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CHER Number:02781
Type of record:Monument
Name:Medieval abbey, Ramsey Abbey

Summary

The Benedictine Abbey of Ramsey was founded c. 969 AD. Of the medieval buildings nothing survives except a rectangular building of mid 13th century, incorporated in Abbey House and a portion of the Gatehouse. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 when most of the buildings were pulled down and the surviving building turned into a house. Abbey House is now a grammar School.

Grid Reference:TL 291 850
Parish:Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire

Monument Type(s):

Associated Events:

  • Geophysical survey at Ramsey Abbey, 1999 (Ref: AFU 170)
  • Evaluation at Ramsey Abbey School, 1996 (Ref: RAS AB 96)
  • Fenland Survey Project, 1976-1989

Protected Status:

Full description

1. Ramsey Abbey, house, gatehouse, walls and earthworks stand to the south of the parish church. Walls enclosing grounds on the north are probably 16th century incorporating re-used (including some 12th century) stones. Banks and ditches probably delimit precinct. For details of the house see MCB3476

2. The wooden chapel for three hermits built by Earl Ailwin the founder was soon replaced by a new wooden chapel and offices to accommodate the monks sent by Oswald. In 969 a stone church was begun which was cruciform in plan with a great tower at the crossing and a smaller tower at the west end. The church was dedicated to Our Lady, St Benedict and All Virgins in 974. Some ten years later a crack appeared in the central tower, caused by faulty work in both the foundations and the masonry. The tower was taken down and rebuilt, chiefly by the young monks. Earl Ailwin presented the new church with organs and a tabula set with sheets of silver plates and gems, to be placed before the high alter. The church was again dedicated in 991. The monastery appears to have been gradually rebuilt during the 12th century. Work began in 1116, and the monks were excluded from the church for seven years, re-entering in 1123. In 1143 the church was seized by Geoffry de Mandeville, who expelled the monks and fortified the church against King Stephen. A lot of damage was done to the church, which took a long time to repair but was probably completed around 1154, when the refectory and other offices, completing the cloister range, were also finished. In 1192 new shrines were provided for the bones of St Felix, St Ethelred and St Ethelbreth. A new refectory was begun by Abbot Hugh de Sulgrave (1254-67) but was not finished until 1276. In 1277 a water conduit to the abbey was constructed. A new cistern was erected in the abbey court, the abbots hall and south gate in the court were built and a monumental brass for the tomb of Earl Ailwin was provided at the same time. The Lady Chapel was built or rebuilt about the middle of the 13th century. Extensive rebuilding continued into the 14th century, with the new presbytery begun in 1330 and completed before 1342.

3. Ramsey Abbey (School) (NAT) on site of (NAT) St Mary's Abbey (NR) (Benedictine).

4. The Benedictine Abbey of Ramsey was founded in c 969 AD. Of the Medieval buildings nothing survives except a rectangular building of mid 13th century date incorporated in Abbey House (probably the former Lady Chapel), and a portion of the Gatehouse. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 when most of the buildings were pulled down and the surviving building converted into a house. Abbey House is now a Grammar School.

5. The abbey buildings were mostly demolished for their stone after the Dissolution, so little now survives. Part of the remains have been incorporated into the 16th century house. Within the basement are 6 vaulted bays of 13th century date which are possibly the remains of the Lady Chapel. If this is the correct interpretation then it is probable that this was one of the later additions to the monastic buildings which were mainly rebuilt in the 12th century. The Ramsey Chronicle states that the early wooden church of 974 had a cruciform plan with western and central towers. The central tower had to be rebuilt after it started to collapse and the church was finished in 991. A crypt for an adjacent nunnery was completed for Cnut, but the scheme was abandoned after Cnut realised the opposition of the monks who saw this as a return to the pre-reform ideas of a double monastery. The project was abandoned, leaving only the crypt in the monk's cemetery. No trace of this building or the Saxon church remains. Apart from the fragments of the monastic building contained within the present house, now a school, only two other substantial fragments survive; part of the gatehouse (MCB3477) and the present parish church.

