Leiston Abbey

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Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, England, was a religious house of Augustinian Canons Regular following the Premonstratensian rule, dedicated to St. Mary. It was founded on a marsh island site near the coast at Minsmere in 1182 (Leiston Old Abbey), but was transferred inland to a place a little north of the settlement of Leiston in 1363, where a community continued to worship until the Dissolution. Ruins of a chapel on the site of the original church survive,[1] and there are extensive remains of the later abbey church and domestic buildings.


Ruins of a chapel on the site of St Mary de Insula de Leeston, the Old Abbey church at Minsmere

Ranulf de Glanville founded a religious house of Augustinian canons at Butley Priory, a few miles south of Leiston, in 1171, on land held in the dower of his wife Bertha, daughter of Theobald de Valoines.[2][3]

King Henry II, in the presence of Richard de Luci (died 1179) and the Stutevilles, granted to Ranulf the manor of Leiston, together with Uptuna (Norfolk), and an annual rent of £52 from a place called Selfleta. In 1182/3 Ranulf (who succeeded Richard de Luci as Chief Justiciar of England) granted the manor, in perpetual alms, to the church of St Mary already built at Leiston, and to the Premonstratensian Canons serving God there, for the construction of a religious house.

To this he added the (parish) church of St Margaret in Leiston, and the church of St Andrew at Aldringham, which he had previously granted to the canons of Butley Priory, but who now surrendered them to the canons of Leiston. (Their surrender was witnessed by John Bishop of Norwich, Hubert Walter (son of Maud de Valoines, Bertha's sister[4]), Roger de Glanville and Alan de Valoines, among others.)[5] For his part, the abbot of Leiston conceded to Butley his rights in the church of Knodishall.[6]

Ranulf stipulated that Leiston should not buy or receive any lands except in free alms, nor dispossess any tenant established on the lands formerly granted to Butley. This grant he made for the welfare of the king, of himself and his wife Bertha (de Valoines), and all their ancestors and successors, in the presence of John the king's son, William de Auberville the elder (son-in-law) and younger, Roger and Osbert de Glanville, William de Valoines, Ralph (son-in-law) and Thomas de Ardene, and others of his immediate family and circle. A Privilege was granted by Pope Lucius III (died 1185).[7]

The grant was inspected and confirmed by King Richard on 14 October 1189, by William Longchamp, then Bishop of Ely elect, and Lord Chancellor, who replaced Ranulf as Chief Justiciar: Ranulf died the following year at the Siege of Acre. Roger de Glanvill granted the church of St Mary at Middleton nearby (confirmed by Roger Bigod); William de Valoines added the church of St Botolph at Culpho (referring to the Premonstratensians of "St Mary de Insula de Leeston"), confirmed by William de Verdun who, having no seal of his own, used that of his father Wydo de Verdun. [8]

In 1192 William de Auberville the elder (of Westenhanger, Kent), whose wife was Ranulf's daughter Matilda (Maud),[9][10] founded Langdon Abbey, a Premonstratensian house dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Thomas the Martyr at West Langdon in Kent, as a daughter house of Leiston Abbey. Gilbert, prior of Butley, witnessed its foundation charter, which was given under the hand of Robert, abbot of Leiston, and the confirmation charter of Simon de Avranches shows that William de Auberville was his knight.[11]

In 1363 the Abbey was transferred to Leiston, and its patron, Robert de Ufford, 1st Earl of Suffolk, devoted his last years to the building.


The church tower in ruin

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, Leiston Abbey was granted to Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to Henry VIII. The Abbey became a farm, the farmhouse being built into the ruins. Later, a Georgian front was added to the house, which was extended in the 1920s.

In 1928 the Abbey ruins and farm were bought by Ellen Wrightson for use as a religious retreat. When she died in 1946, she bequeathed the house, ruins, land and buildings to the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. It was purchased in 1977 by the Pro Corda Trust and is managed by them; it is in the guardianship of English Heritage.

Archaeological investigations[edit]

Excavations during the 1980s established the position of the lost south wall and turret of the brick entrance gate structure, and explored the interior of the reredorter building.

Leiston Abbey was the first crowdfunding campaign to run on the DigVentures DigStarter platform in 2013. The project is ongoing and in 2015 is entering the third year of five proposed digging seasons under a licence granted by English Heritage. Its aim has been to breathe new life into Leiston Abbey, providing opportunities for visitors to join in with the excavation, and to integrate the heritage attraction with the artistic and musical life of the onsite music school, Pro Corda, who manage the site for English Heritage. Fieldwork has so far focused on characterising undefined earthworks and settlement evidence in three different areas of the site, with a programme of remote sensing used to target thirteen small-scale excavation trenches aiming to identify settlement evidence indicated by geophysical anomalies or extant earthworks. Additional work has included a photogrammetry survey to produce a metrically accurate 3D digital elevation model of the Abbey Church, and a low-level aerial photography survey using kite-mounted cameras and UAVs (drones) to assess structural evidence for absent buildings associated with the eastern range.


  1. ^ 'Leiston Abbey (first site) with later chapel and pill box', Historic England listing.
  2. ^ 'The Valognes Fee', in W. Farrer and C.T. Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters, Vol. 5, The Honour of Richmond, Part 2 (reprint), (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 234-37.
  3. ^ W. Dugdale and C. Dodsworth, Monastici Anglicani, Volumen Alterum, De Canonicis Regularibus Augustinianis (Alicia Warren, London 1661), pp. 245 ff..
  4. ^ T. Arnold (ed.), Memorials of St Edmund's Abbey, I (HMSO, London 1890), pp. 283-84, notes.
  5. ^ The scholarly edition of the Leiston Cartulary is R. Mortimer (ed.), Leiston Abbey Cartulary and Butley Priory Charters, Suffolk Records Society (Boydell Press, Ipswich 1979), see Introduction only.
  6. ^ W.U.S. Glanville-Richards, Records of the Anglo-Norman house of Glanville, from A.D. 1050 to 1880 (Mitchell and Hughes, London 1882), pp. 38-42 (pdf pp. 61-65).
  7. ^ Foundation charters in W. Dugdale & R. Dodsworth, Monasticon Anglicanum, sive Pandectae Coenobiorum, 3 Vols (London (Savoy) 1673), III, pp. 74-76. (in Latin).
  8. ^ 'House of Premonstratensian canons: Abbey of Leiston', in W. Page (ed.), A History of the County of Suffolk, Vol. 2, (London, 1975), pp. 117-119 (British History Online, accessed 10 October 2017).
  9. ^ E. Foss, The Judges of England: with sketches of their lives (London, 1848), p. 185-86.
  10. ^ See S.J. Bailey, 'Ranulf de Glanvill and His Children', The Cambridge Law Journal Vol. 15, No. 2 (Nov., 1957), pp. 163-182; and R. Mortimer, 'The Family of Rannulf de Glanville', Historical Research 129, 1981, pp. 1–16.
  11. ^ W. Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum new edition (James Bohn, London 1846), VI Part 2, p. 898, Langdon, Charters Nos. I and II.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°13′17″N 1°34′39″E / 52.2214°N 1.5776°E / 52.2214; 1.5776