MyGuide Map: Lesnes Abbey Pilgrims Way

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History of the Abbey1.1


This section provides a short history of the abbey over the last 800 years so is still quite long, but does provide the background on why the ruins are here.

You could take this in over a drink at the cafe before looking around.

Foundation of the Abbey

The first record of Lesnes came after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when the area was taken by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror and was included in the Domesday Book as Loisnes. At that time the area was often also referred to as Westwood.

The abbey, known formally as the Abbey of St Mary and Thomas the Martyr, was founded on 11th June 1178 by Richard de Luci who was Lord of Lesnes and also Chief Justiciar to Henry II. Chief Justiciar was a similar role to the modern day Primeminister and meant that he was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the entire country making him arguably the most powerful man in England at the time.

He raised the money to pay for both the building of the abbey and the assets that were required to support it from his own vast personal wealth, and also from many dignitaries, including the King, Henry II.

The abbey was dedicated to Thomas the Martyr in penance for de Luci's role in the infamous murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral, in 1170.

Since he was responsible for dealing with all of Henry II's affairs, including the dispute with Thomas a Becket, he would have orchestrated the events that resulted in the murder. This would not have concerned his conscience much at the time as Becket had had him excommunicated from the church, but as he approached old age he would have been very concerned about how it might affect his position before God and his future place in Heaven, especially as Becket had been made a saint.

The abbey was, therefore, a statement to God that he forgave Becket for the excommunication, accepted that he had been in the wrong and wished to repent for his involvement in the murder.

There were also some more practical reasons why the abbey would be useful to him.

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History of the Abbey - A New Abbey1.2

A New Augustine Abbey

In 1179, Abbot William, the first Abbot of Lesnes Abbey, was blessed by the Bishop of Rochester and the abbey officially came into being.

At the same time Richard de Luci, almost 90 years old, resigned his office of Chief Justiciar and retired to the partially built abbey as a canon, where he died three months later on 14th July. Since the Church was still being built he was initially buried in the chapter house and his body later moved to a tomb under the choir in the church when it was completed.

The abbey originally belonged to the Order of Augustinian Canons, also known as Black Canons, because of the colour of their gowns. It was affiliated to the Abbey of Arrouaise in Northern France during the rule of the second Abbot, Abbot Fulc, as a way to reduce the need to follow the strict rules imposed in true Augustinian Priories, a precursor to some of the troubles experienced later.

Unfortunately, despite its intended grandeur, it failed to establish itself as one of the great English religious houses, and was never home to more than 12 canons. This failure is often ascribed to the cost of draining and maintaining the enclosed marsh land to the north which formed the abbey's pasture and major source of income.

However, there were also some very serious issues with the observation of abbey rules and overall governance.

The failure by the cannons to properly monitor and maintain the river walls meant that on several occasions the river Thames flooded the land causing significant financial problems, not just for the Abbey, but for the entire area.

Consequently Lesnes Abbey had a chequered history over its 350 year existence.

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History of the Abbey - Corruption1.3

Corruption and Mismanagement

In 1283 the Bishop of Rochester who was responsible for oversight of the Abbey was notified by a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had called in on a visit, that the Abbot had been unable to provide him with satisfactory explanations for the poor state of repair of the buildings.

Furthermore, he also reported that the canons were not obeying the rules of the monastic order, were misusing the abbey funds and were allowing nuns to stay overnight.

The Abbot was ordered to maintain discipline and was relieved from his responsibility for all money matters which were supervised by three selected canons who required receipts for all expenses from the Abbot.

In 1299, a second visitation found little improvement in behaviour, especially around the exclusion of women. Over the next few years three canons were arrested on separate occasions because of their disorderly behaviour and in 1341 things reached a head when the Abbot himself, John de Hoggeston, was found guilty of immorality by the Bishop, made to do penance and removed from office.

John de Hoggeston was clearly a rogue, and in 1343, a trespassory rape case was brought against him by a John Sayer who accused him of having run off with his wife Cristina. In 1344 he tried to claim some money from the new Abbot on false pretences and as a result was finally declared an outlaw.

Having intervened to replace Hoggeston, the Church continued to oversee the Abbey, but it was still hampered by its debts and that made it hard to maintain the buildings. By 1349, the year of the Black Death, the structure was reported to be in such a state of disrepair that it could "hardly be repaired by the Day of Judgement".

