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Newenham Abbey

A Scheduled Monument in Axminster, Devon

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Latitude: 50.7716 / 50°46'17"N

Longitude: -3.012 / 3°0'43"W

OS Eastings: 328737.425339

OS Northings: 97373.534994

OS Grid: SY287973

Mapcode National: GBR PG.JNCY

Mapcode Global: FRA 47L1.LDB

Entry Name: Newenham Abbey

Scheduled Date: 31 August 1956

Last Amended: 3 April 1995

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1011671

English Heritage Legacy ID: 24843

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Axminster

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Church of England Parish: Axminster St Mary

Church of England Diocese: Exeter


Newenham Abbey is situated to the south east of the town of Axminster in
agricultural land on the eastern edge of the wide floodplain of the River Axe.
The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of an abbey of the
Cistercian order in occupation from 1246 until 1539.
The abbey conforms to the traditional monastic plan in which a church and
three ranges of two-storied buildings were grouped around the central open
square court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings farther from the
nucleus. The visible remains exist as ruined and adapted structures consisting
of parts of the abbey church and west range incorporated into the buildings of
Lower Abbey Farm, which is Listed Grade II. The buried remains are far more
extensive and include a barn and a chapel beneath the buildings of Higher
Abbey Farm, which is also Listed Grade II. A small stream flows past the site
and north westwards to the Axe.
The walls are of coursed rubble construction with fine ashlar quoins,
utilising local limestone. Architectural mouldings are in limestone and a grey
lias, which would have produced a polychrome effect in the original
The layout of the nucleus of the abbey has been reconstructed from a number
of field observations and documentary sources. The cloister stood to the south
of the church and had sides of some 36m square. Documentary evidence suggests
that the cloister-walks were enclosed on their inner sides.
The 13th century abbey church was of cruciform plan, aligned east-west, and
over 80m in length, with a nave some 23m wide, and evidently aisled on both
sides. The transepts were about 19m in width and were aisled on their east
sides to each accommodate three chapels. This layout indicates that the church
had a narrow presbytery, a design that was in general outmoded with the
Cistercians in the 13th century. A substantial section of the south wall of
the nave is incorporated into the modern farm buildings. It is about 14.1m in
length and survives to a height of 3.8m. It contains two large recesses with
round arches, 2.4m wide, and 0.9m deep in a total wall thickness of about
1.3m. They retain some fine ashlar quoins, and the remains on the west side of
a third recess indicates that these features were evenly spaced along the
outer face of the nave, providing seats and/or storage space in the north
cloister walk. The west end of the nave wall has a return to the south which
forms the east wall of the west range. The nave arcades were constructed on
substantial foundations, probably to assist in the support of a tower above
the crossing. The pulpitum (screen between the nave and the monks quire) was
also built on a substantial wall, which may be the relic of an intermediate
phase of construction. A burial has been uncovered in the interior of the
church, and at least part of the floor was tiled.
A substantial section of the east wall of the west range of the cloister
survives as the east wall of the farmhouse of Lower Abbey Farm. It is 1.3m in
thickness, and extends the entire length of the house, some 19m, and
apparently its full height of two stories. The wall contains a square-headed
moulded doorway, 1m wide, and now blocked, which is visible inside the rear
porch of the house. The doorway has been interpreted as leading from the
cloister into the monks parlour, the only room in the abbey in which
conversation was permitted. It is probable that some of the transverse walls
within the farmhouse incorporate medieval fabric. The west range appears to
have been about 60m in length, with its north end abutting the south wall of
the nave of the church. On the evidence of the buildings of the south range,
the west range would have been about 9m in overall width. In addition to the
parlour, the ground floor of the range was traditionally used in part for
storage. The first floor would have contained the dorter (dormitory) of the
lay brothers.
To the east of the cloister, the site of the south transept and east range
is visible as an area of uneven ground in a pasture field. The chapter house
appears to have been some 19m in width; the remainder of the range would have
been narrower. Antiquarian investigations have established that the chapter
house had a paved floor and a vaulted ceiling. Traditionally this range would
have also contained the sacristy (vestry), and the monks dorter (dormitory) on
the upper floor.
The recorded remains of the south range include a kitchen, located at the
west end, which was 15m by 9m, and contained two fireplaces and late 14th or
early 15th century windows; and the refectory (dining hall), of some 25m by
9m, adjacent to the kitchen, with its long axis at right-angles to the
cloister, and with diagonal buttresses at its outer corners. This arrangement
of kitchen and refectory is a characteristic Cistercian design.
Another characteristic Cistercian feature is that both east and west ranges
extend to the south of the cloister and south range. The reredorters (toilets)
would have been in the close vicinity of their associated dorters
(dormitories). The cultivated field to the south east of the cloister has
produced building debris, and may contain the site of the lay brothers'
reredorter. Traditionally, the infirmary would have been located to the east
of the east range, and this area has also produced building debris.
An essential part of the design of all abbeys was the provision of a supply
of fresh running water. At Newenham the main water source was the stream
running north west to the Axe. In the vicinity of the monument the present
course of the stream is artificial; from the topography it appears that its
original course was in the area of the south range. The stream would have been
culverted to the east of the cloister, probably in a series of channels
designed to separate fresh water for the kitchens and lavatoria (washing
places), and then utilise the water flow for conducting foul water from the
reredorters (toilets) to the river. A culverted drain runs eastwards beneath
the kitchen, formerly the dairy, of Lower Abbey Farm, and an arched drain has
been recorded to the immediate east of the refectory (dining hall). In the
post-medieval period the lack of maintenance to the monastic water-courses
probably led to flooding at the south end of the farm, which resulted in the
stream being re-channelled. This involved making a deep cutting into the
