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Bordesley Abbey Introduction > Background

Bordesley Abbey: location map
Click here to see the image in full
Figure1 Bordesley Abbey: location map
(Drawn by Brian Williams)
© Bordesley Abbey Project

Bordesley Abbey precinct, from the east
Figure 2 Bordesley Abbey precinct, from the east: (upper left) gateway chapel, and church and cloister; (centre right) fishponds; (bottom centre) triangular mill pond.
(Cambridge University Collection of Air Photographs: copyright reserved)

Bordesley Abbey Project:
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Figure 3 Bordesley Abbey Project:
location of precinct excavations 1969-1997.
(Drawn by Steven Allen) © Bordesley Abbey Project

Any attempt to summarize in a single paper an archaeological project which has been running for over 30 years would, to say the least, be unwise, not to say impossible. It would perhaps be more appropriate to give some idea of the thinking behind the Bordesley Abbey Project, and how that has changed over time - an archaeological project as an ongoing hypothesis. It is also necessary to appreciate the quality and range of the recovered information, and how these data can challenge existing preconceptions about monasticism. In the process it should be possible to learn about aspects of, for example, patronage, technology and the monastic economy, which can only be revealed from archaeology.

The Cistercian monastery of Bordesley was founded by Waleran de Beaumont between 1138 and 1140 in the clayland of north-east Worcestershire (and now on the outskirts of Redditch; Figure 1). It was dissolved in 1538. The monastery is unexceptional in the survival of its documentation. While charters relating to its foundation exist (discussed by Price 1971), the abbey’s records are fragmentary with neither an extant cartulary nor runs of accounts. However, some impression of the growth of the abbey’s estates can be derived from charters, principally in the Ancient Deeds collection in the Public Record Office, supplemented by Pope Nicholas’s Taxatio of 1291 and the Valor Ecclesiasticus (Price 1971, 55—75). Although the Valor’s assessment of Bordesley’s annual income at 388 made it the tenth richest Cistercian house, the monastery was overshadowed by its pre-Conquest Benedictine neighbours at Evesham and Worcester. The first note of the size of the monastic community was in 1332, when there were 34 monks (including the abbot), one novice, eight lay brothers and 17 serving men. By 1380—1 there was a reduced number, of 14 monks and one lay brother. At the Dissolution 20 monks including the abbot received pensions (Wright 1976a, 18—21).

Bordesley Abbey is, however, remarkable for the complete survival of its precinct as a complex set of earthworks which extend over 35ha (Figure 2). The size is unusual for a moderately endowed Cistercian monastery, and in terms of area exceeds Fountains, and comes close to Rievaulx, for example (Coppack 1998, 105). At an early stage of the project it was possible through survey to identify the major, and familiar, elements of the monastery - the gateway chapel, the abbey church and the cloister and its associated buildings. More unusually, the principal parts of the outer court were equally well defined, such as the precinct boundary, fishponds and a triangular mill pond along with at least two mill sites. Other sets of earthworks defy interpretation and serve to highlight an ignorance of activities within monastic outer courts - these enhance the potential for a reconstruction and understanding of a monastic precinct. Clear evidence for the superimposition of some earthworks also illustrates that the precinct was changed during the four-hundred-year history of the monastic community. The most impressive and well-known example must be the diversion of the two watercourses (the river Arrow and the ‘Red Ditch’) in order to create additional space (Aston 1972, developed in Aston and Munton 1976, 28—37). Most of the earthworks appear to relate to the monastic occupation of the Arrow valley because there is little sign of post-Dissolution destructive activity. The precinct itself was turned into a park by Lord Windsor soon after the Dissolution, and no conclusive evidence for contemporary occupation has been forthcoming. In the later eighteenth century, Forge Mill, the water-powered needle mill with its long bottle pond, was terraced into the south side of the river valley, beyond the monastic boundary of the Red Ditch. Only the outflow was cut across the abandoned precinct. After the later eighteenth century there is clear evidence, from surface survey and confirmed by excavation, of two schemes of agricultural improvement achieved by the planting of hedged field boundaries and the digging of drains: one before the compilation of the 1839 Redditch tithe award, and one after (Astill 1993, 103—4). The works were designed to improve and maintain the area as pasture, and as such it still remains, a Scheduled Ancient Monument within an amenity park. Because of its unprepossessing standing remains the site also avoided the ‘clearance’ of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century excavators of other monastic sites, and only received the attention of one local antiquarian who carried out limited, but nevertheless informative, excavations in 1864 (Woodward 1866; Rahtz and Hirst 1976, 38—46).

The initiative for archaeological work on the monastery came from the owner of the site, (the then) Redditch District Council, who wished to sponsor an excavation of the abbey church in order to expose the walls so these could be laid out as an amenity for the new town, and in this the council was supported by Redditch Development Corporation (Hirst and Wright 1989, 295—7). The local authority, now the Borough of Redditch, has continued to sponsor and support the project, both in excavation and post-excavation work, consolidation of the monument, and in the building of the Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre, a partner to the Forge Mill Museum. The Bordesley Abbey Project, initiated by Philip Rahtz, has been running for over 30 years and is well into its second generation of directors. The research has developed from the excavation of the abbey church to consider the impact of the monastic community on the valley, and has gone on to investigate the relationship between Bordesley and the west midlands. The project, thus, represents a cooperative enterprise which is research driven, yet also seeks to provide for the needs of the local community and, while it is a research excavation, the periods of fieldwork are usually run as training schools both for undergraduates from our host institutions and for local school students; this has embedded the Bordesley Project into the life of Redditch.

In terms of archaeological excavation, the main focus has always been the abbey church (see Figure 3, BAA), but opportunities have been taken to investigate other sites: notably the watermills and industrial workshops, coupled with a transect across most of the Arrow valley and the triangular mill pond and the tail race (BAB, BAE, BAH, BAJ); the gateway chapel and the recording of the seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grave markers (BAG). Smaller-scale excavations include a section across the precinct boundary with an associated entrance (BAC); a trench across an abandoned meander in the (pre-)monastic course of the river Arrow (BAF); a cutting through a possible fishpond to the east of the abbey church (BAD); and lastly, and most recently, an excavation across the south cloister range (BAM).




 

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