Lesnes Abbey, founded by Richard de Lucy - published by Norman Lucey


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Lesnes Abbey, founded by Richard de Lucy on 11th June 1178
by Norman Lucey

This webpage provides information on Lesnes Abbey, in Erith, Kent.

Lesnes Abbey arms from boss in Canterbury CathedralWhen you consider the instability of the period, particularly the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign, it is surprising that Richard de Lucy (c1110-1179) achieved and maintained the most senior of administrative positions during the reigns of Henry I, Stephen and Henry II, finally reaching the position of Chief Justiciar, the highest position held by a subject and second only to the King.

It is therefore not surprising that many commentators of the day, recorded the foundation of his Abbey at Lesnes on 11th June 1178, including Matthew de Westminster, Roger de Wendover, Roger de Hoveden and Ralph de Coggeshall. The Abbey was dedicated to Thomas á Becket, who had been murdered only eight years previously and despite Lucy having been excommunicated by him.

When the land at Lesnes came into the hands of Richard de Lucy during the reign of King Stephen, it was not his intention to build an Abbey of his own and at this time he bestowed the advowson of the existing Church on King Stephen's Priory of the Holy Trinity at Aldgate; a gift subsequently confirmed by his eldest son Geoffrey de Lucy (c1132-c1171).

Lesnes Abbey - click to view other images

Lesnes Abbey, south-west tower - click to view other images

Walter, Bishop of Rochester appointed the first Abbot, William in 1179 when building had hardly commenced on the almost flat plateau of land between the marshes on the south side of the Thames estuary and steep higher ground behind, on the main road between Canterbury and London.

Effigy from Lesnes of Geoffrey de Lucy 1340-50The founder, Richard de Lucy died at Lesnes on 14th July 1179 having 'assumed the religious habit' and was interred within the Chapter House; the buildings were unfinished at this time. Work continued under his second son Godfrey de Lucy (c1134-1204), who became Bishop of Winchester in 1189. Even then it was recorded that insufficient funding had been provided to maintain the establishment.

At a later date, the founder's tomb was probably moved to the presbytery or choir, where John Weever discovered and opened it in 1630. His tomb was probably then moved to Marden Church, Kent where he was reinterred. Aveline, Richard de Lucy's daughter was also buried in the Chapter house at Lesnes.

Today the building is in ruins. The demolition and clearance of the site for building stone was efficiently carried out after its dissolution on 1st April 1525. The first Papal ball for the suppression of Lesnes is dated 11th September 1524 and on 1st October that year Wolsey obtained Royal assent. The Abbey was surrendered by the last Abbot William Tysehurste on 13th February 1525. It is believed that Hall Place in Bexley, constructed in 1537 for Sir John Champneys, used stone recycled from Lesnes Abbey. Also that the windows in the south aisle of adjacent St. John's Church, Erith, where John Weever was a rector, came from Lesnes.

Only contemporary or slightly earlier Abbeys such as Romsey Abbey near Winchester or Buildwas Abbey can give an indication of its original scale. The Abbey church, all set out during the founder's lifetime, consisted of an aisled nave, transepts with three eastern chapels on each side and an aisle-less presbytery. The total internal length of the church was 234 ft. and 66 ft. across the transepts; this being one of the largest Augustinian naves in Britain. The Abbey included a 'great organ' noted in 1502 and another in the Lady Chapel. In addition there were alters or images of St. Katherine, St. Osyth, St. Mary, St. Anne, St. Nicholas, Holy Cross and St. Anthony. Also possibly St. Blaise and St. Lawrence. By c1510 the Abbey held possessions and received income from churches, manors and rents in Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. There had been 31 Abbots of Lesnes Abbey before it's dissolution. The arms of the Abbey, recorded in 1472, show two luces (argent) between a crozier (Abbot's staff) on a red ground. Eight volumes from the library at Lesnes survive in colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and a Missal.

When Rev. William Stukeley investigated the ruins on 12th April 1753 he unfortunately mistook the Frater or Refectory for the church building and although his original drawings in the British Museum do not precisely match those later engraved and published, or the walls as seen today, his information is useful in establishing the condition of the site before Alfred W. Clapham undertook his extensive excavations over 1909-1913.

Lesnes - the abbey ruins

The building was constructed in a transitional architectural style (between Norman and Early English), with the early introduction of carved foliage and curved mouldings. The roof would have been highly pitched and some 'dog-tooth' moulding has been discovered in the debris of vaulted roof rib voussoirs. A consistent column base was used throughout the church with a 'stiff leaf' design at the corners; unusual in England and only found at Dunstable Priory and St. Cross Hospital, Winchester, both constructed around this date. The consistency of the remaining column carving illustrates the speed and integrity with which the building was laid out. Richard de Lucy must have seen and authorised this design. The construction of the church at St. Cross commenced just 25 years earlier and is probably the closest representation of how Lesnes would have looked at the time. It was founded by King Stephen's brother, Henry de Blois and would have been well known to Godfrey de Lucy, when as Bishop of Winchester he was completing both Lesnes and the retrochoir at Winchester Cathedral. The transitional style and internal details are very similar, in particular the pier base detailing.
View exterior of St. Cross, Winchester.

Plan of Lesnes Abbey

When Clapham photographed the building during his excavations, the remains of putlock holes and apertures for the corbel table cornice at parapet level along the north aisle wall of the church could still be seen. While putlock holes are still evident, considerable damage has been done to the structure in the intervening years, after it was reburied and re-excavated; particularly to the best remaining ashlar stonework on the south-west pier to the church tower. This was in considerably better condition when originally exposed, only 90 years ago.

Two lucies on the seal of Lesnes AbbeyMore information regarding Richard de Lucy and Lesnes Abbey can be found elsewhere on this website (see links below), including the description in John Weever's "Discourse on Funeral Monuments" and William Stukeley's drawings. Several Abbey seals have been retained, including that illustrated, which includes two lucies or pikes, probably representing the founder, Richard de Lucy and his son Godfrey, both of which were responsible for completing the buildings. Three different impressions of the Abbey seal are known to exist. They are illustrated in Walford's "Greater London", volume 2 of 1894. Arms with both two lucies (Gules semée of cross crosslet two lucies hauriant or) and three lucies, together with those of Lesnes Abbey, can be found in the heraldic bosses in the roof of the cloisters at Canterbury Cathedral.

When Sir Alfred Clapham excavated the Lady Chapel in 1909, a stone sepulchral effigy of a Knight in mixed mail and armour plate was found abandoned face down, most probably representing Geoffrey de Lucy (21 January 1287/88-1346). Red and blue colouration can still clearly be seen on the full size effigy, with three lucies and crosslets identifiable on the shield on a red field. Originally photographed by Clapham and illustrated above, it is now displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Click to view further images of the Lesnes Abbey ruins

Read about the life history of Richard de Lucy - the Justiciar

Learn more about the origins of de Lucy family in the 12th Century

View the Canterbury Cathedral cloister bosses linked with de Lucy

Further information on the genealogy of the ancient de Lucy family

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Published by Norman Lucey
© Copyright 2009, Norman Lucey. All rights reserved.

Page created 7th June 2009 and updated 18th July 2010
Additional material included 18th August 2014 and 23rd November 2016