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Priests were often the subject of pirate raids, but did priests ever engage in piracy themselves?

Over the last three years, DigVentures’ flagship crowdfunded excavation at Leiston Abbey has turned up all sorts of archaeological evidence about the medieval priests who built this monastery in 1363.

But there’s one question for which archaeological evidence has eluded us: what did they do to generate an income? As it turns out, there’s a prequel to the story, and with your help we can find the answer.

Leiston Abbey was not their original home. Before that, the priests had spent nearly 200 years living out in the wilds of Minsmere. Now a world-famous RSPB bird reserve, back then it was boggy, unpleasant, and kept on flooding; you can see why they eventually knocked it down and moved to a new, drier location.

However, their original home did have some positives; it was secluded, and very close to the sea. In sum, it would be as convenient a place as any to get up to no good. In fact, there exist several historical documents, which suggest they did exactly that.

Between them, documents like the Curia Regis Rolls, the Hundred Rolls, and the abbey’s cartulary, detail a suite of money-making activities, like holding markets on a Friday, having the rights to rabbit warrens, receiving gifts of productive land and, in some cases, even farming it themselves.

They also list some rather more controversial schemes, the most outlandish of which are several allegations of piracy levelled at Leiston’s Abbot for illegally co-opting ships that should by rights have been landed at the nearby harbour of Dunwich:

“Thomas, pleading for the king and himself, said that when on 28th October 1293 he arrested in the port of Minsmere a certain ship of Stephen le Frere containing goods to the value of £20 in order to take toll and placed them within the liberty of Dunwich”.

Thomas even accuses the Abbot of beating him up, and stealing back the ship for a second time:

“The abbot and others, together with others unknown, insulted, beat, wounded and ill-treated him, and the next night took the ship with the goods out of the liberty of Dunwich and into the abbot’s liberty along a certain channel leading from Minsmere to Leiston Abbey, and continue to detain the said ship, in contempt of the king, to the damage of the said Thomas of £20. He offers to prove this.”

Did you notice in the text the mention of a ‘certain channel’ from Minsmere, that the abbot supposedly used to smuggle the goods at night?

One of the most intriguing things at Minsmere is a 100m long rectangle. Earlier researchers have claimed it to be fishpond, there are hints in the abbey’s historical documents that it might once have been a navigable docking facility.

So, were the priests in effect behaving like pirates? And did this behaviour carry on once they’d moved to their new abbey at Leiston?

We know the original Minsmere site wasn’t completely abandoned, ostensibly because they turned some of the remains into a chapel – the ruins of which still stand today, but only an archaeological excavation can determine whether or not the priests really did actually have a docking facility, and whether those allegations really might be true.

That’s why we’re heading to Suffolk this September to investigate the ruined chapel at Minsmere. Will we find evidence that Medieval ‘pirate priests’ did exist in Suffolk? Or will we be able to prove them innocent of these allegations. We want YOU to help us find the answer!

You can follow the dig online, or even roll up your sleeves and do some archaeology in Suffolk this September.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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