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The Benedictine Abbey of St John

A Scheduled Monument in New Town and Christ Church, Essex

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Latitude: 51.885 / 51°53'5"N

Longitude: 0.9019 / 0°54'6"E

OS Eastings: 599811.269786

OS Northings: 224694.434351

OS Grid: TL998246

Mapcode National: GBR SN5.T01

Mapcode Global: VHKFZ.LW5B

Entry Name: The Benedictine Abbey of St John

Scheduled Date: 22 January 1965

Last Amended: 31 January 1997

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1015015

English Heritage Legacy ID: 26307

County: Essex

Electoral Ward/Division: New Town and Christ Church

Built-Up Area: Colchester

Traditional County: Essex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Essex

Church of England Parish: Colchester St Botolph with Holy Trinity (LEP)

Church of England Diocese: Chelmsford


The monument includes the buried and visible remains of the Benedictine Abbey
of St John which is located on the southern outskirts of Colchester town
centre, largely within the grounds of the Garrison Officers' Club. Also
included in the scheduling are the buried remains of a small pre-Conquest
church which preceded the foundation of the monastery, and part of one of the
extensive extra-mural cemeteries associated with the Roman town and later
subsumed within the area of the monastic precinct. In addition, the monument
includes the buried remains of a 17th century house established after the
Dissolution of the abbey and the remains of its associated formal gardens,
some of whose terraces are still visible within the Club grounds.
The Roman cemetery was discovered in 1972 prior to the construction of the
St Botolph's Circus. The excavation uncovered 34 inhumations on the south west
side of the present roundabout (in the north eastern corner of the later
precinct) which were dated from coin evidence, pottery and other grave goods
to the period around AD 270. Although these burials were removed, the cemetery
to which they belong is thought to extend further south within the area of the
former monastic precinct.
Documentary sources indicate that a parish church, founded by a priest named
Sigeric, stood on the hillside to the south of the town prior to the Norman
Conquest. A small structure was partly uncovered during the 1972 excavations
in the area. This area has since been landscaped to form the steep verge on
the south side of St Botolph's Circus. The building, which had rubble
foundations and reused Roman masonry incorporated in the lower course of the
walls, is considered to be Sigeric's Church of St John the Evangelist. The
excavations revealed a narrow structure, around 6m wide, orientated east to
west and divided into three cells, the eastern cell, or chancel, having an
apsidal east wall. The southern edge of the building and the greater part of
the western cell were not excavated. These remain preserved toward the top of
the verge, and are included in the scheduling.

