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Isleham priory: an alien Benedictine priory 100m west of St Andrew's Church

A Scheduled Monument in Isleham, Cambridgeshire

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Latitude: 52.3437 / 52°20'37"N

Longitude: 0.4086 / 0°24'31"E

OS Eastings: 564173.471881

OS Northings: 274463.331738

OS Grid: TL641744

Mapcode National: GBR N8S.24M

Mapcode Global: VHJG4.1CD5

Entry Name: Isleham priory: an alien Benedictine priory 100m west of St Andrew's Church

Scheduled Date: 11 March 1996

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1013278

English Heritage Legacy ID: 27101

County: Cambridgeshire

Civil Parish: Isleham

Built-Up Area: Isleham

Traditional County: Cambridgeshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cambridgeshire

Church of England Parish: Isleham St Andrew

Church of England Diocese: Ely


The alien Benedictine priory at Isleham is situated on the northern side of
the present village, some 100m to the west of the parish Church of St Andrew.
The village itself is located at the tip of a low chalk spur, beyond which the
ground slopes gently northwards towards Isleham Fen. The only standing priory
building is the Chapel of St Margaret of Antioch (a Grade I Listed Building)
to the north of which lie the buried foundations of the conventual buildings
and the earthwork remains of the associated agricultural complex.

The chapel is located just to the north of the angle between Church Street and
Mill Street. It is a single linear structure, c.30m in length, which is
divided into two rectangular sections (the nave and chancel) with an apsidal
sanctuary at the eastern end. The walls are approximately 1m-1.2m thick,
composed of limestone and local clunch rubble, partly laid in herringbone
pattern, partly in horizontal courses. Barnack limestone was used for the
plinth around the base of the walls, the internal arches, and the earlier
doorways and windows. The exterior has been repaired on numerous occasions in
a variety of stone, tile, brick and flint, but the structure has remained
essentially unaltered since its construction around AD 1100.

The nave measures about 8m by 14m and about 6m high, the roof having been
raised by approximately 1m at a later date. There are two narrow slit windows
in the north wall, each with rounded heads and deeply splayed internal
recesses. These, like the single slit windows in the south and west walls, are
original, as are the three bull's eye (circular) windows arranged in the
triangle of the west gable. The nave is separated from the chancel by a
semicircular arch of two orders (an order is a column entire, consisting of
base, shaft, and capital, with an entablature) supported by responds with two
half-round columns, cushion capitals and splayed bases. The chancel is
slightly shorter and about 1m narrower than the nave, the division marked by
external corners supported by alternate vertical and horizontal quoins (long-
and-short work). The earth floor, both here and in the sanctuary, is raised by
about 0.15m above that of the nave and separated by a modern concrete step
inserted beneath the chancel arch. The chancel originally contained three slit
windows similar to those in the nave. However, in the 13th century the south
window was enlarged, and at the same time a square aumbry (or cupboard recess)
was cut into the north wall next to a new doorway with a pointed arch. The
doorway in the north wall of the nave was either added during this period, or
altered to match. A further doorway with a shouldered, or Carnaervon, arch was
inserted in the south wall of the chancel around 1300, and the window on the
north side was similarly altered. The round-headed sanctuary arch was
demolished in the 19th century, although the rectangular attached piers
remain, both pierced by beam slots for a wooden partition or rood screen. The
sanctuary is about 6m in length and of much the same internal width as the
chancel. The walls, however, are about 0.3m thinner, and the difference is
again marked by external corners with long-and-short work. The rounded end of
the sanctuary, or apse, is supported by four external pilasters which,
together with the slight inward curve at the top of the interior walls,
indicate that it was originally covered by a semi-domed, vaulted ceiling. Of
the three windows in the apse only the east window remains unaltered. The
previous narrow loops to the north and south were replaced by taller lancets
in the 13th century.

