Archaeology of Cirencester Abbey

Corinium Museum

The Augustine Abbey of St Mary, Cirencester was founded in 1117 and was demolished in the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

The Abbey Grounds
After the dissolution in 1539 the Abbey lands were passed back to the crown then eventually being sold to the physician of Elizabeth I Richard Master in 1564 who had a mansion house built on the site and although the house was re-built in the early 18th century the land stayed in the Chester-master family until 1964.

Abbey House before it was demolished in 1964.

The Abbey Today
The presence of the Abbey is well documented in written sources however its dissolution in 1539, removed all trace of the site of the Abbey Church and its attendant buildings. Those that were permitted to remain in the town were the Norman arch as it is known locally, and the Abbots lodgings next to the gate, St John’s Hospital, the baking, brewery and malting houses, stables and barns, dovecotes and anything that may be deemed use to future tenants.

Part of the arcaded nave of the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist survives in Spitalgate Lane. It dates to the reign of Henry II (1154 – 1189). The Hospital was founded by Henry I in 1133 for the destitute and sick. The Abbey acquired it in the 13th century. This was confirmed by the Pope in 1222 and the King in 1348.

Archaeological Excavations
The earliest archaeological work on the Site were carried out by W. St Clair Baddeley and Richard Reece in about 1930s. The limited excavations seem to have located the rear of the northern range of cloisters. No records from this work remain.  The excavation which took place from 1964 to 1965 only covers the main body of the Abbey which is those that were destroyed after the dissolution which were the church, chapter house, cloisters, refectory, dormitory, library, infirmary, kitchen and the quarters of Abbey Officers. In 1930 the first excavation took place to the North of Abbey House but no records survive. In 1959 trial excavation of the Abbey site. Beecham (1887), Fuller (1893) and Baddeley (1924) assumed the Abbey to be under Abbey House, 6 trial pits were dug in front of Abbey house before the balustrade but revealed nothing of note. One trench in front of the balustrade revealed a 2-foot wide ashlar wall running east to west with flooring either side.

In 1964 the Abbey House was torn down and the land given over to development which prompted the excavations. Excavations took place over 2 years and the site Directors were: 1964 Prof John Wacher; 1965 Dr Alan McWhirr; 1965 – 6 David Brown. Undertaken by Cirencester Excavation Committee on behalf of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works.

Stonework from the Abbey Excavations
Only a small proportion of stone had a recorded context as most stonework came from post-dissolution destruction deposits. Most of the stone was re-buried after excavation and only those pieces considered of architectural significance were kept and deposited at the Museum about 1000 pieces. Less than 10% of that has been studied. There is significant study that could be done to improve our understanding of the stone work.
Tiles from the Abbey Excavation
A large number of tiles were excavated from the site at least 651 separate tiles.

There are some good comparisons that can be made with tiles in other surviving medieval buildings in the south west. There were 3 floors that were discovered in situ.

Finds from the Abbey Excavation
The finds were found in disturbed contexts so could not reliably be used for dating. Objects found include coins, tokens, jewellery, buckles and belt fittings, dress accessories, thimbles, knives and daggers, religious items, book clasps, household items such as candlesticks, door knocker, plates, cutlery, shears and tools, horse equipment, and keys.
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Heather Dawson, Corinium Museum

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