La Grava The Archaeology and History of a Royal Manor and Alien Priory of Fontevrault

Albion Archaeology, 2013

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Albion Archaeology (2013) La Grava The Archaeology and History of a Royal Manor and Alien Priory of Fontevrault [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]

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Photograph of archaeomagnetic work

The site of La Grava (known locally as Grove Priory) lies on the border between historic Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, south of Leighton Buzzard. Much of the core of the site and elements of its associated field closes (1.85ha of an area of 7.8ha) was excavated in advance of quarrying between 1973 and 1985, making it one of the most extensive projects on a monastic/manorial site in the UK in the 20th century.

Excavations of the area of earthworks were initiated originally on the basis of this being the site of La Grava, an alien priory of the Order of Fontevrault in Anjou. However, evidence from all periods, from the Mesolithic onwards, was recovered from the site. Occupation began with a planned settlement of probable Romano-British origin. During the 10th century the estate was a Saxon Royal Manor, held by the Scandinavians at some point. The site lay close to the boundary of the Danelaw and to Yttingaford, scene of a treaty with the Danes in AD906. The royal hall for the Domesday Royal Manor of Leighton may have been located at La Grava, although a survey in 1155 recorded that the agricultural portion of the complex was in a run-down state requiring partial rebuilding.

In 1164 the site was granted to the Order of Fontevrault in Anjou, in lieu of an annual cash payment dating from the time of Henry I in 1129. The Order invested heavily in the existing estate of c 208ha, with the aim of generating income for the impoverished mother house. There was considerable royal and ecclesiastical interest in the site, allowing improvements to existing high-status masonry buildings and development of a large agricultural estate in the early 13th century. The site became the residence of the Procurator of the Order in England; formal permission for a chapel and sepulture was granted in 1220. There were over 50 royal visits in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. During the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), La Grava reverted to a lay establishment in the hands of high-ranking royal women. The late medieval complex, based around a large, timber-framed manor house, was probably built after 1413 by Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk (grand-daughter of Geoffrey Chaucer). Much of the site was laid down to grass in the 15th century, thus preserving the remains of many of the buildings. Ownership later passed through both Eton College and the Dean and Canons of St George's Chapel, Windsor. The site was abandoned in the late 16th century when a new dwelling house – Grovebury – was built on the other side of the boundary stream. The last surviving masonry structure was the chapel, originally a chamber block from the time of Henry I.

A number of features make the excavations at La Grava of considerable significance. Not only was it possible to excavate a significant proportion of the core of the site, but in many places the remains were stratified, an unusual feature for a rural site. In addition, the large scale of the excavations made it possible to identify not only a considerable degree of continuity of settlement from at least the late Saxon period, but also a considerable degree of spatial planning in the layout and development of the various phases of the site. The author suggests the planned layout is based around standard units of measurement.

The extensive royal and ecclesiastical interests in the site have provided unusually good documentary evidence, and in several cases it is possible to link documented events with programmes of building work at the site.

Analysis of the large volume of data was structure-led, considering not only the principal building elements but also subsidiary structures such as hearths, objects used in association with them and contemporary features. This allowed a picture to be developed of the nature of the settlement through time, supported by numerous reconstruction drawings of both individual structures and parts of the complex. The extensive ceramic assemblage, the largest in Bedfordshire, contributes significantly to the site analysis, as well as to wider discussions of trade patterns and cooking techniques.

The application of spatial analysis techniques leads the author to suggest that the buildings were laid out in a regular and planned fashion, bounded by a series of natural and man-made watercourses. The principal courts of buildings encouraged the regular disposition of other buildings and spaces, allowing consideration of relationships between structures, both physically and chronologically. This approach allows an enhanced understanding of how major remodelling works were carried out, as well as changes in style, function and form of a variety of features, from walls and floors to drains and ancillary features such as ovens. Ratios of domestic/service, agricultural and ecclesiastical accommodation and associated structures are tracked through time.

The archive held by the ADS is a Digital Supplement to the following CBA Research Report:
Baker, E. 2013: La Grava The Archaeology and History of a Royal Manor and Alien Priory of Fontevrault. Council for British Archaeology Research Report: York.

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