University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Leicester Abbey

Leicester Abbey training excavation

Jul 2001 - Present

Photograph of Excavation at Leicester Abbey

Leicester Abbey training excavation

Photograph of an engraving of Cavendish House in 1841Since July 2001, ULAS have been supervising a training excavation in Abbey Grounds, Abbey Park, Leicester for second-year students of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, Leicester University. The Abbey Grounds lie to the west of the River Soar, and contain the excavated plan of Leicester Abbey, one of the wealthiest Augustinian houses in the country, together with the ruins of Cavendish House, a 16th - 17th century mansion. The fieldwork has concentrated on Cavendish House, although trenches were also examined within the Chapter house of the Abbey.

Cavendish House

Although most of the abbey buildings, including the church, were razed to the ground within a few years of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the main gatehouse, boundary walls and farm buildings survived. Under the ownership of the Hastings and Cavendish families in the 16th and 17th centuries, the gatehouse became a domestic residence and underwent many structural modifications. It was burnt down in 1645 during the English Civil War and in the 18th and 19th centuries, the ruined shell was once again re-used and rebuilt several times, as a farm.

Reconstruction drawing of Leicester Abbey, reproduced by kind permission of ©John FinneyOur current understanding of the structural sequence of the surviving fabric of Cavendish House is based on an examination of 18th and 19th-century prints, supplemented by a visual inspection of the interior and exterior of the building. The upstanding portion of the building is now known as Abbey House and was uninhabited at the time of the evaluation. Access to the building allowed time for analysis of its internal fabric and of its constructional phases.

Although the evaluative excavations within the area of Cavendish House were of a very limited nature, they have enabled the identification of a series of discrete phases of structural activity for which a relative chronology may be tentatively proposed.

The earliest structure encountered almost certainly relates to the medieval abbey gatehouse. This was probably originally of a simple form, comprising a central north-south carriageway some 2.5m (8.3ft) wide at its narrowest, flanked on either side by a range of rooms. Evidence for the walls of this structure came in the form of surviving masonry footings and robber trenches. The existence of a structure on the northern side of the building, possibly a porch, projected from the results of the 2000 season evaluation, was confirmed.

The 1538 survey of the abbey describes the gatehouse as ‘a square lodging on either side of the gatehouse in which are five chambers with chimneys and large glazed windows, the walls being of stone and covered with lead, and with four stone turrets at the corners of the same’. Evidence relating to the southern façade of the building, including the south-western corner tower, was uncovered during the evaluation. The remains of this tower suggest that it contained a spiral staircase to gain access to both the upper rooms, as well as to a cellar. Possible evidence for the north-eastern corner tower is visible on the existing northern façade of Cavendish House, whilst evidence for the north-west tower may be indicated by irregular stone foundations visible within the existing cellars of Abbey House. Engravings also show towers projecting from the southern façade of Cavendish House, flanking the carriageway entrance through the building, and the footings for both of these structures were also revealed. The excavated evidence would suggest that although the northern wall of the medieval gatehouse was probably incorporated into this phase of construction, the southern wall was entirely replaced.

Photograph of training excavations in progress at Cavendish houseBy the late 16th century, an east and west wing were added to the northern façade of the medieval gatehouse and evidence suggesting that both wings were cellared was also found.

In the early 17th century,the northern façade of the building, with its projecting medieval porch and later flanking wings, seems to have been flattened with the construction of a linking wall. The only evidence for this is from the surviving north wall itself, which respects the line of the foundations of the postulated medieval porch, being built directly against the northern edge of the earlier foundations. The eastern wing also appears to have been rebuilt at this time as a stair tower. The extant large double chimney breast to the west on the southern façade which appears on engravings, may also be of a similar date to this phase of rebuilding, perhaps serving a kitchen complex. Engravings show that the former gatehouse towers on the southern façade were retained in this later rebuild phase.

Claustral buildings

Two trenches were positioned within the eastern part of the Chapter House of the Abbey. The trenches were located in order to clarify the position of the Chapter House walls which had been reconstructed in the 1930s after excavation. This evidence had been uncovered again during the 2000 season of evaluation. One of the trenches revealed a large stone wall footing, not corresponding to any of the reconstructed walls. Two possible robber trenches were also recorded, one corresponding with that seen during the 2000 season. The second trench was excavated in an attempt to uncover the expected continuation of the stone footings, but they were not found. In both trenches it was evident that in places a 1m depth of re-deposited natural gravels existed over what is thought to have been undisturbed ground.

Photograph of floor tiles uncovered in the cloister walk of Leicester AbbeyA single trench was excavated on the eastern side of the reconstructed wall of the Chapter House, which suggested that the undisturbed natural ground lay directly below the topsoil on this side of the wall. The work within the Chapter House would suggest that the reconstructed walls appear to surround a structure with a reduced floor level. However, the layout of the reconstructed walls remains open to question with nothing of the original medieval evidence used to set them out having survived.

Download a pdf report of fieldwork in the Abbey kitchen here

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UPDATED: 9th October 2006
This document has been approved by the head of department or section.