Ancient Monuments

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Bilsington Priory

A Scheduled Monument in Bilsington, Kent

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Latitude: 51.083 / 51°4'58"N

Longitude: 0.9155 / 0°54'55"E

OS Eastings: 604298.746764

OS Northings: 135564.364415

OS Grid: TR042355

Mapcode National: GBR SZ1.48Y

Mapcode Global: FRA D6T8.6HC

Entry Name: Bilsington Priory

Scheduled Date: 4 February 1999

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1018877

English Heritage Legacy ID: 31406

County: Kent

Civil Parish: Bilsington

Traditional County: Kent

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Kent


The monument includes an Augustinian monastery and an earlier medieval
manorial residence situated on a clay hill which overlooks Romney Marsh to the
south. The monastery and moated site survive in the form of standing
buildings, water-filled fishponds, earthworks and associated below ground
remains. Dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and St Nicholas, the monastery was
founded in 1253 by Sir John Mansell, Lord Chief Justice of England and Lord
Warden of the Cinque Ports. Mansell had the monastic buildings constructed at
the manorial centre of Upper Bilsington, endowing the monastery with the
surrounding demesne lands. The roughly square, north east-south west aligned
moat which lies within the southern part of the monument is believed to
represent the pre-existing, moated medieval manor house. The north eastern arm
of the moat has become infilled, but will survive as a below ground feature.
The central part of the moated island is now occupied by The Priory, a large
private residence built in 1906. The construction of the modern house, along
with associated garden landscaping, has partly disturbed this area of the
monument. The Priory is excluded from the scheduling although the ground
beneath is included. Below ground traces of the manorial centre and later
monastery can be expected to survive on the moated island in the areas beneath
and around the modern house.
Situated towards the eastern edge of the monument, the main monastic buildings
were arranged around a square, north west-south east aligned cloister yard.
The standing, `L'-shaped ranges are mainly constructed of originally plastered
ragstone rubble, decorated with ashlar dressings and topped by clay-tiled
roofs. Internally, there has been some reconstruction in red brick. The
buildings are thought to represent the southern, refectory range, with the
abbot's and guest lodgings attached to its south eastern corner. The main,
north west-south east aligned refectory range is two-storeyed, housing a first
floor hall above a plain undercroft, used originally for storage. The main
entrance is approached through a timbered porch attached to the north western
gable end. The range has a restored roof supported by three crown post
trusses. The abbot's and guest lodgings incorporate a three-storeyed, square
tower with a hipped roof, and a cross-wing projecting to the south west. The
buildings are linked by a three-storeyed staircase turret at their north
eastern angle. Historical records indicate that the monastic buildings were
constructed in the years between 1253-58, with some later additions. Many
original medieval features survive, although subsequent work, in particular
the major restoration of 1906, which involved the almost complete rebuilding
and heightening of the cross wing, have altered the form and appearance of the
buildings. In situ medieval features include the original doorway through the
north western gable end of the refectory range, corner buttresses supporting
the refectory and the tower, blocked doorways in the northern refectory wall,
some original windows and a fireplace in the tower chamber. The standing
buildings including The Priory are Listed Grade I.
Investigations carried out in 1952 indicated that the other main claustral
buildings, including the monastic church, survive as below ground
archaeological features in an area of hummocky ground to the north east of the
standing ranges. Buried traces of the gatehouse, providing the original access
into the monastic precinct and subsequently incorporated into now demolished
farm buildings, will survive in the north eastern corner of the monument.
Further associated below ground remains, including any subsidiary cloisters
and the monastic burial ground, can be expected to survive within the areas
surrounding the main cloister.
Two large, irregular fishponds, constructed in the northern part of the
monument, and a third smaller pond which reuses the north eastern part of the
moat, helped to supply the monastery with fresh fish.
Bilsington Priory was dissolved in 1536, and ownership passed for a time to
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of the monastery was demolished
and the surviving buildings reused as a farmhouse throughout the post-medieval
period. During the early 19th century, local smugglers known as the Aldington
Gang used the monastic buildings for the storage of contraband. The buildings
fell gradually into decay before the major restoration of 1906. The grounds
were used for army training during World War II, which will have caused some
disturbance to the monument.
A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are The Priory
(the private dwelling built in 1906), the early 20th century road bridge over
the moat, the modern footbridge giving access onto the north eastern fishpond
island, all modern outbuildings, garden structures and features, all modern
fences and gates, and the modern surfaces of all roads, tracks, paths, paving
and hardstanding; the ground beneath all these features 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. 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.

The Augustinian monastery at Bilsington survives well, despite some subsequent
disturbance, in close association with an earlier medieval moated manor house,
and retains high quality standing buildings and water-filled fishponds. Part
excavation has confirmed that the monument also contains important
archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the original form, use
and development of the monastery and manorial centre.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Kent - List of homestead moats in Kent, (1908), 425
Igglesden, C, A Saunter Through Kent, (1906), 65-75
Igglesden, C, A Saunter Through Kent, (1906), 67-75
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 138
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: West Kent and the Weald, (1969), 165-166
'Archaeologia Cantiana' in Bilsington Priory, , Vol. 27, (1905), xlviii

Source: Historic England

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