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Thorney Abbey, Cambridgeshire – a Rare View of Medieval Life in the Fens

Glass fragments showing part of a heraldic motif depicting a lion.

Thorney Abbey, Cambridgeshire – a Rare View of Medieval Life in the Fens

In 2001 University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) established from a trial trench that well-preserved medieval remains existed in a plot of land in the fenland village of Thorney, near Peterborough.

Subsequent finds proved surprising and can throw new light on life at Thorney in the Middle Ages. Below John Thomas outlines the significance of the Thorney Abbey finds.

The first significant archaeological excavation in the village of Thorney, Cambridgeshire has revealed a sequence of occupation deposits stretching back some 600 years, related to the former Benedictine abbey that existed nearby.

Analysis of the findings of the excavation has recently been completed, revealing important information about life on the fen edge in the Middle Ages, and providing a rare insight into the impact of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Thorney Abbey was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries in 1539 and over successive years many of its buildings were demolished and the stone removed for re-use elsewhere. As a consequence, comparatively little is known of the former abbey’s layout and organisation and little archaeological work has taken place in the village.

In the Middle Ages Thorney was surrounded by fen wetland and the excavation site was located near the northern edge of the former island, slightly to the north of the suspected location of the main abbey precinct. The long sequence of archaeological deposits revealed during the excavation suggest the changing character of fen-edge life on the island of Thorney from the 11th century onwards.

The earliest evidence of occupation on the site was from the late Saxon period (11th century), corresponding with the time of the abbey’s foundation. Several ditches were revealed in association with pits and some structural evidence indicating habitation on the site at his time. It is possible that the ditches represented the remains of property boundaries or perhaps, early attempts at fen drainage. A large assemblage of 11th century Thetford ware pottery from one of the ditches provided dating evidence for the features and an unusual pair of bone ice-skates was also recovered.

In the late 12th/early 13th century the focus of settlement shifted away from the fen edge. During this time a thick layer of dark soil formed over the site which had been the scene of frequent dumps of pottery, roofing tile and animal bone; domestic refuse from nearby habitation. Environmental evidence recovered from the layer indicated open and seasonally wet conditions suggesting the settlement shift was a result of fen encroachment on the island’s edge.

The site was re-occupied in the 13th/14th century when clay layers were deliberately laid onto the soft fen soils to provide firm footing for a sequence of timber structures, only partially revealed on the southern edge of the site. More substantial buildings were represented from the early 16th century when habitation on the site expanded further, and two structures, arranged at right angles, were built. The function of the buildings is unclear, however their location on the edge of the abbey complex suggests they were once part of the abbey court and as such could have had a range of uses such as guest houses, stables or craft workshops.

Many artefacts, including pottery, roofing material and animal bone, were recovered from in and around the buildings during the excavation. However the discovery of a large deposit of 13th and 14th century painted glass was unusual and highly significant. The intricate designs on the glass fragments were of very high quality suggesting that they had once belonged to a building of some status. Elaborate border fragments included foliate and canopy designs and several pieces had figural designs. In particular several pieces joined to show part of a heraldic motif depicting a lion passant. In association with the glass deposits large amounts of broken window lead and other lead waste littered the area, as well as ashy spreads and patches of scorching.

In all, the evidence pointed to the systematic destruction of windows in order to remove and recycle lead. An intriguing feature on the southern edge of the site supported this theory. Here, a large architectural fragment, possibly a pillar base, had been re-used for lead working. The feature was made of a large octagonal limestone block into which a bowl had subsequently been carved. Burning in the bowl and on the upper levels of the block, as well as large amounts of lead waste in the immediate vicinity, provided evidence for its re-use and complemented the surrounding evidence for lead recycling.

Late 16th century structural evidence on the site has also shed light on some of the earliest secular occupation on the island following the dissolution of the abbey. Substantial footings existed for what appears to have been a small hall-type building with a central hearth, which had been built against one of the earlier medieval buildings. Interestingly this provides a good indication of the level of destruction suffered by the abbey during the dissolution and suggests that wholesale demolition did not take place until some time after the abbey was dissolved.

A combination of the finds assemblages recovered during the work, and documentary research has enabled a picture of life at medieval Thorney to be drawn for the first time. The changes in the occupation of the area over time suggest that, despite the apparently peripheral location of the site in relation to the main abbey complex, life was rarely static on the island’s northern edge.

Documentary and cartographic work has also helped to understand the fenland context of Thorney Abbey, revealing the wider interaction between the island and the various farms, chapels and settlements in Thorney Fen. The range of pottery from the excavation has also shown that although somewhat isolated geographically, Thorney was well established within a broad network of trade and exchange with examples from production centres as far away as Scarborough, Kent and the Surrey/Hampshire border, as well as imported Saintonge ware from France.

The quality and complexity of the archaeology on the site came as a surprise, and the results of the work are of both local and regional significance. The information recovered has provided the first detailed picture of life on the Island of Thorney in the Middle Ages and will be a valuable reference point for future planning decisions in the vicinity.

ULAS are grateful to the developers, Highview Homes, and to English Heritage who provided funding to conserve the glass and undertake full analysis of the site.


John Thomas, Project Officer, ULAS, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH,, 0116 2525038, Fax 0116 2522614

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