Isleham Priory Church: Research Guide

Isleham Priory was a monastic site from around 1100 until 1254. It was overseen by a monastery in Brittany, and its monks came from there. The monastery was closed, and its monks moved to Linton Priory. The church was subsequently used as a barn, but still largely survives.

The first place we start, is with the official sources.

As an English Heritage site, the natural first place to start is with English Heritage’s website. There is a page briefly outlining the history of the site.

Next up, I like Pastscape, as it tends to have a good summary, and details of research done.

Pastscape has several different headings for more information. “Related Monuments” sometimes has interesting connections, or several buildings on the same site. This time, there isn’t anything there. While searching for Isleham Priory, I did come across the entry for Linton Priory, where the monks from Isleham eventually moved to.

In the “Investigation History” section, an archaeological evaluation is mentioned, from what they can gather, it was done in 1997. The full report is listed as being published in 1998, by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, at the University of Cambridge. The CAU doesn’t host many of their publications on their site, but do link to the Archaeology Data Service as hosting many of their reports (337 at the time of writing). Unfortunately, the report we’re looking for isn’t among them. The report is also not listed in the CAU’s list of publications.

The “Investigation History” description also mentions a “later watching brief”, but provides no details about it.

Moving on to Heritage Gateway, which combines several sources, including Pastscape.

Running into a bit of an issue: I feel my searches should be yielding more results. “Isleham Priory” doesn’t bring much at all, “St Margaret Of Antioch” brings up more, some of which are relevant, but…

National Heritage List for England:
42 results when searching for “St Margaret of Antioch”, only one appears relevant: a Listing.

One is better than less-than-one, other places I’ve looked up for History Basics have often turned up two or three relevant results. At this stage, I’m not worried.

I did find two entries on Historic England, one appears to be the same Listing entry as above, the other is a Scheduling entry.

National Monuments Record Excavation Index:
With Pastscape listing an Evaluation and hinting at a Watching Brief, I rather expected to find something relevant here. As it is, I’ve found nothing.

Cambridgeshire Historic Environmental Record:
This section yields three relevant results:
Overview of the Priory
Earthworks to the North of the Priory
Priory drainage works
The first contains a lot of information, some history, some architectural detail.
The second is more descriptive of the geography of the site.
The third is short, but turns out to be about the watching brief that was alluded to earlier. This turns out to be undertaken by Oxford Archaeology East, and they very helpfully have an archive of their reports, and I found the watching brief there.

Other sources
The above didn’t dredge up much in the way of extra material.
Isleham Priory Church on Wikipedia
The Monasticon Anglicanum has a brief entry on Isleham Priory (spelt Iselham), followed by a brief entry on Linton Priory (spelt Lynton), on page 1045.

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Denny Abbey


CHEAT SHEET
Built: ~1159, by Benedictine monks.
Change of ownership: 1169, handed over to the Knights Templar.
Change of ownership: 1308 fall of the Templars. Property given to the Hospitallers, who didn’t use it.
Change of ownership: 1324, claimed by the Crown.
Change of ownership: 1327, given to the Countess of Pembroke, who gave part of the property to Franciscan nuns (the “Poor Clares” order)
Dissolved: 1536, in the first round of the Dissolution Of The Monasteries.
Change of ownership: Taken over by the Crown. Converted to farm use (farm from 1539).
Change of ownership: 1628, transferred to private ownership, still a farm.
Change of ownership: 1928, bought by Pembroke College. Still a farm.
Leased 1947 to the Ministry of Works, later transferred to English Heritage.
Abbey partially restored in the 1960s.
Farmland Museum opened in 1997.

EXTENDED VERSION
Domesday
Denny Abbey was built on farmland that Wikipedia claims was in the Domesday Book. “Denny”, or any variant of the name, isn’t documented until 1176. I’m not convinced I’ve found the place in either of the Domesday websites I looked at. At opendomesday.org, I did the postcode search, using the postcode I found on the official Denny Abbey & Farmland Museum website. It found three nearby locations, each about 3km away. Waterbeach is narrowly the closest. Domesdaybook.co.uk, in their listing for Waterbeach (first in the “W” section), mentions Denny Abbey in their description. How accurate the connection is, is unclear.