rising land to the north east of the church in order to avoid the debris and
foundations of the ruins.
A further diversion of the stream appears to have resulted from the
construction of the railway embankment in the 19th century.
Traditionally the monastic graveyard was located to the immediate north or
north east of the church, and reports of bones being found in the banks of the
stream in this location confirm both this assumption and that the stream has
been diverted. Part of a stone wall, 0.8m thick and aligned north/south, was
observed in the north bank of the stream at the point where it turns west
around the north of the church. This may be the eastern boundary of the
graveyard. The depth of the wall indicates that at least part of the profile
of the higher ground to the north east of the church is artificial.
The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a
wall. Documentary sources state that in the mid 13th century the conventual
buildings were enclosed with a moat. There are no visible earthworks to give
any indication of this feature.
The precinct enclosed all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and
industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the abbey was
capable of sustaining. Many of these would have been of timber or cob
construction. At Newenham the monastic tithe barn was located some 150m to
the south of the cloister. It was about 30m by 9m with external porches in
the centres of its longest sides, with a chamfered plinth and quoins in
limestone ashlar. The chapel stood to the south of the barn, on the opposite
side of the farm track. It was aligned approximately east/west and was about
13m by 7m overall. The presence of a chapel in this location is important.
Cistercian abbeys frequently included a separate place of worship for lay
people, and this was often located near a gatehouse. It is possible that the
remains of a gatehouse exist in the area of Higher Abbey Farm.
The abbey was founded in 1246 by Reginald and William de Mohun following their
granting of land to the Cistercian order. It was colonised by monks from
Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, and dedicated to St Mary. A copy of the
Cartulary exists for the period 1246 to the mid 14th century which, together
with the Register of the Bishops of Exeter, outlines some events in the
construction of the abbey: Bishop Bronescombe (1257-80) presented six altars
to the church; in 1270 three altars on the north side were consecrated, and in
1277 three altars on the south side, and the high altar, were consecrated. In
1304 the warming-house had been built, and a bakehouse was completed together
with a section of the cloister walk enclosure. Between 1325 and 1328 further
sections of the cloister walk, including one towards the infirmary and
lavatoria (washing place), were enclosed. In 1333 the sanctuary was
refloored. Between 1338 and 1361 a new refectory was completed and a vaulted
ceiling constructed in the warming-house. In the period 1250-57, it is
recorded that the conventual buildings were enclosed with a moat.
The abbey gained substantially in wealth from grants of land, and in the
manner of the Cistercian order set up at least four grange farms, in addition
to the home farm, for the utilisation of its estates. On the eve of the Black
Death in 1348 the abbey supported 23 monks (which the plague reduced by 20
monks), 3 lay-brothers, and 88 secular persons living within the precinct.
The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 following an Act of Parliament of 1538 in
which the largest and wealthiest religious houses were surrendered to Henry
VIII. A condition of the subsequent sale of the buildings was that they were
to be rendered unfit for monastic use. This was greatly assisted by the
Crown's sequestration of the roofing lead, although Newenham is reported at
this time as being roofed with slate and tile. Following their disposal by
the Crown, parts of the buildings were often converted to habitable use, and
this pattern was followed at Newenham. The ruins were exploited as a
convenient source of high quality building stone and architectural fragments
are built into a number of houses in Axminster.
In 1539 the abbey was granted by the Crown to the Duke of Suffolk, and at the
beginning of the 17th century was acquired by the Petre family. By 1605 a
house was in existence on the site, and a map of 1616 shows the house on the
site of the present farmhouse, together with the frater (dining hall), west
part of the south range, and south part of the west range in use as buildings,
and the outline of the chapter house. The map also shows the barn and chapel
to the south of the abbey. Parts of the ruins of the abbey were recorded by
Swete in 1795. In 1797 most of the barn was destroyed by fire. In 1827/8
Davidson excavated within the chapter house and revealed a paved floor with an
in situ column base, and recovered a quantity of architectural fragments. A
plan and description were made by Davidson in 1843. The chapel did not exist
after 1861. In 1937 Everett made a plan of the ruins which illustrated the
loss of fabric since 1843.
The scheduling comprises one area enclosing what is currently recognised as
the extent of the abbey. Within the designated area the following are
excluded: both the Grade II Listed farm dwellings, all modern farm structures,
concrete driveways and hard-standings, power-cable poles, and all fence and
gate posts, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

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. Some 75
of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St
Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or "white monks",
on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic
orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual
labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas
where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were
often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen,
dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers
eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were
especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on
sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of
medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

The rural location of Newenham has meant that the layout of the abbey has
been preserved and that its design can be determined from the existing
structures and antiquarian records. The buried remains are extensive and
relatively unharmed by subsequent activity. The abbey is in close proximity to
the town of Axminster, which emerged as a major centre for cloth manufacture
in the medieval period. This association is a good example of the
inter-relationship between Cistercian land use and the regional economy.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Griffiths, D, Newenham Abbey, Axminster, (1985)
Allan, J, Silvester, R, 'Devon Archaeological Society Proceedings' in Newenham Abbey, Axminster, , Vol. 39, (1981), 159-171

Source: Historic England

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