6. Ramsey Abbey was founded in the 10th century by Bishop Oswald of Worcester and is perhaps the single most important site for knowledge of the 10th century monastic movement. The Abbey continued as a major religious house until the 16th century Dissolution. The gate house is scheduled and seems to have stood a short distance to the west of the west front of the church. Part of the north transept of the church remains incorporated in a boundary wall, and indicates a (perp) building on the largest scale. The site is largely unoccupied, but the 16th and 19th century house incorporates a detached 13th century chapel (possibly the infirmary?) to the south east. The site lies mainly under the Cromwell house with later additions now used as a school, and under the gardens which surround the house. Some of the buttresses of the 13th century Lady Chapel can be seen externally, with part of the arch of a doorway. Inside more buttresses are visible, and richly moulded arches, and a dado of black pointed trefoiled arcading. The north transept of the church which AM7 noted as remaining in part in the boundary wall were not evident, but a quantity of moulded stone is incorporated in the masonry. 3 of the mobile classrooms noted in the scheduling maplet have now been removed. A large portion of the boundary wall fronting onto Hollow Lane to E has collapsed, and weed is growing on the fallen masonry. A minor tree planting scheme has been carried out along the area of the north wall. The north west corner of the scheduled area lies under Abbey Green, a public open space, and to the east of this a small area is taken up by a part of the cemetery surrounding the church of St Thomas of Canterbury.

1983. The wall has been repaired.

7. This leaflet summarises the history of Ramsey Abbey concluding with the dissolution and the use of Ramsey Abbey stones to build other structures. A list of colleges at Cambridge that most likely contain stones from the Abbey is provided.

9. A section of rough mortared stone wall or foundation found during recording work in 1995, c.0.5m thick.

10. Late Saxon buildings on earth-fast post construction, possibly used for iron smelting, were recorded, followed by a 12th-14th century timber framed building with drains flowing east into a fish or eel pond. A short lived defensive ditch possible associated with the Anarchy period ran across the site. The site was then covered by post-medieval dumping and the footings for two walls. This evidence suggests that the excavation area lay within the monastic outer court.

13. Tradition has it that Ailwyn, foster brother of King Edgar, founded a hermitage on the site of the later monastery. St Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and patron of the monastic revival of that period, persuaded him to re-found what was probably a minster church of secular canons. He sent 12 monks and a prior from the Benedictine house at Westbury (near Worcester) to help establish the monastery in 969. A wooden chapel was soon built and in 974 the house was dedicated to Our Lady, St Benedict and All Holy Virgins. The monastery received a series of substantial grants of land by King Edgar, a noted supporter of Oswald, who also confirmed all the privileges in 975 and, probably, the limits of the banlieu. The banlieu, nominally the one league distance around the abbey, was the earliest privileged area. It was however the substantial endowment made at the death of Aethelstan Mannsonne that made the house one of the richest in the region. Aethelstan was probably related to Ailwyn and his son Eadnoth became the first Abbot of Ramsey in c. 1000. The abbey escaped the Danish incursions and flourished under the patronage of both Cnut and Edward the Confessor. Ramsey had an illustrious reputation for learning as early as the tenth century, when the great French scholar Abbo de Fleury instructed the monks there, and by the end of the fifteenth century it had accumulated a magnificent library.
The abbey experienced the transition to Norman rule without difficulty. The estates were reorganised soon after the Conquest with certain manors providing supplies to the cellarer whilst others, usually the more distant estates, provided money. In the eleventh century Ramsey bought a stone quarry from Peterborough Abbey and began to rebuild the monastic buildings.
In Stephen's reign the house suffered severely. The motte at Booth's Hill (SMR 01777) to the south of the abbey site has been traditionally associated with Geoffrey de Mandeville who took possession of the Abbey and quartered his soldiers there during 1140-1144, exploiting the estates to supply his army.
In the aftermath of the Civil War the monastery was badly damaged and impoverished partly due to Geoffrey of Mandeville. However, by the late thirteenth century the banlieu included the parishes of Ramsey, Bury, Upwood, most of Wistow and the northern part of Great Raveley. During this period and the following century the house witnessed a succession of wealthy abbots who embarked on a series of costly building programmes. Prosperity was brought to a temporary halt by the Black Death and, by the end of the fourteenth century, the house was financially decayed. The Abbey soon recovered and continued to thrive until its dissolution in 1539.
Due to the extent of destruction at the Dissolution, the present knowledge of the archaeology of the Abbey is very poor. The accurate location of the monastic buildings, including the cloisters, abbey church and inner/outer court boundaries are not known with certainty. Various theories persist, based upon the interpretation of the few surviving remains (below).
The abbey seems to have had a small area of gardens directly attached to the abbey where a midden containing sherds of thirteenth century pottery was identified (Hall, Site 17, SMR10886). This area is refereed to as ‘gardens’ in the estate maps of 1705-1733. A larger imparked area was probably located to the north of the abbey site where soilmark of a rampart were recorded to the south of the present Park Farm (Hall 1992, Site 3, SMR 12182). The dates of the park and garden are uncertain and there is some confusion in the sources (Way 1997). It is possible that they were created or at least re-landscaped after the Dissolution.
The full extent of the precinct is unknown, but the wall adjacent to the Gatehouse to the north is medieval in origin.

