RSPB Minsmere is now a world famous bird reserve, but 1,000 years ago it’s where a little-known order of Premonstratensian priests decided to set up home. It was here, in 1182, that they founded their first and only abbey in Suffolk. Plagued by floods, mosquitoes and accusations of piracy, by 1363, it was time to move…

If you head out to the wet and windy wilds of Minsmere today, you’ll come across a small, rectangular building facing the sea. This is all that remains of the 180 turbulent years that the Premonstratensians spent here. Or is it? It’s certainly all that remains above ground, but below ground, we think there’s much, much more…

The Minsmere marshes were a less than ideal place to live. Having built and founded an abbey here, the priests learned that the hard way. Prone to flooding, and to swarms of mosquitoes, after 180 years they had endured enough.

After securing a new location further inland, they dismantled their abbey and moved it stone-by-stone 5 miles down the road. But they didn’t take all of it with them; they left behind a small chapel, which they continued to use until the dissolution in 1593. It survived for the next 450 years until, during WW2, it’s excellent vantage point on the East Anglian coast meant that soldiers partially demolishe it and turned it into a pillbox.

Accusations of piracy

The Curia Regis Rolls record several allegations of piracy levelled at the Abbot of Leiston Abbey for co-opting shipping 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. 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.”

Can archaeology help to establish whether these accusations were really true?

One of the most intriguing things about Minsmere is a big rectangular feature, about 100m long. Earlier researchers have said it was a fish pond, but a close reading of the abbey’s historical documents hints that it might once have been a navigable docking facility, or even the yet-to-be-located ‘Harbour of Minsmere’. This is one of the main features we want to investigate.

If the ‘pond’ feature identified through remote sensing was a navigable channel (as suggested on a map drawn in 1783), then it is entirely possible that the priests were using it to illegally revenue generating activity even after they moved to their new location.

Minsmere has never previously been excavated to help test such ideas, ground truth geophysical results or contextualise contemporary textual sources, which means there has been little knowledge made available to the public about the ruins that now stand at the heart of RSPB Minsmere. We’d like to change all that, by investigating the story of Suffolk’s medieval pirate-priests…