The Benedictine Abbey of St John was founded by Eudo de Rie, Dapifer (or
steward) of William the Conqueror, in August 1095. The extent of the abbey is
recorded on historic maps, particularly on John Speed's map of Colchester in
1610, and can still be traced on the ground. The precinct covered a roughly
rectangular area of the hillside overlooking the medieval town, measuring
approximately 240m east to west and 300m north to south, and now bounded by
St John's Green to the north, Napier Road to the south and Mersea Road and
Flagstaff Road to the east and west. The south western quarter of the precinct
is overlain by a 20th century building complex belonging to the Defence
Clothing Textile Authority (DCTA), and is not included in the scheduling.
Elsewhere, the majority of the precinct is largely undeveloped and will
contain buried foundations of the abbey buildings and other related features.
The east wall of the abbey precinct still stands alongside Mersea Road,
heavily buttressed towards the northern end in order to support a drop in
ground level of up to 4m from the interior. The medieval construction in
flint, Kentish ragstone and reused Roman brick, is still visible in places
despite extensive refacing work in 16th century brick and numerous later
repairs. It is included in the scheduling together with an adjoining length of
the southern precinct wall which remains upstanding for approximately 65m,
running broadly parallel to, and 50m to the north of Napier Road.
Sections of the precinct wall also survive within the modern boundary wall on
the western side of the monument, between the Flagstaff Road entrance to the
DCTA and the outbuildings on the south side of Abbey House, and are included
in the scheduling. A short section, containing fragments of decorative masonry
from the abbey buildings (and therefore clearly repaired after the
Dissolution) extends northwards for around 10m from the DCTA guardhouse. This
is separated by a short length of modern replacement wall (not included in the
scheduling) from a further length of the original structure which continues
for around 22m towards the Abbey House outbuildings. This northern segment
retains medieval work at the core, but displays considerable alteration from
the late 16th and 17th centuries when it was utilised as the external wall of
a building. The blocked windows and doors of this period remain clearly
visible. To the north, the precinct wall ran along the south side of what is
now Southway, and to the east and south of St John's Green. A small section of
the medieval wall extends for around 15m to the west of the abbey gatehouse
and is included in the scheduling, although its continuation (towards Abbey
House) is a 19th century brick replacement which is not included in the
scheduling. A further section survives as the lower part of the west wall of
No.19 St John's Green, forming part of this house and therefore not included
in the scheduling. The excavation in 1972 investigated a 140m section of
monastic wall at the north eastern corner of the precinct which has since been
removed by the construction of St Botolph's Circus. As elsewhere around the
circuit, this wall appeared to be 16th century in date though the excavation
demonstrated that later refacing had obscured the original 12th century
The 15th century gatehouse, situated towards the centre of the northern
precinct boundary and now the principal entrance to the Officer's Club, is the
is the only abbey building to remain standing. It is Listed Grade I, preserved
as a displayed monument in the care of the Secretary of State, and included in
the scheduling. The building, of two stories and corner turrets, is built in
stone with panels of flint flushwork. The lower part of the structure is
substantially original, retaining the elaborate lierne vaulting above the
carriageway and pedestrian access which run between four-centred arches to
north and south. The upper chamber, northern facade and turrets were heavily
restored in the mid 19th century, and are believed to be faithful copies of
the original work.
To the east of the gate is the now roofless, two storied porter's lodging,
which is accessible via a square headed doorway in the eastern wall of the
carriageway. Traces of a spiral staircase to the upper floor are visible in
the north east corner, although the floor itself is only evident from the
series of joist holes in the walls. A doorway in a recess on the western side
of the entranceway originally provided access to a second building, now
demolished. The foundations will be preserved beneath the garden of the
Officers' Mess.
Speed's map of 1610 shows the location of the abbey church to the south of the
gatehouse, and the lines of some of the buried foundations of the church and
claustral range were recorded as grass parch marks here in 1958. The only
detailed depiction of the church is a southern elevation in Morant's History
of Essex 1748, which may not be strictly accurate. This drawing shows a
massive cruciform church with a large tower over the crossing surmounted by a
parapet and a smaller central turret. It also shows a chapel next to the
chancel and a round tower at the west end of the nave.
The cloister was originally located on the northern side of the church but,
following a fire in 1133 which destroyed a large part of southern Colchester
as well as part of St John's, it was moved to the southern side. However, some
sources suggest that the move happened earlier, and was intended to distance
the monks from the noise of the town.
Benedictine abbeys were invariably built to a standard plan and it is
therefore possible to reconstruct the probable layout of the abbey after the
fire. To the south of the church, the range along the eastern side of the
cloister would have contained the chapter house, dorter (dormitory) and
reredorter (latrines). The south range would have contained the frater
(refectory) and kitchens, and the cellarer's range would have stood to the
west. The abbot's house will have been located elsewhere in the precinct,
probably to the west of the claustral buildings. The abbey would also have
contained an infirmary, guest house and a variety of other domestic buildings,
stabling and barns.
The monks' cemetery would have been located near the eastern end of the abbey
church. Part of the 12th century parochial cemetery was revealed during the
1972 excavations. This had been established on raised ground overlying the
area of the pre-Conquest church, the soil containing fragments of burnt
masonry suggesting that the landscaping took place after the fire in 1133. A
total of 15 lined graves and 18 shallow unlined graves were found cut into
this surface, and it was evident that the graveyard continued to the south and
probably to the west around the Parish Church of St Giles which was
constructed in the northern part of the precinct between 1133 and 1171. The
church still stands, having recently been converted into a masonic centre. It
is Listed Grade II and is not included in the scheduling. The construction of
the surrounding car park in 1973 completely removed any archaeological
deposits in the immediate vicinity of the church. This area is not included in
the scheduling.
The abbey was dissolved in 1539 and passed into the hands of Sir Thomas Darcy
in 1544. In 1547 the site was under the control of John Dudley, Earl of
Warwick and was then bought by John Lucas in 1548, who converted some of the
abbey buildings, probably the abbot's house, into a residence which remained
the family seat until the mid 17th century. During this period the precinct
wall was repaired, using stone from the abbey buildings which, with the
exception of the church, were gradually demolished. The broad terraces which
survive across the eastern part of the former precinct are thought to
represent a formal garden associated with the Lucas' house. The terraces,
utilised by tennis courts in the latter part of this century, descend from a
level area in the south east corner of the precinct, forming part of a
symmetrical pattern bisected by a narrower terraced walkway extending across
the centre of the slope from east to west. The principal buildings of the
post-Dissolution house are thought to have been located towards the western
side of the precinct, where ranges are shown on both Speed's 1610 map and
Chapman and Andre's town plan of 1777. The terraced walkway would therefore
have originally led from the house providing the main axis of the garden in a
manner characteristic of the period. Traces of the pattern of terraces can
still be seen in the areas of lawn surrounding the northern perimeter of the
DCTA complex, clearly demonstrating that the garden earthworks formerly
spanned the full width of the precinct.
A large oval mound known as `The Mount' stands at the highest point within the
precinct, adjacent to the surviving section of the southern precinct wall. It
appears on maps from the late 18th century and is interpreted as a prospect
mound, a frequent feature of post-medieval garden design, from which the house
and gardens could be viewed and appreciated.