Some money was found from central church funds to pay for the rebuilding work, including the construction of the Lady's Chapel in 1371, but unfortunately the mismanagement and corruption continued.

By 1400, the abbey had sold all the possessions that it could to cover its running costs and had resorted to selling annuities that it could not actually afford to pay. The Abbot was then invoking the protection of the King from the angry creditors as he was entitled to do, and refusing to pay them.

This blatant fraud was raised in parliament and the crown seized the abbey in 1402 on behalf of the Church to allow the imposition of proper governance.

Further ecclesiastical funding and intervention kept the abbey going for a further 150 years with numerous repairs and improvements to the buildings including a new barn in 1515, but it was always surviving on borrowed time.

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History of the Abbey - Dissolution1.4


In 1524, Henry VIII's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey came up with a plan to obtain the funding for a new college in Oxford that he wanted to establish.

He obtained permission from Pope Clement VII to close all the monasteries in England and Wales with less than eight monks to provide the money he needed. The justification was that these monasteries were not able to adequately serve their church, but also that the monks were corrupt and often no longer following the strict monastic rules.

On 13 February 1525, Lesnes Abbey, with just an Abbot and five canons, became one of twenty four houses dissolved on the orders of Wolsey making it one of the first of the English monasteries to be suppressed.

Its land and assets were granted to the Cardinal's College in Oxford now known as Christ Church College, providing the college with an income of about 200 pounds a year equivalent to around 60,000 pounds today.

Nine years later, after Wolsey had fallen out of favour with Henry VIII over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII seized the Abbey from him and, after taking all the valuables, granted the site of the abbey to William Brereton, on 5 March, 1534.

Less than two years later the property was taken back by the King after de Brereton was executed having been found guilty of committing adultery with the Queen, Anne Boleyn.

In 1536 Henry VIII, having completely fallen out with Rome and short of money, followed Wolsey's example and began the dissolution of the remaining monasteries in England.

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History of the Abbey - Lesnes Manor1.5

Subsequent Years

Henry VIII passed the land to his Secretary of State, Sir Ralph Sadler, in 1536 who began dismantling the abbey. Over the next decades all the monastic buildings were gradually pulled down except for the Abbott's Lodging which was retained and converted into a house known as Lesnes Manor since it was a relatively luxurious and modern building.

Some of the stone from the abbey is said to have been used in the construction of Hall Place which was built in nearby Bexley in 1537 for wealthy merchant Sir John Champneys, Lord Mayor of London.

Henry Cooke, a member of the court and descendant of the Boleyns, was granted the land in 1541 and it stayed in two generations of his family until 1630 when Member of Parliament, Sir John Hippersley bought the Manor.

While scavenging stone from the ruins to build walls, Hippersley's workmen found what is believed to have been the mummified body of Richard de Luci with hair still attached to the skull. Contemporary reports say it was found under the choir on the north side of the altar in a lead lined stone coffin, the cover of which bore an effigy of a knight in armour. Several other tombs and tomb stones including one bearing a carving of a richly attired lady were also uncovered.

Although these finds became a bit of a local attraction and were frequently visited at the time, no physical evidence of them was found during the later excavations. It is clear from other documentation that de Luci was definitely buried at Lesnes under the Choir. Hippersley also stated that he reburied the body along with all the other artefacts, marking the spot with a bay tree. However, no remains of Richard de Luci have ever been found.

Hippersley quickly ran into financial trouble and sold up to Thomas Hawes of London just two years later. Having no decendants, Hawes bequeathed the land and buildings to Christ's Hospital School upon his wife's death.

Christ's Hospital School had been founded by Edward VI in 1552 as the first Bluecoat School and the pupils still wear the traditional tudor blue coats today. From the death of his wife in 1688 until 1930 the abbey land was owned by the school and run as a farm.

In 1753 the historian William Stukeley reported a visit he had made to the Abbey. He noted that the north wall of the church was still largely standing, but much of the ruin was buried or covered in vegetation, as by then it was a busy farm. He made a special note of a flourishing bay tree which he assumed to be the one planted by Hippersley.

It is clear from the plan of the Abbey drawn by Stukeley that he mistakenly thought that the Frater was the Church. He would have drawn this conclusion because it was north of the cloister, contained the bay tree and had the remains of a pulpit.