14. For details of the tile kilns discovered in 1967, see MCB16875. Various finds have been recovered from a field north of the surviving Abbey buildings. When surveyed in 1978 the ploughed field showed soilmarks and the remains of earthworks, which appear to have been refuse pits. The exact location of the abbey church is yet to be pinpointed. Geophysical surveying in 1999 indicated the wall lines of three masonry structures positioned to the east of the chapel. In addition, an area of enhanced resistance to the south of the chapel may have indicated a stone structure, whilst further surveying suggested structures to the north-west. For details of excavations carried out between 1998 and 2002, see MCB16055.

15. The boundary of the abbey precinct is marked by banks and ditches for most of its length. During the great storms of 1947 part of the wall separating the churchyard from the abbey grounds was blown down, disclosing the fact that is was of post-reformation date and constructed almost entirely of vaulting voussoirs, ribs and bosses of late 15th century date which must have come from the Abbey church. Three large carved bosses were dislodged and are now preserved in the gatehouse (MCB3477). As most of the abbey has been destroyed, it is only possible to form a conjectural plan of the monastery. The church was at least 350 feet long and cruciform in plan, with an aisled nave and choir separated by a transept and central tower.
16. Ramsey Abbey grew into one of the largest landowners of the Middle Ages. Traditionally it was founded about 969 by Aylwin, foster brother of King Edgar, with the help of St Oswald. The Abbey was rebuilt in the Middle Ages before it was almost entirely destroyed in the Dissolution.

17. As part of a Young Roots project, a geophysical survey and test pit excavation was carried out.
The gradiometer Survey was split into four areas, Areas 1 and 2 identified a series of linear and curvilinear anomalies. In areas 3 and 4, several possible rectangular wall footings were identified, small and large in size. These could be the former remains of the Abbey Church of Ramsey.
Ten 1m x1m test pits were excavated, located through the results of the geophysical survey. The majority of the features uncovered appeared to be Post-Medieval, with several walls/ditch cuts, correlating to anomalies on the survey results.
Although remains of the Abbey buildings were not identified through these investigations, the finds and features recovered do indicate some form of large building was located east of the Abbey House.


DeWindt, A. R. & DeWindt, E. B., 2006, Ramsey: The lives of an English Fenland town, 1200-1600 (Bibliographic reference). SCB21773.

<1> RCHM, 1926, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Huntingdonshire, 207 - 209 (Bibliographic reference). SCB12619.

<2> Page, W., Proby, G and Inskip Ladds, S., 1932, The Victoria County History of Huntingdonshire. Volume 2 (Bibliographic reference). SCB12071.

<3> 1958, OS 6 inch map (Map). SCB9007.

<4> Dickinson, P.G.M., 1967, St Ives Chapel; Ramsey church, Abbey and Gatehouse. Archaeol J 124: 214-58, 245 - 247 (Article in serial). SCB900.

<5> Haigh, D., 1988, The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire (Bibliographic reference). SCB6219.

<6> Patterson, H., unknown date, Verbal communication from H. Patterson regarding Ramsey Abbey (Verbal communication). SCB21718.

<7> Bevis, T., 1993, Ramsey the Golden: A glimpse of an illustrious fen monastery (Leaflet). SCB20176.

<8> Hart, C., 1994, The Foundation of Ramsey Abbey. Revue Benedictine Vol.104: 295-327 (Article in serial). SCB19895.

<9> Heawood, R., 1995, Archaeological Recording at Ramsey Abbey (Unpublished report). SCB17805.

<10> Macaulay, S., 1998, Ramsey Abbey School Archaeological Excavation 1998, Preliminary Site Summary (Unpublished report). SCB19334.

<11> Reynolds, T., 1999, Fieldwork in Cambridgeshire. PCAS 87: 101-6, p. 103 (Article in serial). SCB17807.

<12> Spoerry, P. and Cooper, S., 2000, Ramsey Abbey: An Archaeological Survey (Digital archive). SCB17808.