Wikipedia says the Domesday record of the place, states that the site was owned by Edith the Fair (AKA Edith Swanneck), in 1066. Opendomesday contains a list of names, and there are a few Ediths on the list, it is not obvious if any of them are the right Edith, and none of them seem to be associated with Waterbeach.

Wikipedia’s source for this information is an English Heritage publication about the site, by Richard Wood.

Benedictines
The Notitia Monastica states that the Benedictines moved into their original site at Elmeney (Wikipedia reckons this to be about a mile North-East of the Denny site) in “about 1160”, and isn’t sure exactly when they moved to Denny, just that their church had been constructed by the time of the Bishop’s death (1169).

The Benedictines moved from the Elmeney site because they were “mightily incommoded by the water” – could be high water table, marshy, or possibly prone to flooding. As far as I can tell, the water issues are of that nature, rather than a problem with the drinking water.

Pastscape, and the official Denny website, state that the Benedictines started occupying the site in 1159, which would with the Notitia’s “about 1160” date, perhaps even giving leeway for them to give Elmeney a chance for a year or two (which may well be generous).

Pastscape’s page for the Benedictine chapel, interestingly enough, gives it a date of “circa 1150”, which is a bit trickier to reconcile with the 1159-1169 date we already have for the chapel.

The Notitia isn’t sure when the Benedictines left the site, just that the next documentary records of the place, from 1255, say that the site was owned by the Templars.

The Denny Abbey & Farmland Museum website says the Benedictines were there for 10 years, which would put them there until 1169. Pastscape says the site became property of the Templars in 1170. More confusingly, the Related Text section says “transferred to the Knights Templars before 1169, when it became a hospital preceptory for sick and aged members of the order.”

I’m not quite sure why the dates for the transfer vary so wildly. The Notitia doesn’t give a date, so effectively it gives us a range of 1169-1255, and now we find it could be before that range. Perhaps the current owners have access to documentation that Tanner didn’t when he compiled the Notitia.

Templars
The Templars are pretty well known as warriors, protecting pilgrims going to Jerusalem as well as defending (officially) Christian nations from Muslim invaders, a war they would eventually lose. In addition to this, and partly to support those efforts, they administered a lot of land that they were given, and even ran a kind of banking system all over Europe.

At Denny, they used the site as kind of a retirement home for old, ill, and presumably injured members of their order. Wikipedia calls it a hospital. I’m not entirely sure what the distinction is when considering this time period, but other monastic sites have tended to have a separate building called a “hospital”, and I haven’t seen any buildings designated as such, here. Pastscape’s “Related Text” section describes it as a “hospital preceptory”.

The Templars fell from grace, and the Pope issued a bull (decree) known as Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, in late 1307. This instructed all Christian monarchs to arrest all Knights Templar and seize their properties. Edward II didn’t carry this out immediately, but did in 1308 as part of a political deal.

After the Templars
Confiscated Templar property was to be given to the Knights Hospitaller. Wikipedia states that Denny passed to the Hospitallers, but they didn’t use it. Pastscape’s “Related Text” section says that the site didn’t go to the Hospitallers. The Notitia Monastica is brief concerning the Templars, and doesn’t mention the Hospitallers at all. The Monasticon Anglicanum, for most of its description of Denny, just quotes most of the Notitia’s entry.

Wikipedia states that in 1324, the property was taken back by the Crown. I haven’t seen this mentioned in the other places.

The Franciscans
Whether or not the Crown took Denny back from the Hospitallers in 1324, or had control of the place the whole time from 1308, it was evidently in its possession when Edward III gave Denny to the Countess of Pembroke.

Wikipedia’s entry on Denny Abbey says the transfer happened in 1327. Its page on Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke states it happened in 1336. The Notitia doesn’t give a date on this, but everywhere seems to agree that it was after the death of her husband, which happened in 1324.