The Manor House was demolished in 1845 to make way for a modern farm house constructed on its foundations which was by comparison to the old building a complete eyesore. The Tudor barn, which was located to the East of the manor survived as the last remaining part of the abbey.

Abbey Farm, as it had become known, was finally acquired by London County Council in 1930 and opened as a public park in 1931 after the demolition of the farmhouse and several other buildings including the dilapidated barn. In 1986 the site was transferred to the London Borough of Bexley and in 2018 it was updated and made more accessible.

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History of the Abbey - Excavations1.6


Between 1909 and 1913 permission was granted for the site to be excavated by Woolwich & District Antiquarian Society and this remains the most thorough excavation to this day.

The most significant discovery was a highly detailed stone effigy of a Knight in mixed mail and plate armour, unfortunately lacking its head. Having been buried for many years, it retains detail lost in many other contemporary examples.

The depiction of a pike fish (a luce) on the clothing and shield indicates that it represented a member of the founding de Luci family. At almost 2 meters in length it would have formed part of an imposing tomb. This artefact is on display at the Victoria and Albert museum in central London.

Other remnants of tombs include the coffin slab for Abbott Fulc found near the centre of the Chapter house with an inscription describing him as "The good Abbot Fulc. " and one for Avelina, daughter of Richard de Luci, discovered on the east side of the Chapter house.

No remains of Richard de Luci were found, casting doubt on the reports from the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved mummified body in 1630.

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery was the mummified heart of the Abbey founder's great great granddaughter, Roesia of Dover, buried in a metal box in the Lady Chapel and now reinterred in the North Transcept.

In the late 1950's further work was done at the site to consolidate and protect the ruins making them safe and stable for future generations.

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Fish Pond Viewing Platform2.1

Fish ponds

Fish were an important part of the monastic diet since it did not count as meat, but was still high in protein.

Like all monks, the canons at Lesnes Abbey could only eat meat on certain days and according to their rules strictly only once a week.

To provide an ample supply of fish an abbey like Lesnes had its own managed fish ponds, and these were excavated when the abbey was built for that purpose.

Today they are a haven for wildlife, both aquatic and airborne.

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Riverside Gardens3.1

Erith Pleasure Gardens

Erith has a long history dating back to Anglo Saxon times, but Henry VIII put it on the map by building a naval dockyard very close to this park known as the Riverside Gardens. As a result Erith grew as a small port serving overspill from London.

For a short while in the 1840's Erith became a tourist destination and paddle steamers would bring visitors to a specially constructed berth and hotel to enjoy the countryside and Pleasure Gardens that had been constructed by the river.

The arrival of the railway shortly after brought industrialisation to the area, and the tourist trade faded. The current Riverside Gardens are actually created on the site of a demolished factory, the original Pleasure Gardens are now the site of a large supermarket and shopping centre further east.

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Pilgrim's Ferry Plaque and Pier4.1

The Pilgrim's Ferry

The long pier here marks the site where a passenger ferry plied the Thames from 1199 managed by Lesnes Abbey and used by Pilgrims from Essex on their way to Canterbury Cathedral and the tomb of Thomas a Becket.

Unfortunately a ferry here is no longer financially viable, although Rainham Marshes on the other side of the Thames is well worth a visit.

A pilgrimage was not just about getting to the destination as quickly as possible, it was an act dedicated to God to show your devotion to Christ and your credentials for a place in heaven.

Medieval England was also not the safest place to travel about in and furthermore affordable and reliable places to stay were rare. Lesnes Abbey, with its Lady Chapel and guest house was, therefore, a perfect stop off point for any Pilgrim.

From Lesnes, they would have progressed South and joined the main Pilgrim's Way that joined Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral.

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St John the Baptist5.1

St John the Baptist's Church

This is a church of two halves, the oldest part having been built around 1100 by the Normans.

When you enter, the large heavy oak door is over 700 years old and a part of the original church moved here to accommodate the Victorian extension added in the late nineteenth century which you enter once over the threshold.

On the right-hand side you can enter the base of the church tower where the walls are lined with tomb stones from Lesnes Abbey.

In the nave, the southern side still retains some of the original features including carvings at the top of the columns.

Moving towards the Altar you enter the original Norman part of the church and this becomes quite obvious when you look at the walls.