<13> Casa Hatton, R., 2002, The Historic Towns of Cambridgeshire: Ramsey (Unpublished document). SCB19730.

<14> Spoerry, P., Atkins, R., Macaulay, S. and Shepherd Popescu, E., 2008, Ramsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire: Excavations at the Site of a Fenland Monastery. Medieval Archaeology 52 (Article in serial). SCB21159.

<15> Dickinson, P. G. M., 1964, Ramsey Church and Abbey, Huntingdonshire (Bibliographic reference). SCB22018.

<16> Taylor, A., 1978, Anglo-Saxon Cambridgeshire, p.29 (Bibliographic reference). SCB1272.

<17> Oxford Archaeology East, 2012, Geophysical survey and Test pit excavation, Ramsey Abbey (Unpublished report). SCB23073.

<18> Hall, D.N., 1992, The Fenland Project, Number 6: The South-Western Cambridgeshire Fenlands, RAM S16 (Bibliographic reference). SCB16698.

Sources and further reading

---Bibliographic reference: DeWindt, A. R. & DeWindt, E. B.. 2006. Ramsey: The lives of an English Fenland town, 1200-1600.
<1>Bibliographic reference: RCHM. 1926. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Huntingdonshire. 207 - 209.
<2>Bibliographic reference: Page, W., Proby, G and Inskip Ladds, S.. 1932. The Victoria County History of Huntingdonshire. Volume 2.
<3>Map: 1958. OS 6 inch map.
<4>Article in serial: Dickinson, P.G.M.. 1967. St Ives Chapel; Ramsey church, Abbey and Gatehouse. Archaeol J 124: 214-58. 245 - 247.
<5>Bibliographic reference: Haigh, D.. 1988. The Religious Houses of Cambridgeshire.
<6>Verbal communication: Patterson, H.. unknown date. Verbal communication from H. Patterson regarding Ramsey Abbey.
<7>Leaflet: Bevis, T.. 1993. Ramsey the Golden: A glimpse of an illustrious fen monastery.
<8>Article in serial: Hart, C.. 1994. The Foundation of Ramsey Abbey. Revue Benedictine Vol.104: 295-327.
<9>Unpublished report: Heawood, R.. 1995. Archaeological Recording at Ramsey Abbey.
<10>Unpublished report: Macaulay, S.. 1998. Ramsey Abbey School Archaeological Excavation 1998, Preliminary Site Summary.
<11>Article in serial: Reynolds, T.. 1999. Fieldwork in Cambridgeshire. PCAS 87: 101-6. p. 103.
<12>Digital archive: Spoerry, P. and Cooper, S.. 2000. Ramsey Abbey: An Archaeological Survey.
<13>Unpublished document: Casa Hatton, R.. 2002. The Historic Towns of Cambridgeshire: Ramsey.
<14>Article in serial: Spoerry, P., Atkins, R., Macaulay, S. and Shepherd Popescu, E.. 2008. Ramsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire: Excavations at the Site of a Fenland Monastery. Medieval Archaeology 52.
<15>Bibliographic reference: Dickinson, P. G. M.. 1964. Ramsey Church and Abbey, Huntingdonshire.
<16>Bibliographic reference: Taylor, A.. 1978. Anglo-Saxon Cambridgeshire. p.29.
<17>Unpublished report: Oxford Archaeology East. 2012. Geophysical survey and Test pit excavation, Ramsey Abbey.
<18>Bibliographic reference: Hall, D.N.. 1992. The Fenland Project, Number 6: The South-Western Cambridgeshire Fenlands. RAM S16.

Related records

02780Related to: Bodsey House, Ramsey (Monument)
01777Related to: Booth's Hill, Ramsey Abbey (Monument)
11953Related to: Late Saxon and Medieval remains, Ramsey Abbey School (Monument)
MCB17093Related to: Monastic Grange and Hermitage at Higney, Wood Walton (Monument)
02781bRelated to: Post Medieval house and school, Ramsey Abbey (Building)
02782Related to: Ramsey Abbey Gatehouse (Building)
12329Related to: Ramsey Abbey park and gardens (Park and Garden)
02832Related to: Saint Thomas of Canterbury's (Saint Thomas a Becket's) Church, Ramsey (Building)

Reports

No image description available © Cambridgeshire County Council. Click to open in a new window (0.28 MB).

No image description available © Cambridgeshire County Council. Click to open in a new window (0.28 MB).