The house served as a Royalist stronghold during the siege of Colchester in
1648, suffering considerable damage as a result. The remaining abbey buildings
(with the exception of the gatehouse), appear to have been demolished after
the site was used to house Dutch prisoners in the 1660s and, there are no
references to occupation after the mid 18th century. The abbey grounds passed
to various owners prior to being acquired by the War Office in 1860.

With the exception of the abbey gatehouse, all buildings are excluded from the
scheduling; also excluded are all modern surfaces, all fences and walls (with
the exception of the surviving sections of the precinct wall), and all modern
features such as lamp posts, benches and the fixtures of the tennis courts;
the ground beneath all the above items is, however, 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.
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.

The Monastery of St John was founded by one of William the Conqueror's most
powerful subjects and, from its inception, it controlled interests in the
locality which made a major contribution to the development of the medieval
The standing remains of the abbey are now limited to sections of the precinct
wall and the abbey gatehouse, itself a fine example of 15th century
architecture and accessible to the public. However, the largely undisturbed
nature of the greater part of the precinct ensures that buried evidence from
many phases of occupation will survive, often accumulated to considerable
depths. In addition to structural remains, this evidence will include
artefacts (valuable as a means of establishing dates and as an indication of
the lifestyle of the inhabitants), further skeletal material (indicating
aspects of health, life expectancy and the treatment of illness and disease)
and environmental evidence related to horticulture within the precinct and the
diet of the community.
Documentary evidence allows further insights into the development of the
monastery, and the economic and social role which it held in relation to the
town. The social role, in particular, has already been studied by part
excavation of the parochial cemetery adjacent to St Giles' Church and the
survival of the church itself (not included in the scheduling) adds
significantly to our understanding of the relationship between the monastery
and the parish within which it was set.
The excavated evidence and surviving remains of the pre-Conquest church are
especially important. Such buildings are rare. The discovery of this example
within the later precinct clearly demonstrates a continuity of religious
occupation, and the continued use of the church site as a parochial cemetery
in the 12th century is of particular interest.
Part excavation of the Roman cemetery, which underlies the northern part of
the precinct, has provided important information concerning the occupation of
Roman Colchester - the earliest Roman town in England. Further burials remain
preserved within the precinct which, by comparison with other cemeteries
surrounding the town (in particular the extensive cemetery excavated at Butt's
Road) will enable detailed study of the dynamics of the Romano-British
The development of the abbey site in the period after the Dissolution, and
particularly the construction of a formal garden within the precinct, is
considered highly significant. Formal gardens were intended to express wealth
and refinement and to provide appropriate settings for high status residences.
In the late 16th and 17th centuries, these tended to comprise regular or
symmetrical patterns of flower beds, paths terraces and lawns which would
create vistas related to the main building.
A significant part of the garden layout related to the post-Dissolution reuse
of St John's Abbey has survived in the form of visible earthworks, from which
the wider arrangement of the garden can be inferred. Two features of
particular interest are the prospect mound, located at the highest point
within the garden, and the axial walkway, which is considered to indicate the
position of the post-Dissolution house. The remains of the house itself,
perhaps incorporating the former abbot's lodgings and other components of the
former monastery, are thought to survive as buried features within the western
part of the monument.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1984), 303-4
The Victoria History of the County of Essex, (1984), 303-4
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 24-32
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-35
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-235
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 40-46
Crummy, P, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester, (1981), 24-32
Crummy, P, Excavations of Roman and Later Sites in Colchester, 1971-88, (1993), 203-235
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Essex, (1954), 137
Conversation with Club Secretery, Gosling, L, (1996)
Source Date: 1610
Copies held at Colchester Library
Source Date: 1777
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester
Source Date: 1610
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester
Source Date: 1610
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester
Source Date: 1777
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Colchester
Source Date: 1777
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Map of Essex
Source Date: 1777
Copies held at Colchester Library
Title: Ordnance Survey 25"
Source Date: 1870

Source: Historic England

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