Could you leave historical allegations of medieval piracy in East Anglia unchecked? Our crowdfunders didn't! See what they discovered.

121.5% Funded
£6,075 Pledged
£5,000 Goal

About the Project

Want to join, follow or support our dig at RSPB Minsmere? Well, you can! We’re hoping to unearth the truth about Suffolk’s medieval ‘pirate priests’ and we want you to help us!

Priests were often the subjects of pirate raids, but were some priests ever pirates? Leiston Abbey was originally built nearly 1,000 years ago at Minsmere – three miles from where it stands today. Over the last three years, we’ve been excavating the ruins of , but we’re now heading back to it’s original site because we’ve heard that while they were living there, the priests of Leiston Abbey had been accused of behaving like pirates. The question is, can we find the archaeological evidence to prove whether these accusations were actually true? With your help, we can find out!

Leiston Abbey is one of Suffolk’s finest medieval ruins, and over the last three years our crowdfunded digs have unearthed lots of new evidence about the littleknown order of Premonstratensian priests who built it. We know that it was moved to its current location in 1363. Following a catastrophic flood, the priests dismantled their abbey and moved it stone-by-stone three miles further inland, to where it stands today. But before that, the abbey stood for nearly 200 years out in the wilds of Minsmere. We’re heading back to the original location to see how much of it we can recover. Plus, we want to find out whether the historical rumours that they used it as a place to hide stolen ships is really true!

Only archaeology can provide the answer. Support, follow or join the dig and YOU can learn about archaeology, all while helping us investigate allegations of medieval piracy!

What’s so special about Minsmere?

RSPB Minsmere is now a world famous bird reserve, but 1,000 years ago it was the home to this little-known order of Premonstratensian priests. Above ground, all that remains of the original abbey are the ruins of a small chapel. Although this chapel was partially demolished and turned into a pillbox during WW2, there’s still plenty more evidence to be found underground…

Probably the most intriguing thing about the ruins at 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 Earlier researchers have said it was a fish pond, but a close reading of the abbey’s historical documents hints that it might once have been a navigable docking facility, or even the yet-to-be-located ‘Harbour of Minsmere’.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.

What’s all this about pirates?

We’re not talking piracy in the sense of crossing oceans in search of bounty, but in a more general (and less romanticised) sense of generating an income by illegally co-opting ships.

In fact, 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.”

Any questions?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in a real, live, in-progress excavation attempting to uncover a medieval monastic mystery. If you’ve got any questions about arrangements for joining us in the field before you pledge your support, you can email hello@digventures.com or call 0333 011 3990.


How will you know if Suffolk's medieval monastic community really were ‘pirate priests’?

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…

Why crowdfund this dig?

Through your support for Minsmere and YOU can help us find out whether allegations of priestly piracy were actually true! But there’s much more to it than that. We also want to find out how much of the original abbey survives underground, and whether they continued using the chapel after they’d moved out in 1363.

So, why should you crowdfund this dig? Because you love Suffolk, you love archaeology, you love medieval history, or because you have simply always wanted try your hand at digging… all are great reasons to crowdfund this dig! In return, you can follow the dig online, choose from some amazing benefits (like one of our famous and highly sought-after team t-shirts!) or get hands on and let us teach you how to dig alongside us in the trenches!

What benefits do I get?

You can support the project as a Digital Digger and choose any one of our great perks in return. Plus, you’ll get live updates from the field, and even have the opportunity to ask us questions while we’re still in the trenches. You’ll get to witness all the action straight from the trowel’s edge, and ultimately find out whether archaeology can find proof of piracy in Medieval Suffolk. Or you can go one step further, pick up a trowel and join the excavation team in the trenches.

If you’ve always wanted to do archaeology, this is your chance!

Can I really join the dig team?

Yes, you really can pick up a trowel and join the dig team in the trenches! Pledge your support and you’ll get to learn hands-on about medieval archaeology, the role of the Premonastratensians in medieval English society and the fine art of fieldwork… all while being based in RSPB Minsmere – one of the most beautiful landscapes in Suffolk.

We’ll have two weeks to excavate and record as much evidence as we can, and you can join us for as much or as little of that as you like.

One day is great if you just want a taster of what it’s like to do archaeology. Two days is enough to really get to grips with excavation and how archaeologists find out about the past (it’s not just about finding artefacts!). One week will give you a well-rounded set of field skills, from excavation to processing, recording and interpreting your finds. Two weeks and you’ll really know your stuff.

Can I bring the kids?

Yes! If they’re primary school age, you can bring them along to DigCamp on Saturday 17th September. If they’re older, you can sign them up for the main dig.

How will I know the outcome of the dig?

We share everything that happens on site, online. We tweet, we facebook, and we do live broadcasts where you can ask questions directly to the dig team. We will also publish everything we find on Digital Dig Team – our open access archaeological database, complete with 3D models of artefacts and trenches that you can examine up close from the comfort of your own screen.

Click here to see what happened last year!

Food, accommodation and transport

Food, accommodation and transport are not included in any of the digging benefit levels. We’ll be pitching our tents at a nearby campsite where you’re welcome to join us, or you can book your own B&B.


More information about logistics the daily schedule will be available a little closer to the time, but as a rough guide, your first day on site starts at 830, and each day after that at 9, finishing at 5.

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