All further alterations relate to the reuse of the chapel as a barn after the
Reformation. The south sanctuary window was expanded to form a square aperture
with a brick surround, now covered by a wooden shutter. Similar alterations
were made to the window above the south door in the chancel, and both chancel
doors were blocked. In the 16th or early 17th century a large barn door with a
round-headed brick arch was inserted in the south wall of the nave, removing
all traces of an earlier doorway in the same location. The raised roof line of
the nave is thought to date from the late 17th or 18th century. The eaves and
the west gable were extended in matching stone (which was also used to infill
the bull's eye windows), although the parapets and the east gable were
completed in brick. This work may have caused or threatened subsidence, since
at around the same time two brick-clad, three stage buttresses were added to
the west wall. Two further sloped buttresses (also in brick) were attached to
the western end of the north wall of the nave, and a brick revetment was
constructed along the base on this side, replacing part of the original
limestone plinth. The tiled roof is in two levels with a semi-conical
continuation over the eastern apse, reclad by the Ministry of Works after
1944. Some of the main roof timbers are thought to date from the previous

The priory is not considered to have developed sufficiently to have required a
full claustral range, and the chapel is thought to have been the most
southerly building in the complex, as well as the only building in stone.
However, the sloping ground which extends for about 6m from the south wall of
the chapel is included in the scheduling, in order to provide protection for
the archaeological relationship between the chapel and the remains of any
buried surfaces extending towards Church Street, the position of which is
thought to relate to the siting of the priory.

The area immediately to the north of the chapel is enclosed by a clunch and
brick wall, attached to the north west corner of the nave and the south east
side of the apse. The wall, which has recently been renovated, post-dates the
priory and relates to the later reuse of the chapel. It is, however, thought
to reflect an earlier boundary enclosing the conventual buildings which, given
the historical evidence for the limited scale of the priory, would have been
essentially domestic in character. As well as the buried remains of these
structures, the enclosure may also contain the monks' cemetery, situated on
the north east side of the sanctuary.

The pasture to the north of the walled enclosure contains the remains of
agricultural buildings and other features related to the economy of the
priory. The field, almost completely covered by earthworks, measures
approximately 240m north to south and 90m east to west. In the centre of the
longest axis is a sunken track or hollow way, 200m in length, which is thought
to have served as the main access to the priory's fields around the southern
edge of Isleham Fen. The northern half of the hollow way measures about 8m
across and 1m deep; gradually becoming wider and shallower towards the south,
where it terminates in a shallow slope, 18m wide, some 40m to the north west
of the chapel. This route aligns with the present course of Mill Street to the
south, and was probably linked by a track skirting the western end of the
chapel. The erosion of the hollow way reflects prolonged activity associated
with a series of barns and other agricultural buildings located to either
side, represented by a series of rectangular enclosures, or platforms. The
most southerly platform on the east side of the track measures about 25m
square and is raised by about 0.3m above the surrounding ground level. The
northern edge is defined by a low bank (0.5m high) which projects at a right
angle from the side of the hollow way. To the north of this bank a second
enclosure, measuring about 30m wide, extends for c.35m towards the edge of a
dry pond. A third platform is defined by a shallow ditch 20m to the north, and
there are slight traces of two further platforms, similarly divided, extending
into the north east corner of the field. There is a single platform to the
west, the southern edge of which is marked by a low bank extending at right
angles from the end of the hollow way. This measures about 55m north to south
and includes the whole width (40m) between the hollow way and the edge of the
field. In the southern part of this platform is a second oval pond, largely
infilled, which may have been used for watering stock. The northern edge of
the platform is raised about 0.3m counteracting the natural slope, and is
marked by a low bank and a shallow external ditch. The latter leads to a
breach in the western scarp of the hollow way. This boundary is broken by a
narrow gap in the centre of the bank and a corresponding causeway across the
ditch, providing access to the area to the north. This area, measuring about
160m by 90m, is not subdivided, and contains a series of three largely
infilled fishponds aligned across the centre, roughly parallel to the hollow
way. The southern pond is c.35m in length, 8m across and 0.4m deep. The
central pond is a similar depth, slightly wider and c.14m long, and the
smallest pond to the north measures 11m by 7m, being also the deepest at 0.9m.
The ponds are separated by intervals of approximately 8m, each with slight
traces of interconnecting channels. To the north of the ponds is an undulating
bank, 50m in length, orientated east to west parallel to the northern boundary
of the field. The bank, which is thought to be a pillow mound (or breeding
place for rabbits), has a rounded profile and varies between 0.4m and 0.7m in
height, and averaging 10m in width. The warren area would have comprised the
entire area to the north of the platform on the western side of the hollow
way, and a slight outward slope near the field boundaries to the north and
west indicates the position of the original hedges or fences used to control
the stock.

