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Thursday, April 15, 2010
Flooding has long been a risk on the Suffolk coast – and Leiston Abbey had to move inland to escape the encroaching sea.
This shoreline is known as the Suffolk Heritage Coast. To the north is Dunwich, the medieval port where most of the town has disappeared into the sea. To the south is picturesque Aldborough and just three miles away is the RSPB site at Minsmere, home to the many wild birds which thrive in the watery terrain. Which is appropriate, as Minsmere was the abbeys first home until constant inundation meant it had to be moved lock, stock and barrel to Leiston. The abbey has been at the centre of a number of legends, from buried treasure to sacred thorns and secret tunnels.
Local lawyer Ranulf de Glanville was Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II when he built the abbey. Dedicated to St Mary, it was given the manor of Leiston along with several churches. But its position near the coast proved precarious, so 200 years after its creation it was moved inland. In 1363 the abbey was transferred to Leiston. Its patron, Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk, devoted his final years to the project. Large amounts of stone were taken down and moved from Minsmere to build the new abbey church. A strict order known as the Premonstratensians moved in. Founded in northern France by St Norbert of Premontre in 1119, they usually chose remote areas for their habitations so the Suffolk coast fitted the bill. In their distinctive black and white robes, they were all ordained priests, unlike the usual monkish brethren.
Enough remains of the buildings to reconstruct life at Leiston. As well as the church, built in the traditional cross shape, there were two chapels including a Lady Chapel (devoted to the Virgin Mary). The prior would have his own apartments, usually fairly extensive for welcoming visitors and administrative purposes. At the centre of abbey life were the cloisters, then roofed, and the business part of the complex chapter house for meetings, refectory for communal meals and dormitories. The 1537 inventory shows the monks slept on old mattresses or feather beds. By that time the tapestries and hangings were regarded as shabby and the carpets poor but these were still a luxury compared with the conditions of country folk. The abbey was selfsufficient; it owned cattle, sheep and horses and corn in the fields, as well as the usual bakery and brewery that all monasteries had. Income was provided by rents; the taxation roll of 1291 gave the annual value of the priory as 130 15s. 7d.
Leiston seems to have been a fairly tranquil spot. Probably as a result of being part of a strict order it had plenty of inspections to keep things shipshape. In 1388, Richard II granted to the abbey a charter, allowing it to elect its own abbot, without asking permission of the king or its patrons, the dukes of Suffolk. The stern Bishop Redman was a particularly painstaking inspector, recording his visitations in detail; in 1478 he was well pleased with Abbot Richard Dunmow and his 14 brethren, and he was back four years later to give them a clean bill of health. Six years later, apart from dishing out a days punishment on Robert Colvyll and three others for breaking silence, dealing with an apostate or two and some complaints about the tonsures, all was well. Not that it saved the abbey from Henry VIII... The king and his ruthless commissioners left no stone unturned as they appropriated the monasteries in the 1530s. As one of the smaller houses in the country, Leiston was among the first wave surrendered to the king, then gifted to the dukes of Suffolk. George Carleton, the last abbot, received a pension of 20, but his fellow canons were turned out penniless as only superiors qualified for a pension. The commissioners inventory showed there were silver and copper candlesticks and an altar of carved alabaster, yet they could only find property to the value of 40, including the cattle, despite annual income of 181. Was somebody lying to them? If so, where did the money go? A persistent legend has it the treasure is buried somewhere in the grounds...
A familiar tale. The buildings stripped and abandoned, the abbey became a farm, a farmhouse built into the ruins. A later Georgian front was added, extended early in the last century. In 1928 the abbey ruins and farm were bought by Ellen Wrightson and used as a religious retreat. On her death in 1946, she bequeathed the whole to the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. In 1977 the Pro Corda Trust, the National School for Young Chamber Music Players, a charity running chamber music courses for children, bought Leiston Abbey. The ruins are in the care of English Heritage.
Local historian AJ Forrest, writing in the early 1960s, wrote of a holy thorn that flowered on Christmas Day being near the ruins. It was said to be one of the many offshoots taken from Joseph of Arimatheas staff. This biblical character who gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus is also associated with early Christianity in Britain, Arthurian myth and the Holy Grail; his staff is supposed to have flowered at Glastonbury. There is also a persistent legend of two tunnels, said to begin at the west end of the abbey. The first runs for about four miles to the once large Greyfriars at Dunwich, now on the cliff edge. Another is supposed to emerge at Framlingham. More prosaically, they were probably blocked drainage channels.
In 2004 a 500-year-old monks skull was dug up by a teenager on a Suffolk County Council dig.
Leiston Abbey, off the B1069, is free to visit.