The Bordesley Abbey Project

The Bordesley Abbey Project is the longest running and most sustained research project (1969-) on a medieval monastery in Europe. Sited in the UK west midlands close to Redditch, the Cistercian foundation was founded in c. 1138 and dissolved in 1538. The entire precinct survives as a complex set of earthworks in an amenity park owned by Redditch Borough Council. The Council has sponsored the project and commissioned the Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre. The main aims and achievements of the project are the examination of major elements of the monastery, to set these in the context of the precinct; to outline the long-term history of the valley of the River Arrow in which the monastery was located; and to reconstruct the economy of the monastery.

Themes

There have been three major areas of excavations. Most work has been concentrated on the abbey church where the presbytery, choir, south transept and about half of the nave and aisles have been excavated. The church walls (which survive up to 2m high) and over 1m of floor levels in combination with the finds allow a detailed reconstruction of the church's history. The quality and diversity of the results are remarkable and have provided important information about: the building sequence (of five major periods) and demolition; its changing decorative scheme, including extremely well-dated assemblages of decorated floor tile and window glass; the use of internal space which allows, for example, an insight into development of liturgy; and burials, both within the church (usually thought to be lay patrons) and from the eastern exterior. The church could be regarded as the most sensitive guide to the monastery's fortunes.

The gate chapel was the only part of the monastery to survive the Dissolution by becoming the parish church of Redditch. The building was demolished in 1805, when a new church had been built in the centre of Redditch. The chapel was excavated in 1983-7. It was built as a single-cell structure in the early thirteenth century and was considerably enlarged and embellished with high-quality work in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. Located at the main entrance to the precinct, the chapel represents the interface between the monastic community and the local population.

The third main excavation was on the industrial workshops, located at the extreme east end of the precinct. The workshops were centred on a succession of four (superimposed) vertically-wheeled watermills which provided power (probably for bellows and trip hammers) for metalworking, to produce and repair objects of iron (including armour), copper alloy and lead between the mid-twelfth century and c.1400, when the site was abandoned. This is some of the earliest evidence for water-powered metalworking in the UK.

Geophysical prospection and environmental analysis in combination with excavation results have been used to produce an outline history of the Arrow valley which includes the use of the valley in prehistoric and Roman times, when it was well wooded. Parts of the valley were used as farmland before the monastery's foundation. The monastery brought into use most of the precinct within forty years by an extensive programme of woodland clearance, drainage and the diversion of the river in order to create fishponds, millponds and water mills. The complex water system was maintained until c.1400 when the peripheral areas of the precinct were abandoned and the community's resources were apparently regrouped around the church and cloister. After the Dissolution the precinct was turned over to a park and essentially remained unchanged until the nineteenth century when there were several attempts to improve the land (pasture) through drainage and tree and hedge planting schemes.

The last main aim of the project is to set the monastery in the context of the west midlands by reconstructing its economy through a study of the monastic estates. The excavations of the mills and workshops have produced much information about medieval industry and technology, and this data can also be used to investigate the relationship between the abbey and its farms (granges). The finds of metalwork and ceramic known to have been produced in the precinct can be tracked on the granges and other sites in the west midlands to establish the economic connections between the abbey and its region. The twenty granges existed within 35km of the precinct and existed in three distinct farming zones. Documentary sources are being combined with archaeological fieldwork in order to investigate the character and history of the granges and their relationship with both the abbey precinct and the region.

Outputs to date

G. ASTILL, S. HIRST & S. WRIGHT, 2004, The Bordesley Abbey Project reviewed, Archaeological Journal, 161, 106-58.

http://www.reading.ac.uk/bordesley/

Things to do now

Contact us

Professor Annalisa Marzano

Centre Director

 

Dr Tony Moore

MA Programme Director

 

Amanda Harvey

Postgraduate Administrator: 

 

Page navigation

 

Search Form

A-Z lists