The priory is thought to have been founded around AD 1100, either by Count
Alan of Brittany, or one of his immediate successors. Count Alan was one of a
number of Breton lords who supported William the Conqueror, and by the time of
the Domesday Survey in 1086, he held several estates in Cambridgeshire,
including lands at Isleham, Linton and Swavesey. the priory is not mentioned
in Domesday Book, but was probably founded shortly after, when the Benedictine
monastery of St Jacut Sur Mer, near St Malo in Brittany was granted land in
both Isleham and Linton (30km to the south).

The two priories established at this time were confirmed in the possession of
St Jacut by Pope Alexander III in 1163. Neither is thought to have been
particularly large, and both were run directly from the mother house with a
few Breton monks assisting priors appointed by the abbot. Isleham, with its
range of agricultural buildings was probably organised primarily to manage
the gift of land. However it did not prosper or expand, and in 1254 the monks
were moved to the sister house at Linton. In 1280 the title to the property
was again confirmed to St Jacut, and in 1291 the taxation records of Pope
Nicholas IV record it as still held by the prior at Linton. The property is
therefore thought to have continued in use, probably operated by lay
brothers or tenants, although the elaboration of the chapel windows and doors
towards the end of the century indicates that some religious function was

In the 13th century the priory was involved in a number of disputes over local
tithes with the adjacent parish church, which was rebuilt during this period,
on the site of a pre-Conquest predecessor. In the 14th century the nature of
the disputes became more serious as Isleham, like many alien foundations,
suffered as a result of the growing conflict between England and France. At
the onset of the Hundred Years War in 1337 both Isleham and Linton were
confiscated by Edward III, but as Brittany was not allied to the French cause,
both properties were later returned. Nevertheless, renewed attempts were made
to replace the prior with an English monk throughout the 14th century, and in
1414 both properties were finally seized by the Crown under the Statute of
Leicester, to prevent the contribution of revenue to enemy territory. In 1440,
following a period of leasing, the Isleham property was granted to Pembroke
College, Cambridge, and either then or after the Reformation, the chapel was
converted into a barn. A map of Isleham dated 1807 depicts the walled
enclosure around the north of the chapel, and the area of the former
agricultural buildings further north is shown as pasture. The chapel and
enclosure were termed `Priory Homestead and yard' in the 1848 Tithe Award, and
the accompanying map shows an additional building attached to the north west
corner of the nave. Both this and a further structure (added to the north wall
of the enclosure in the latter part of the century) were demolished after the
chapel ceased to be used as a barn in 1914. In 1944 Pembroke College placed
the chapel in the guardianship of the Minstry of Works and it was subsequently

The electricity pole and water trough in the field to the north are both
excluded from the scheduling, together with all fences, fence posts and gates,
although the ground beneath all these items is included. The enclosure wall to
the north of the chapel is similarly excluded apart from the foundations which
are thought to retain evidence of an earlier boundary.

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.

Isleham priory is well documented from its foundation around AD 1100 to the
period of its demise in the early 15th century. As an alien house from its
foundation the site is of particular interest, reflecting the division of land
in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. The chapel is a notable example of
Norman church architecture which, whilst illustrating gradual changes through
the 13th and early 14th century, remains substantially unaltered. It is also
thought to retain sections of the original floor beneath the earth accumulated
during its period of use as a barn. Earthwork remains of the associated
agricultural complex survive in the pasture to the north of the building. The
combination of a surviving priory chapel and evidence for the economic basis
of the community is extremely rare, and the earthworks are well preserved. The
platforms will retain the buried remains of the agricultural buildings and
other features, and the silts within the ditches will contain artefactual
evidence related to the period of occupation. The economy of the site is also
illustrated by the warren and fishponds, both of which were designed to
provide a constant and renewable supply of food for the community, and to
create additional revenue for the priory.
The monument is accessible to the public.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
St. Andrew's Church, Isleham and the Priory Church of St. Margaret
Haigh, D, The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire, (1988), 45
Hivernel, F, Taylor, A, Reck, J, The Normans in Cambridgeshire, (1986)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire, (1977), 416
Radford, R, 'Archaeological Journal' in Isleham Priory Church, , Vol. LXXIV, (1967), 252-253
DoE information board in chapel, Radford, R (?), Priory Church, Isleham,
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
Title: A Plan of the Isleham Lordship in Cambridgeshire
Source Date: 1807
CRO 311/P1
Title: Isleham Tithe Map and Award
Source Date: 1848
CRO P98/27/1
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Edition
Source Date: 1900

Source: Historic England

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