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Anglo-Saxon occupation site and site of Athelney Abbey on Athelney Hill

A Scheduled Monument in Lyng, Somerset

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.0588 / 51°3'31"N

Longitude: -2.9386 / 2°56'19"W

OS Eastings: 334314.299436

OS Northings: 129253.102599

OS Grid: ST343292

Mapcode National: GBR M8.FFBY

Mapcode Global: FRA 46QB.4Z4

Entry Name: Anglo-Saxon occupation site and site of Athelney Abbey on Athelney Hill

Scheduled Date: 22 October 1968

Last Amended: 5 January 2001

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1019099

English Heritage Legacy ID: 33710

County: Somerset

Civil Parish: Lyng

Traditional County: Somerset

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Somerset

Details

The monument includes the remains of Athelney Abbey and the remains of
features associated with Anglo-Saxon occupation. The site occupies Athelney
Hill, a natural island raised above the surrounding lower lying ground of the
Somerset Levels and moors. The island, known as the Isle of Athelney, is
formed by a long low hill aligned from east to west with two summits separated
by a lower saddle of land. It lies just to the east of the Anglo-Saxon burh of
Lyng to which it was connected by a causeway, the course of which appears to
have been overlain by the medieval Balt Moor Wall. Both the burh and part of
the Balt Moor Wall are the subject of separate schedulings.
The Anglo-Saxon occupation site and Athelney Abbey both survive as buried
features and the evidence for their remains comes from a wide range of sources
including contemporary historical documents, geophysical survey and from
limited excavation.
It is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 878 King Alfred had a
stronghold constructed on the Isle of Athelney, traditionally believed to be
sited on the western summit which would have been protected by the
surrounding, but now drained, marshland. Geophysical survey undertaken in 1993
has demonstrated occupation in this area in the form of ditches which appear
to have been filled, at least in part, by ferrous material. Field walking of
a metal working area identified in the survey produced iron slag which is
considered to be of Saxon date. The earliest known reference to the monastic
site comes from a contemporary document in which it is mentioned that Alfred
founded a monastery around the year AD 879, or a little later, on the eastern
summit of the Isle of Athelney. More details of the monastery were recorded in
the 12th century by William of Malmesbury who described the church as a unique
structure being centrally planned with four apses. Further references to the
monastic site appear in the 14th and 15th centuries where details of its
disrepair and subsequent rebuilding have been described. From these references
it can be demonstrated that the monastery remained in ecclesiastical use until
its dissolution in 1539.
Antiquarian excavations of the site on or close to the summit of the hill have
recorded the remains of graves and revealed the foundations of the church, a
medieval chapel (possibly the oratory which is specifically mentioned in a
document of 1462), and a vault containing human remains. Pillar bases, masonry
fragments (some painted), and fragments of window tracery have also been
recorded. The 1993 geophysical survey confirmed the location of the medieval
church and also detected the presence of other ancillary buildings indicating
that the post-Conquest remains extend further to the south east than had
previously been known.
Following the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, the buildings had become
derelict by 1633 and totally demolished by the 1670s, the stone probably being
used in the construction of nearby Athelney Farm at this time.
Also included in the monument, located on the east summit in the area of the
monastic site is the Alfred Monument, which is a Listed Building Grade II, an
inscribed obelisk set on a plinth and erected in 1801 to commemorate the site
of the monastery founded by King Alfred. Two medieval floor layers were
revealed during restoration work on the obelisk in 1985, one of which was
tiled.
All fencing, gates, gateposts and water troughs together with the wall which
encloses the Alfred Monument are excluded from the scheduling although the
ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT
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 Anglo-Saxon occupation site and site of Athelney Abbey, which encompass
the twin summits of Athelney Hill, are known to contain below ground
archaeological remains on the eastern summit which relate to the post-Conquest
monastery, which traditionally occupied a position directly above the site of
the Benedictine monastic foundation established by King Alfred, and further
below ground remains relating to the Saxon occupation of the western summit on
the site of the suspected Alfredian fort.
The archaeological evidence will provide information about the lives of both
the secular and monastic inhabitants of Athelney Hill and the tasks upon which
they were engaged. In addition, important contemporary documentary sources
such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles provide historical references which
underpin the significance of Athelney as a place of refuge for King Alfred in
his struggle against the Danes (the name Athelney means island of princes) at
an important time in the early history of England. The monument will also
provide information on the development of the monastic occupation of the abbey
site and its architectural development from its acknowledged pre-Conquest
origins until the time of the Dissolution.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
The Victoria History of the County of Somerset - Lyng, (1911), 99-103
Clapham, A, Engliah Romanesque Architecture147-8
Keyes, S, Lapidge, M, Asser's life of King Alfred, (1983)
Gater, J A, 'Proceedings of Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society' in Somerset Archaeology, (1993), 142-3
Gater, J A, 'Proceedings of Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society' in Somerset Archaeology, (1993), 142-3
Other
10540, (1988)

Source: Historic England

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