Thornton Abbey Project

Thornton mainThornton abbey was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1139 by William Le Gros, and over the next four centuries expanded into one of the richest houses in England, eventually becoming a mitred abbey in 1518. In 1539 the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, at which point it had a gross annual income of £730 17s 3d, although it continued to serve as a college for priests until 1547 when it was finally suppressed by Edward VI. After passing through ownership of the Bishop of Lincoln and the Tyrwhitt family, the abbey was acquired in 1603 by Sir Vincent Skinner. He reputedly demolished many of the church buildings to provide building material for a newly constructed mansion situated close to the medieval gatehouse. According to the antiquarian Abraham de la Pryme, no sooner had the house been completed that it "fell quite down to the bare ground without any visible cause". In part as a result of this disaster, Skinner fell into bankruptcy and died in a debtors’ prison in 1616, although his widow continued to live in the former guest lodging which was converted into a more modest dwelling.

Despite having one of the largest and best preserved monastic enclosures in the country, surprisingly little work has taken place at the abbey. The estate was acquired by Charles 1st Earl of Yarborough in the early 19th century, and he was responsible for uncovering the church in the 1830s. Following portions of the site coming into state care, the Ministry of Works cleared some of the cloister area. However, since this date virtually no excavation has taken place and the majority of the site remains in private ownership. Between 2007-2009 English Heritage undertook a detailed field survey of approximately one third of the monastic enclosure which highlighted the remarkable level of preservation of the many earthwork and subsurface features.

Project Backgound

Thornton geophysicsIn 2011 The University of Sheffield started a detailed research programme on the abbey precinct. This aims to not only complete the topographical and geophysical survey started by English Heritage, but also includes targeted excavation of the identified medieval and early modern features. In doing so the project aims to comprehensively characterise for the first time the three main later phases of activity on site. 

The first of these phases is immediate post-dissolution period (1549-75), when the site was under the ownership of the Bishop of Lincoln and his heirs. Virtually nothing is known of what happened on the site at this time. It is usually assumed that the majority of the monastic structures were left relatively intact, but this has yet to be demonstrated. The second phase corresponds with the often overlooked occupation of the site by the Tyrwhitts (1575-1602). The Tyrwhitts were a prominent local family who acquired a number of former monastic houses in Lincolnshire which they converted into landscaped residences. The extent of the impact the Tyrwhitts had on the site is unclear, and it is not even known where their main residence was, despite the recorded death of Sir Robert in 1581 "at his house at Thornton College". The final phase corresponds to the acquisition of the site in 1602 by Sir Vincent Skinner. A number of very prominent earthwork features have traditionally been attributed to Skinner's occupation of the site, but this has not yet been confirmed through excavation.

The 2011 Season

Thornton 2011During 2011 three trenches were excavated. The first located a portion of the medieval monastic great barn, which had been identified on a new resistivity survey of this area. This building, despite being in an area of 20th-century ploughing, had substantial mortared walls that still survived up to a height of 1.2m. Probably built in the 12th century, it seems to survive intact until at least the 17th century, although its remains were also reused as the footings for a later 19th-century canteen tent from when the Lindsey Battalion held their annual muster at Thornton between 1866-70.

A second trench was located over the bank of what had been tentatively identified by English Heritage as formal garden associated with the Skinner remodelling of the site. Excavation confirmed that the feature was post-medieval in date, being constructed from reused ceramic roof tiles probably taken from the claustral ranges. However, it more likely dates to the 16th century, and subsequent research has demonstrated the garden closely resembles others built by the Tyrwhitt family at the nearby sites of Nun Cottam, Bardney and Stainfield. 

The final trench was dug to the rear of the earthwork usual thought to be Skinner's collapsed house. This identified almost no post-medieval activity at all apart for the cut for the outer wall of the house, which was found to be completely devoid of any building material.

The 2012 Season

Thornton 2012Features from all phases were targeted and identified during the 2012 season. The first trench was dug to the east of the church, over a bank which is one of a series of prominent linear features running north-south parallel to the stream that forms the eastern edge of the monastic enclosure. Excavation revealed that the bank was medieval in date and acted as a flood defence, as well as a boundary, for the monastery.

The second trench was located over a building that was a prominent feature on the geophysics, and situated directly to the west of the church. Because of its alignment on the garden excavated in 2011, and a second newly identified garden feature (see below), it was thought that this might be the location of a Tyrwhitt period building or house. Excavation showed this not to be the case, instead that the building belonged to the first post-dissolution phase, cutting into the mortared medieval courtyard, and it contained an oven and other features suggesting it was a post-medieval bakehouse. However, external to the building, and clearly of slightly later date, was a small lead-melting hearth which probably did relate to later Tyrwhitt activity in this area.

A third trench focused on what appeared on the resistivity survey to be square formal garden with diagonal cross paths, due west of the cloister. This was found to be the case with a perfectly preserved cobbled path and several garden features being identified. The garden dated to the later 16th century, and its orientation symmetrical to the cloister suggests the Tyrwhitts may well have been occupying the conventual buildings, which had been modified into a house.

Two trenches were located over the earthwork of the Skinner house. The first was a continuation of the one from 2011, which extended to quarter-section what would have been the parlour at the rear, whilst the second was located at the front in the area of the hall. Both demonstrated conclusively that whilst deep cuts for walls were present, a complete absence of any masonry or brick structures, surfaces or demolition debris indicated that a house had never existed on the site. Instead the earthworks where the result of the cutting of a foundation trench for a house that had never subsequently been built.

The 2013 Season

Thornton 2013Work continued during July 2013 in four trenches. The first is in the area of the abbot's garden where the medieval corridor linking the infirmary to the cloister was located, as well as part of the monastic water management system. The second trench also found aspects of the site's medieval phase. This was situated in an area just inside the inner precinct wall. Here a series of small workshop buildings were located, and one of these had clearly been used by a glazier in the 15th century. As well as fragments of window glass and iron glazing bars, a significant quantity of lead casting waste from the production of window cames was recovered.

One of the most important finds was made in a small trench to the north of the church. Here the site of the mansion built here in the early 17th century by Sir Vincent Skinner was finally located, after three years of looking! The trench found the rear corner buttress and back room of the building, which interestingly had in part been constructed incorporating an earlier late medieval structure. Finds of both post-medieval and medieval date (such as an oyster shell containing a blue pigment) were found in this area, illustrating the complex nature of the deposits in this hitherto overlooked part of the site.

The final trench was located on the 'mound' to the south of the inner precinct. Originally thought to be the location of a possible post-medieval building, this part of the site is in fact older in date. On the basis of medieval burials and other features found here, we now believe that this mound was the location of the medieval hospital of St James and formed an important focus on the site during the latter Middle Ages. Excavation is planned to continue in this area during 2014.

Thornton in 2014

We are working at Thornton throughout July 2014, follow our progress on the current blog or join our Facebook group or follow us on Twitter.

Find out more about the project

Join Thornton For more information about the results so far, geophysics plots, photos, video footage and even interviews with volunteers and staff please visit the project webpage which is constantly being updated;

There are also a lot more photographs from last season on the 2013 blog

The project has only been made possible due to the kind permission of the Brocklesby Estate and the generous financial support of the Sheffield Alumni and The Robert Kiln Trust.

Contact the Project

Dr Hugh Willmott
Department of Archaeology
University of Sheffield
Northgate House
West Street
Sheffield, S1 4ET
United Kingdom