The Countess converted the original church into a place for herself to live, and gave the rest of the property to some Franciscan nuns. The Notitia states that she was going to give the property to the Franciscans at Waterbeach, but changed her mind and founded a monastery at Denny in 1342. Pastscape’s main description states the Franciscan nunnery at Denny was established “from about 1339”, and one of the paragraphs in the Related Texts states the Countess “received a license to transfer the Franciscan nuns from Waterbeach to Denny”. Wikipedia’s page on the Countess agrees with the 1342 date, and another of the paragraphs in Pastscape’s Related Texts states: “Re-founded as an Abbey of Franciscan Nuns in 1342 to replace Waterbeach, the union being finally effected in 1351”.

Waterbeach Abbey seems to have been prone to flooding, the Franciscans moving to Denny echoing the Benedictines’ move from Elmeney nearly two hundred years earlier.

Wikipedia and Pastscape seem to be in consensus that Waterbeach was abandoned by the end of 1351.

Abbesses
Dates indicate when a name is documented, which aren’t the same as “start” and “end” dates.
The Monasticon lists the following as Abbesses of Denny:
Isabella Kendale in 1405 or 1406
Agnes Bernard in 1414
Margaret Mille or Milly in 1419 and 1431
Katherine Sybyle in 1434
Joane on Aug 12th 1459
Joane Keteryche on Feb 3 1468
Margaret Assheby in 1480 and 1489
Elizabeth Throckmorton “the last Abbess”.

Wikipedia lists the following Abbesses:
Katherine de Bolewyk, first abbess, in 1342 and 1351
Margaret in 1361
Joan Colcestre in 1379
Isabel Kendale in 1391 and 1404
Agnes Massingham, elected 1412
Agnes Bernard in 1413
Margery Milley in 1419 and 1430-1
Katherine Sybyle in 1434 and 1449
Joan Keteryche in 1459 and 1462, died in 1479
Margaret Assheby in 1480, 1487, and 1493
Elizabeth Throckmorton in 1512, last abbess

The lists are interesting to compare. The variations in spelling aren’t surprising. What is a bit surprising is Wikipedia’s list having some dates a year or two off from the Monasticon’s, in the cases of Kendale, Bernard and Assheby, and the 1462/1468 of Keteryche. Also, it’s interesting that the Monasticon doesn’t conflate the Joane of 1459 with the Joane of 1468, though it would be understandable, whereas Wikipedia’s source does.

Dissolution
Henry VIII’s Dissolution Of The Monasteries was a great theft of monastic property, which he then wanted to sell to fund some wars he had going at the time.

The first Act, dissolving the lesser houses, was passed in 1535/6, and the second, dissolving the larger ones, was passed in 1539.

Wikipedia says that Denny was closed in 1536, but that it took nearly two years for all the nuns to leave. The Denny Abbey & Farmland Museum website agrees with this timing.

The Monasticon Anglicanum quotes a text that says that Denny “was one of the thirty-one Monasteries which were reprieved for two years to satisfy the Discontents of the People.” This could mean that it was supposed to close in 1536, but was actually closed a couple of years later, more or less fitting with what Wikipedia and the website say.

Pastscape’s main description lists Denny as being dissolved in 1539. The Related Text section has one paragraph that says it was “closed down around 1539”, and another paragraph with the very specific date of the 18th of October 1539.

The Notitia quotes two reckonings of Denny’s yearly value at the time of the Dissolution: the first, 172£ 8s 3½d, which would firmly put it in danger of the First Act of Suppression. The second says 218£ 0s 1½d, which would keep it safe from the First Act, but not the Second. (The Notitia says “l” instead of “£”, and “ob” after the “d” instead of “½” before the “d”: these are standard notations).

Post-Dissolution
The property was sold to Edward Elrington in 1539 or 1540. Pastscape states “It is thought that Elrington began to dismantle some of the buildings before exchanging the estate with the king for other land.” The site was quickly converted into farmland, the chapel that had been converted into the Countess’s house was now converted into a farmhouse, and the Refectory into a barn.

Other buildings were demolished because they weren’t useful for the farm, but foundations have been discovered.

The Crown held on to Denny until 1628, when it was given to the City Of London as payment for Charles I’s debts (I suspect that this doesn’t describe the entire transaction). Pastscape mentions the City Of London transaction, Wikipedia mentions only that “the abbey passed into private ownership”. The City presumably immediately sold the property.

