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Leicester abbey and 17th century mansion and ornamental gardens

A Scheduled Monument in Abbey, Leicester

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Latitude: 52.6477 / 52°38'51"N

Longitude: -1.1385 / 1°8'18"W

OS Eastings: 458385.476613

OS Northings: 305900.333536

OS Grid: SK583059

Mapcode National: GBR FFD.NR

Mapcode Global: WHDJB.HQ32

Entry Name: Leicester abbey and 17th century mansion and ornamental gardens

Scheduled Date: 18 July 1995

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1012149

English Heritage Legacy ID: 17131

County: Leicester

Electoral Ward/Division: Abbey

Built-Up Area: Leicester

Traditional County: Leicestershire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Leicestershire

Church of England Parish: Leicester The Abbey

Church of England Diocese: Leicester


The monument is situated on the west bank of the River Soar, approximately 1km
north of the medieval town of Leicester, and includes the standing and buried
remains of an Augustinian abbey and its associated home farm and those of a
17th century mansion and ornamental gardens. The abbey ruins are Listed
Grade I.
The abbey was founded in 1143 by Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester, and was
endowed with large areas of land and many parish churches both in
Leicestershire and further afield. Documentary evidence indicates that it
became one of the richest and most important Augustinian houses in England.
Leicester abbey was surrendered to the Crown in 1538, at which time a survey
of the monastery was drawn up. After the Dissolution a mansion was built at
the site, occupied first by the Hastings family and then by the Cavendish
family. By 1928 the 17th century house was in ruins and the land was given to
the City of Leicester by Lord Dysart.
A precinct wall of stone and brick defines the abbey site and encloses an area
of approximately 13ha. The entrance to the abbey was near the centre of the
northern wall and remains of masonry structures survive against the wall in
this vicinity. The construction of the precinct wall is attributed to two of
the monastery's abbots, Abbot Clowne (1345-78) and Abbot Penny (1496-1505),
and it is now known as Abbot Penny's Wall. The wall, which is Listed Grade I,
is approximately 5m high and is included in the scheduling. It is visible
along much of its length except for several gaps along the eastern side and
one in the south eastern side, which has been partly rebuilt using modern
brick. This latter section of the wall is excluded from the scheduling
although the ground below is included. In the north eastern part of the site,
approximately 25m of the wall has been rebuilt on a different alignment in
order to accommodate a modern gate and this section is also excluded from the
scheduling; the foundations of the medieval boundary wall will survive,
however, as buried features and are included. The precinct wall is built
mostly of stone but red brick has been used for the south western and southern
sections. Here, patterns, including Abbot Penny's initials (JP), elaborate
crosses, a chalice, the sacred monogram (IHC) and more abstract designs have
been picked out in darker brick. The remains of a statue niche, set into the
wall, can be seen at the south western corner of the site. The eastern
precinct wall retains a number of monastic and post-monastic features within
its fabric, including an arch for a drain, loop windows and two garderobes
which are set within a tower.
The abbey church and claustral buildings were situated in the north eastern
part of the precinct. Since the 18th century there have been a number of
excavations at the site and the foundations of the main monastic buildings are
visible on the ground surface, providing evidence for their layout. The abbey
church, which is over 100m long, has a cruciform plan with a tower at its
western end. Cardinal Wolsey, who died at Leicester abbey in 1530, was
interred within the church. The traditional site of his tomb is within the
Lady Chapel to the north of the chancel, marked by a modern cenotaph which is
not included in the scheduling, although the ground below it is included. The
cloister, which measures approximately 30m internally, is situated to the
south of the monastic church. It has buildings along its western, southern and
eastern sides, namely the frater to the south, and the chapter house and
library with the dorter above to the east. To the south of the southern
claustral range is a further courtyard bounded by chambers, kitchens and
offices. No foundations are exposed beyond these buildings; however, an
excavation has uncovered evidence for buildings extending at least a further
100m to the west, one of which has been identified as the infirmary. The abbey
home farm was situated in the north western part of the precinct and continued
as a farm into the post-medieval period. Modern buildings now occupy this area
but archaeological deposits asssociated with the monastic farm are thought to
survive as buried features and will provide valuable evidence for the
agricultural activities of the monastery. The southern part of the precinct is
known to have been occupied by fishponds and an orchard. This area has been
landscaped but the buried remains of the ponds will survive beneath the ground
The northern part of the monastic precinct is partly occupied by the ruins of
a post-Dissolution house, known as Cavendish House, which is Listed Grade I,
it incorporates medieval masonry within its fabric. These ruins are located
approximately 60m to the south of the north precinct wall and are approached
along a driveway which is bounded on either side by a wall. The ruins include
the north wall of the house which is built of stone and retains a number of
architectural features within its fabric including, mullioned window openings
and a square-headed doorway, above which is an arched opening. The north
western part of Cavendish House is overlain by a 19th century house known as
Abbey House. Abbey House is not included in the scheduling although the ground
beneath is included. South and south west of Abbey House are three ruined
walls, all containing 17th century windows and door embrasures. These walls
are partly free-standing and partly built into modern outbuildings. They form
part of the standing remains of Cavendish House and are included in the
During the Civil War Cavendish House was used by Charles I as the Royalist
headquarters prior to the Battle of Naseby, but following his defeat the
retreating army looted and fired the house.
Formal gardens associated with the house were laid out during the 17th century
and are known from early maps. A stone wall which formed part of these gardens
is visible running westwards for 50m from the central part of the eastern
precinct wall. At its western end, the wall turns north for approximately 6m.
The wall provides important evidence for the layout of these formal gardens
and is included in the scheduling.
The dwelling known as Abbey House and the park maintenance buildings in the
northern part of the site, the modern cenotaph commemorating Cardinal Wolsey,
the toilet buildings, the pavilion; and Wolsey's statue and the refreshment
building in the eastern part of the site are all excluded from the scheduling,
although the ground beneath them is included.
All garden furniture, the concrete-lined pool, the animal pens, sand pits, and
the surfaces of all paths, tennis courts and driveways are also excluded,
however the ground beneath 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 225
of these religious houses belonged to the order of St Augustine. The
Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of
canons - or priests - living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they
came to be known as `black canons' because of their dark coloured robes and to
distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. From the 12th
century onwards, they undertook much valuable work in the parishes, running
almshouses, schools and hospitals as well as maintaining and preaching in
parish churches. It was from the churches that they derived much of their
revenue. The Augustinians 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.

Leicester abbey retains extensive standing and buried remains of one of the
richest and most important Augustinian monasteries in the country. The site
has detailed documentary evidence for both the monastic and post-Dissolution
periods and these provide a valuable insight into the economy of the
monastery and of the mansion which superseded it. The precinct wall is an
important feature which rarely survives intact at monastic sites. Partial
excavation has indicated that the remains of buildings and archaeological
deposits associated with the occupation of the abbey survive undisturbed
beneath the ground surface. The post-Dissolution house and the walls of its
associated gardens also survive well and provide a valuable example of the
conversion of a major monastic site for secular use following its Dissolution.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Hartley, R F, The Medieval Earthworks of Central Leicestershire, (1989), 48
Liddle, P, A Guide to Twnty Archaeological Sites, (1983), 20-1
Pevsner, N, Williamson, E, The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, (1984), 249-50
Thompson, A H, The Abbey of St. Mary of the Meadows, Leicester, (1949)

Source: Historic England

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