In the Vestry on the left you can see tiles from Lesnes Abbey and the fireplace surround is constructed from vaulting ribs from one of the North Transcept Chapels.

On the right is the Wheatley Chapel, another ancient part of the church and this includes a large tomb for the Countess of Shrewsbury who was granted the rights to the land by Henry VIII. You will also find two tomb stones from Lesnes Abbey here, including the tomb of Avaline de Luci. On the floor are some beautiful brasses.

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Tumulus (Ancient Burial Tomb)6.1


This is an ancient Bronze Age burial site of an important person from that time. There would have been many in the area, but this one remains preserved by being in an undeveloped area.

The prehistoric builders of these monuments chose high ground as the marsh land nearer the river was wet and unhealthy. In South East London these often were on the river escarpment overlooking the Thames.

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The Clearing and Heathland

Despite being quite close to the edge of the woods, this clearing at the highest point in abbey woods is peaceful and quite distinctive.

It offers an insight into how the area would have looked when it was still primarily wild heathland with its small trees and plentiful heather.

This area is one of the best for spotting wildlife as it is so open, and also offers a good spot for a picnic.

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Green Chain Walk8.1

Green Chain Walk

The Green Chain Walk is a set of linked footpaths in South East London that connect various green areas providing walkers with a way to escape the urban sprawl.

This part of the Green Chain Walk takes you down to the abbey ruins and is an extremely old right of way as can be seen from the way the path is cut into the landscape.

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The Green Man9.1

Green Man

This carving of "The Green Man" is one of the earliest tree carvings in the woods.

The Green Man is an ancient pagan symbol and is characterised by a man's face surrounded by forest foliage which is integral to his form as if he is part of the woodland.

The origin of the Green Man is lost in time, but he is an international symbol and represents how mankind and nature are strongly bound together.

Imagery of the Green Man persists today for many reasons, the first being that it remains a highly evocative figure. However, another key reason is that in early Christianity the Green Man was used as a bridge between the old pagan religion and the new view of Jesus Christ as the saviour of mankind.

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View over Abbey10.1

View Over Abbey

This point offers the best view of the Abbey as it is the highest point from which the ruins are visible.

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Passage to Infirmary11.1

Passage to the Infirmary

The Infirmary has no remains above ground and so there is nothing to see today, but the infirmary would have been substantial, extending directly east from this passage way out towards the woods.

The infirmary was entered through this passage which led from the parlour to the misericord or waiting room and was kept separate from the main abbey to avoid the risk of disease being transmitted.

The sick were held in a large hall in the centre and there was a chapel sited at the eastern end. The infirmary chapel was very important as the infirmary served as a place where a seriously ill canon would receive assistance in preparing his soul for death.

It also had its own kitchen so the sick, elderly, or those who just needed rest could have their special dietary requirements catered for.

The canons were required to care for their sick brethren and so running the infirmary was a key part of their duties.

At the start of this passage there is a line made of tiles filling a small trench through the middle of the flooring. This indicates the course of a lead water pipe that would have served the infirmary.

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The Parlour

The name of this room is derived from the French word for speaking, "parler" and is where the canons were allowed to converse with each other, since apart from important instructions when working together, silence had to be maintained throughout the rest of the abbey.

As in most abbeys, it is situated next to the chapter-house where abbey business was conducted and also provides the entry point to the infirmary via the misericord, or waiting room.

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Parlour - Stairs to the Dorter12.2

Stairs to the Dorter

The Dorter, or Dormitary, was on the top floor and where the canons slept. It was accessed by these wide stairs which led directly to the cloister providing an easy route to the church for night services, the earliest of which was at 2:00am.

There would have been doors at the top and bottom of the stairs and a passage into the subvault level with the third step.

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Eastern Processional Door13.1

Eastern Processional Door

With its large steps up to the church, this would have been one of the busiest parts of the Abbey as the canons would have passed here, in a formal procession, on their way to and from the church for the eight masses each day, either from their beds in the Dorter at night, or from their other activities around the abbey during the day.

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Choir and Tower14.1

The Choir

Stand before the three steps that lead up to the main choir. Either side of you you can see the bases of the massive columns that would have supported the central tower.

The choir would have been constructed from wood and beautifully decorated with rows of seats for the choristers on either side. An elaborate wooden screen would both conceal and separate the choir from the nave, but still allow the congregation to see the alter through the presbytery.

