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Snelshall Benedictine Priory: a moated priory site and fishponds north of Briary Plantation

A Scheduled Monument in Shenley Church End, Milton Keynes

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Coordinates

Latitude: 52.0027 / 52°0'9"N

Longitude: -0.8125 / 0°48'44"W

OS Eastings: 481617.256434

OS Northings: 234474.890697

OS Grid: SP816344

Mapcode National: GBR D0L.KD4

Mapcode Global: VHDT5.VXVL

Entry Name: Snelshall Benedictine Priory: a moated priory site and fishponds north of Briary Plantation

Scheduled Date: 19 January 1968

Last Amended: 22 October 1993

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1011308

English Heritage Legacy ID: 19061

County: Milton Keynes

Civil Parish: Shenley Church End

Built-Up Area: Milton Keynes

Traditional County: Buckinghamshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Buckinghamshire

Church of England Parish: Whaddon

Church of England Diocese: Oxford

Details

The monument contains the extensive earthwork remains of Snelshall Priory and
includes the site of the monastery buildings themselves, the perimeter moat,
fishponds and drainage system.
The priory is believed to have been founded around 1147 as a cell of Lavendon
Abbey by Premonstratensian canons. By 1204 this cell had failed and the site
passed into the hands of the Benedictine order, the monks occupying the site
sometime before 1219. This Benedictine foundation, dedicated to St Leonard,
seems to have enjoyed a degree of prosperity for a while, a tower being added
to the priory church in 1224. The site continued in Benedictine hands up until
its dissolution in 1535 when materials from the site are said to have been re-
used to construct a new chapel at Tattenhoe. There is a record of the house
and precincts of the dissolved priory being sold into secular hands in May
1620. Subsequently the site remained in use as part of an agricultural holding
with the site of the priory buildings occupied by a farmhouse described as
having a stone base with a wooden superstructure, the north side of which was
supported on some of the arches of the cloister. Occupation of the site ceased
sometime before 1830 when the farmhouse was demolished and the site abandoned
to pasture.
Today nothing survives above ground of the priory buildings or of the later
farm buildings. However extensive earthworks and buried remains relating to
the priory do survive. These include the perimeter boundary ditch of the
priory complex which averages 6m wide and 1.2m deep and is complete throughout
its length forming a rectangular enclosure 268m north-west to south-east by
238m north-east to south-west. In places, particularly along the western side
of the enclosure, a low bank 4m wide and 0.4m high runs along the inner edge
of this ditch. The ditch does not appear to have been designed principally for
defence but rather to provide drainage for the interior of the enclosure. The
site is low lying and any occupation of the site on a long term basis would
have required adequate drainage provision. The interior of the enclosure is
sub-divided by a series of ditches and slight banks into rectangular plots.
The banks average 0.2m high, while the ditches are more pronounced averaging
2.2m wide and 0.4m deep. These appear designed to assist drainage of the
interior while also marking the extent of small possible garden plots. The
ditches feed into a series of rectilinear ponds which would have served as
fishponds and drainage sumps. The largest of these survives water-filled and
lies orientated north-east to south-west with dimensions of 95m by 12m. It is
cut into the land surface with the spoil thrown outwards to form flanking
embankments along the north-west and south-east edges of the pond. A second
smaller pond is similarly orientated and has dimensions of 31m by 10m; it lies
some 40m south-west of the former. A third probable dry pond measuring
20m south-west to north-east by 10m transversely lies some 80m to the
north-west of the latter. All are interlinked by the internal system of
ditches described above.
Although there is no visible surface evidence of walling, either of the priory
buildings themselves or of the later farm buildings, there are two rectangular
platforms each defined by shallow ditches averaging 4m wide and 0.5m deep,
which are again linked into the internal drainage system and which are
considered to represent the site of the main building complex. The most
southerly platform lies adjacent to the north side of the second fishpond and
has internal dimensions of 35m by 24m. The more northerly platform lies some
80m north-west of the larger fishpond and has internal dimensions of 34m
north-east to south-west by 26m transversely. The ditch surrounding the north,
east and south sides of this platform is linked by shallow drainage ditches
with the perimeter moat to the north-west and the large fishpond to the
south-east. An oval depression 12m by 8m in the interior of this platform
probably represents later disturbance.
All modern structures and boundary features are excluded from the scheduling,
although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597
to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both
religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious
communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks,
canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of
religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated
from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England.
These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to
tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide
variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a
result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout,
although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for
the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into
the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship,
learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some
orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were
established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest
of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish
churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages.
Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St
Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not
intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule
came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came
only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as
`black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who
became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over
150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly
successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and
influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance
of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many
facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Although there is now no surface trace of the buildings of Snelshall Priory,
the earthwork complex is largely complete and well-defined, and archaeological
remains will survive below ground. The water management system with its
complex of drainage channels and fishponds allows an insight into the problems
faced by the monastic community in occupying such a low lying site and the way
in which they attempted to solve them. The abandonment of the site with little
subsequent disturbance indicates that archaeological survival of cultural
material within the site's confines will be good. The wet nature of the
situation may also allow organic survival in the various ditch fills. It is
also thought likely that environmental evidence relating to the landscape in
which the community existed will survive, particularly in the sediments of the
fishponds. Viewed in terms of its relationship to other medieval monuments in
the area, such as Tattenhoe moat and village remains which lie only 1.4km to
the east, the site represents an important element in a very complete picture
of the medieval landscape surviving in this area.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire: Volume I, (1905), 352-353
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 57,77
Jenkins, J G, 'Bucks Record Soc.' in Cartulary of Snelshall Priory, , Vol. 9, (1952)
Other
Conversation with CAO,
Doc 372/22 no 7 BAS Muniment Rm., Caleddar of Deeds, Bucks Record Soc.,
Lipscomb,
Sheahan,

Source: Historic England

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