The Cluniac priory and abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey, Surrey: excavations 1984-95

T Dyson, M Samuel, A Steele, Susan M Wright, 2009

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Introduction

Excavations by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) on the site of the Cluniac priory and later abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey took place between 1984 and 1995. The site, formerly in Surrey and now part of the London Borough of Southwark, is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (GLSAM no. 165). Work by W F Grimes in 1956 and 1962-3 uncovered the north side of the east end of the monastic church, while recent excavations by Pre-Construct Archaeology (PCA) have revealed masonry in the area of the south transept, north-east corner of the main cloister and east range (BYQ98; WBP07); data from these excavations have been incorporated into the publication. Drawings and survey work undertaken by the antiquarian J C Buckler have also been used to complement and inform the evidence supplied by modern excavation.

The archaeological sequence begins with evidence for Middle Saxon and Late Saxon settlement. The first buildings on the site were a small apsidal chapel, constructed in the Late Saxon/early Norman period and enclosed within ditches, and a timber latrine which spanned the ditch to the south. By the mid 12th century, work had advanced on the priory church and some of the major conventual buildings. These included the structures around the principal cloister with its free-standing lavabo - the east dormitory range, the reredorter and possible bathhouse, and refectory. The east end of the priory church is reconstructed with an asymmetric apse échelon scheme comprising five apses. The monastic cemetery developed between the church and the earlier chapel. In the later 12th century, the east range was revaulted, a new stone reredorter built across the south end of the east range. To the east the first infirmary complex was constructed with its own latrine building and a hall or lodgings to the south. A new drainage system was built. An additional chapel was added to the north aisle of the priory church, while the chapel was retained and enlarged. A masonry wall enclosed the south-west part of the monastic precinct.

In the first half of the 13th century the second or infirmary cloister was expanded and the hall/lodgings developed with a new kitchen and hall. The second half of the 13th and early 14th century saw major changes to the infirmary, with the disuse of the infirmary latrine and new structures and another courtyard to the east, and to the chapel to the north of the infirmary. In the 14th century (from c 1330) the eastern arm of the priory church was extended with a square east end and a second north aisle was added. The cloister and the chapter house were remodelled, and there was considerable rebuilding elsewhere - in the south range, around the second cloister and to its immediate east where a large courtyard and new chambers were built. In the pre-Dissolution period this eastern area was disused. The evidence for the Dissolution period suggests a prompt surrender and systematic stripping. A private Tudor mansion was constructed around the former main cloister.

The published account addresses particular aspects of the medieval priory thematically. A section on the foundation addresses some of the complexities surrounding the priory's beginning, including the Anglo-Saxon minster located on the Bermondsey eyot. The small apsidal chapel, a structure spanning the crucial, transitional late-Saxon/early Norman years, is the focus of much interest. The reconstructed plans of the 12th-century and c 1400 phases of the priory church of St Saviour are discussed in context with contemporary English and continental examples. The local topography and early landscape, and their influence on the subsequent plan and development of the monastery and home grange are examined, including various buildings in the precinct known only from documentary evidence. The infirmary and its continuing development throughout the life of the priory is considered, with particular reference to the evidence for segregation in the early periods. A section about the people of the monastery discusses the inhabitants and attempts to define some of the more complex social processes at work within the precinct: the demography and health of those buried in the monastic cemetery, and burial practices; the material culture and diet of the inhabitants; food preparation, hygiene and the supply of clean water to the house; the priory's economic base and evidence for industrial activities taking place within the precinct. A large, exciting and uniquely informative assemblage of artefacts and materials discarded from the conventual buildings is illustrated and discussed.

The project was published following a joint venture between English Heritage and the Museum of London Archaeology Service:

Tony Dyson, Mark Samuel, Alison Steele and Susan M Wright, 2011, The Cluniac priory and abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey, Surrey: excavations 1984-95, MOLA Monongraph Series 50
http://www.museumoflondonarchaeology.org.uk/Publications/pubDetails.htm?pid=120

The digital dissemination of important parts of the digital archive was part of the English Heritage Rescue of Complete Archaeological Projects (RECAP) initiative.