The aim was that the sound of the voices of the choir combined with the size and beauty of the church would inspire awe and spirituality.

Tomb Stone

The tomb stone here is one of many found during the twentieth century excavations, and it is not known who it belonged to. Its placing here is in keeping with the view that the founder of the abbey, Richard de Lucy, was buried under the choir, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is the site of his tomb and it is more likely that the small tomb now in the presbytery is his.

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Choir and Tower - The Music14.2


Until Martin Luther introduced congregational singing as part of his protestant revolution in the sixteenth century, attending church was a relatively passive affair. The congregation did not sing, but instead listened and would have recited certain tributes when indicated by the priest, "amen" being the most common.

The choir would have originally been made up solely of the canons and they would have sung early Latin hymns as well as performing the more elaborate Gregorian chants.

Later, lay canon and other lay people, especially choir boys, would have been involved in the singing as each canon was allowed to appoint substitutes. The canons would have provided lessons for these new choristers.

Women and girls would not have been allowed in the choir as women were expected to be silent in church.

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Choir and Tower - The Tower14.3

Church Tower

Behind the choir you can see the four large supporting columns of the church tower. These give an idea of the stature of the tower which would have risen to a height of around 20 metres, the same as a six storey building.

Either side of the tower are the Trancepts which provided access to various Chapels, including the Lady Chapel on the south side.

Medieval Tiles

By the column that would have been the South East corner of the central tower you will find some of the original medieval flooring tiles that were recovered from the excavation.

Being exposed to the elements they are not as clear as they would once have been, but if you look carefully you can see the outlines of the patterns and colours that once would have filled the Abbey floor.

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Entrance to the Church15.1

Entrance to the Church

This was the entrance for the congregation. The canons had other entrances connected directly to the cloister through which they could enter.

The whole purpose of the Abbey was the worship of God and to spread the teachings of the Bible which ordinary people had no access to as there were no printing presses and it was written in Latin.

Consequently the Church was the most important building as well as the only public space in the Abbey.

A lay person, as part of the congregation, would normally have only been permitted to be in the nave and the aisles. There is a small flight of three stairs in the centre which led up to the choir and indicate the end of the nave.

Exceptions might be made in some cases, for example if a pilgrim wished to see the relics or tombs in the Chapels.

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Entrance to the Church - Columns15.2

Original Columns

On the left, as you walk into the ruins of the church, are some of the best preserved column bases in the abbey where you can see the detail of the carving, including a leaf motif.

As with all churches and abbeys of this period the columns would have been ornate, but not overly so. Designed to impress, but also be appropriate as the house of God, the Church would have been as tall as it is wide with the tower providing an impressive landmark for miles around.

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Entrance to the Church - The Nave15.3

The Nave

The public would have stood here between the first twelve columns which separate the nave from the two aisles.

The aisles allowed access to this space as well as movement around the Church. The aisles were also the location of tombs and other artefacts bequeathed to the church.

The priest would conduct the service at the altar facing east with his back to the congregation.

It is interesting to note that when the ruins were part of Abbey Farm, the nave contained an orchard and a row of pig sties.

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Entrance to the Church - Services and Mass15.4

The Services

The Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office is the official set of psalms, hymns, readings and prayers that must be regularly performed by the canons in the church. It was written down in a book called the Misal.

The Misal for Lesnes Abbey was specially commissioned by Richard de Luci and is now held at the Victoria and Albert museum. In the first page above, the illuminated P is filled with three Pike fish (or Luce), the symbol of the de Luci family, indicating that the document was written specifically for the abbey.


The first page shown above is the start of Mass:

Unto the ages of ages. Amen. (Per omnia secula seculorum. Amen)
The Lord be with you. (Dominus vobiscum. )
And with thy spirit. (Et cum spiritu tuo. )
Lift up your hearts. (Sur sum corda)
We have them with the Lord. (Habemus ad Dominum. )
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. (Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro. )
It is meet and just. (Dignum et justum est. )

It is truly meet and just, (Vere dignum et justum est,)
right and salutary, (aequum et salutare,)
that we should always and in all thanks to thee, (nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere,)
O holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal [God]. (Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne [Deus]. )

To save space the scribes of the manuscript adopted a special short hand, for example spu represents spiritu. The abbreviations are indicated by a line over the missing letters.

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