After living here in Suffolk at various times of my life and frequently visiting the county for over fifty years, I finally got round to making a trip to see Leiston Abbey. And, it was well worth the effort.
Most of what we see today is the remains of the 14th-century abbey of Premonstratensian canons. Premonstratensian canons, also known as the White Canons, was an order founded in 1120 by St Norbert of Xanten at Premontre in Picardy, France.
According to English Heritage, Leiston Abbey is among Suffolk’s most impressive monastic ruins retaining some spectacular architectural features.
The abbey church was built in the form of the cross with two chapels on either side of the chancel. The small, roofed chapel we today is the Lady Chapel and is occasionally used for services.
As you can see from the photographs it is mostly constructed of flint with fine examples of knapped flint, which is known as flint flushwork. Naturally occurring stone in Suffolk is in short supply and it appears that some of the stonework of this church, for example the arches, was constructed from re-used stone from the Order’s earlier abbey buildings at Minsmere. The original abbey was founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanville (Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II), and was built on an island in the Minsmere marshes nearer the coast. In 1363, the monastery was relocated two miles further from the coast to the higher ground of the Leiston site.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, as one of the smaller houses in the country, Leiston was among the first wave surrendered to the king, then gifted to the dukes of Suffolk. But, even for a small house the commissioners inventory showed there were silver and copper candlesticks and an altar of carved alabaster.
Dissolution might have been the beginning of the end of the abbey as a monastery, but part of the site became a farmhouse and eventually in 1928 the abbey ruins and farm were bought by Ellen Wrightson and used as a religious retreat until her death in 1946.
In 1977 the Pro Corda Trust, the National School for Young Chamber Music Players, a charity running chamber music courses for children, bought Leiston Abbey. It is pleasing that there is an arrangement with English Heritage for the care of the ruins and that free, public access is allowed.
10 thoughts on “Leiston Abbey Ruins”
Well, that definitely sounds as if it’s more than worth a detour. One day, I WILL get down to East Anglia. Suffolk was the Family Seat till the mid nineteenth century (only agricultural labourers, but still …)
Agricultural labourers? then they might well have come across my ancestors toiling in the fields from Clare across the county to Great Glemham, before they tramped their way to London.
My family lived for generations in Layham – I’ve got them back to the 1700s. but when Shadrack (love that name!) Barton’s generation came to maturity, agricultural depression had them high-tailing it to London, where things worked out much better. It sounds as if our ancestors trod similar paths.
Oo Shadrack – that is a great name, with a name like that success in London was surely a certainty.
What a fascinating tour, you are so knowledgeable!
Oh I am not really – I cheat! I always photograph any information displays. 😉
I enjoy all the uses a building like this can serve over the centuries. Thanks for letting us go along with you on the tour.
Yes, I agree. And although I was impressed with the survival of the old monastery walls, I thought the making of the farmhouse, almost moulding it out of the nave, was inspired.
Yes, I thought so too. The ingenuity and vision of reusing is different from building new and my personal mindset is toward reusing, I’ve always enjoyed looking at existing structures and thinking how I would adapt them for this or that, and I especially like it when a building changes purpose and moves on to a new life.
Yes, I do think that we could really learn from the past on the repurposing/reusing approach to much of our lives.