Denny remained a farm, passing through several owners. Pembroke College bought the site in 1928 (Wikipedia) or 1929 (Pastscape), and leased it to the Ministry of Works in 1947.

Wikipedia states that it ceased to be a farm when the Ministry of Works took over. The English Heritage page suggests that it continued as a farm until the 1960s. Pastscape says that part of the estate “is” still a working farm, that information was dated 1992. It is not clear from the Farmland Museum page if that is still true.

English Heritage became guardians of Denny Abbey in 1984. The Farmland Museum opened on site in 1997. The museum manages the site for English Heritage.

DOCUMENTATION
Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society Vol 76 contains an article entitled “Denny Abbey: The Nuns’ Refectory”.
Details about the 1954, and the 1967-1975 excavations are in volume 137 of The Archaeological Journal, produced by the Royal Archaeological Institute. Pastscape‘s references for the latter dig also mention vol 124. Vol 124 and vol 137, and their individual articles, are behind a rather steep paywall at Taylor & Francis Online. All issues of the journal can be viewed for free if you’re a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, vols 1-120 are available for free for everyone at the Archaeology Data Service.
The full report for the 2011 evaluation is available at the Archaeology Data Service.
Monasticon Anglicanum: pages 1549-1553 concern Denny, then page 1554/1555 talks about Waterbeach.
Notitia Monastica: Denny is discussed p44/45, Waterbeach on p50
Research reports about finds from Denny Abbey

LINKS
Denny Abbey
Denny Abbey at English Heritage
History of the Abbey at the Denny Abbey & Farmland Museum website
Denny Abbey on Wikipedia
Domesday Book
Waterbeach on opendomesday.org
domesdaybook.co.uk: Waterbeach is the first “W” entry on the page
Related Wikipedia topics
Edith the Fair on Wikipedia: Wikipedia says she owned the land at the time of the Domesday census
Alan, First Earl of Richmond on Wikipedia: Wikipedia says he subsequently owned the site
Ely Cathedral on Wikipedia: the Benedictine monks came from Ely Abbey
The Benedictine Order on Wikipedia
Knights Templar on Wikipedia: the second monastic order on site
Pastoralis Praeeminentiae on Wikipedia: Papal bull calling for the arrest of the Templars
King Edward II on Wikipedia: had the Templars arrested
Knights Hospitaller on Wikipedia: may or may not have had anything to do with the site
King Edward III on Wikipedia: gave Denny to the Countess of Pembroke
Marie, Countess of Pembroke on Wikipedia: founded the Franciscan community on the site
Franciscans Order on Wikipedia: An umbrella term for several orders of monastics
Poor Clares on Wikipedia: the specific Franciscan order that inhabited Denny
Waterbeach Abbey on Wikipedia
Dissolution of the Monasteries on Wikipedia
King Charles I on Wikipedia
John George Witt on Wikipedia: was born at Denny Abbey

Pastscape
Denny Abbey and Farmland Museum
Denny Abbey chapel
The Refectory
Denny Causeway, leads to Abbey
Histon Manor moat, property of Abbey until dissolution
Stone barn on site
Walnut Tree Cottage
Ely Cathedral, Denny Abbey was a dependency of Ely Abbey

HERITAGE GATEWAY
National Heritage List For England
Listing for Denny Abbey
Listing for barn north of Abbey
Listing for Abbey refectory
Scheduling for Abbey (quite descriptive)
National Monuments Record Excavation Index
Layer of indeterminate date
Refectory floor
Watching brief for service trenches
Trial holes to locate abbey buildings
1975 excavation: no description, date taken from the ADS link, rather than Heritage Gateway. Two issues of The Archaeological Journal cited, not ones that are free online.
1985 excavation of refectory and kiln: Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society Volume 76 cited, available online.
Excavation of round barrow adjacent to abbey
Watching brief for post holes
Parks and Gardens UK
The abbey’s garden
Cambridgeshire Historic Environment Record
Denny Abbey
Abbey refectory
Possible midden
Walls and rubble, medieval and 19th Century
Medieval and Post-Medieval pottery finds
Denny Abbey Park
Possible watercourses
Roman pottery
Geological observation

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