Swainby Abbey

Project Profile

Project Title :

Swainby Abbey, North Yorkshire

Client :

English Heritage

Type of Work :

Analytical Earthwork Survey

Project Gallery 

Black and white aerial photogrpah of Swainby � English Heritage   Aerial photograph of Swainby � English Heritage  
Premonstratensian abbey at Egglestone, County Durham   Premonstratensian Monk  


Swainby Abbey

The Premonstratensian of Swainby Abbey

NAA were commissioned by English Heritage to undertake a detailed analytical earthwork survey of the remains of the 12th century medieval abbey, and deserted medieval village (DMV), at Swainby, North Yorkshire. This Scheduled Monument is a multi-phased site comprising a large complex of upstanding earthworks although, even to the trained eye, it is not immediately apparent from what survives today, that this was once an abbey belonging to the enigmatic Premonstratensian order.

The earliest mention of Swainby is recorded in the Domesday Book, where it is listed as Suanebi. The land belonged to Ribald, a powerful Norman Baron who controlled large estates across Yorkshire, including the Lordship of Middleham. There are transcripts of four charters associated with Swainby. The earliest of these, dated 1168, identifies the presence of the Abbey of Saint Mary de Caritate (charity) at Swainby and a later charter of 1187 records the granting of the rights of a churchyard and chantry to Swainby Abbey. However, these are at odds with the generally accepted date of 1188 for the foundation of the Premonstratensian abbey by Helewise, daughter and heiress of Ranulph de Glanville, Chief Justice of England.

The Premonstratensians were founded in 1121 by St. Norbert at Prémontré near Laon in Northern France. Known as the 'white canons' because of the colour of their habits, they followed a stricter version of the rule of St. Augustine. They first came to England in 1143 and, similar to the Cistercians, they favoured isolated sites for the location of their monasteries where they followed a lifestyle of abstinence, fasting and religious contemplation. However, unlike monks, they did not always stay within the cloisters of the abbey but had a more parochial role, serving the communities they lived amongst as village priests and missionaries.

The abbey at Swainby appears to have been a very short-lived affair. In 1212, Ralph, lord of Middleham, removed the canons to Coverham, in Richmondshire, and granted them the church and associated lands there. Following this, the Premonstratensian lands at Swainby appear to have been administered as a monastic farm - a grange - although it was clearly peripheral to the abbey's other estates which were largely clustered around Coverham. This might mean that the land at Swainby was rented out rather than being run and managed by the canons themselves.

The economy of the grange appears to have been primarily based upon livestock. The well preserved remains of ridge and furrow cultivation which virtually surrounds the site is probably related to the nearby deserted medieval village of Swainby. The relationship of the village to the abbey is unclear, but pottery recovered from the surrounding fields would suggest that it was occupied between the 12th and 15th centuries: after the canons had been re-located to Coverham.

The work undertaken by NAA revealed very little convincing evidence of the former abbey. There was no indication of either a church or any associated claustral buildings. Elements of several possible building platforms did exist within a possible precinct area, but these were scattered and formed no coherent plan. The presence of a monastic grange was similarly unproven, although there appears to have been a clear focus of activity within the central part of the site. It is possible that the earthworks in this area relate to something much less regimented which emerged either as part of the monastic manor or as a post-dissolution secular estate.

Although the development of the site remains uncertain, the research undertaken by NAA does represent a significant step forward in our understanding of Swainby and has resulted in a much clearer picture of the nature of the earthworks, complete with ambiguities!