, 4). Some wood was identified as being locally sourced from old slow growing straight grained oaks, suggestive of woodland management and further study may enable insights in to the local timber market.

Norton Priory (Ch) (see burial), founded in 1134, remains one of the most extensively excavated and studied monastic sites in Britain and has seen the publication of its many excavations in one volume. This makes available parts of the archives of the original 1970-87 excavations in a form more easily accessible to researchers and also reinterprets many of the findings in light of more recent archaeological concerns (Brown and Howard-Davis 2008). Excavations within the undercroft in 2015 produced evidence for a timber structure underlying the later stone building. Tree-ring dating of one of the posts gave a felling date of spring 1161 and is likely to be part of the original timber phase of the first monastic complex (Dodd et al 2016) (Fig. 26).

Few studies have been done on animal bone from the region with the exception of Norton Priory, which has one of the largest assemblages of animal bone from a monastic site in Britain. The assemblage is currently subject to analysis as part of the “People and Animals at Norton Priory” project.

A watching brief at St Mary’s, Lancaster, adjacent to the former Benedictine alien priory – the only one in Lancashire – revealed for the first time traces of (probably claustral) buildings to the North-West of the church (Neil 2011).

Historical research runs in parallel with, and is informed by archaeological investigations and this is the case for monastic estates and buildings. Various local societies and groups continue to provide a valuable outlet for publications such as “Rose Castle and the Bishops of Carlisle 1133-2012” (Weston 2013) published by CWAAS. A short overview of the medieval monasteries of Lancashire has also been produced (Marshall 2006).

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