MyGuide Map: Lesnes Abbey Woods - A short walk through the woods and the daffodils.

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Monk's Garden1.1

The Monk's Garden

This is now a very pleasant garden with a nice selection of seasonal plantings and some interesting sculptures. It may at one point have formed a garden for the abbey to grow herbs and vegetables.

When the site was a farm, this area along with the nave of the church, was an orchard.

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The Well

This well was constructed at some point during the lifetime of the abbey and may have been required because of the unreliability of the main water supply.

In hot dry summers it is likely that there would not have been enough rainfall to maintain the reservoir that normally supplied the abbey with water, or that the water was no longer fit for culinary or brewing purposes.

In these times fresh water would have been needed from the well.

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Female Tree Sculpture3.1

Tree Sculpture

This large totemic sculpture is by Tom "Carver" Harvey and he is responsible for most of the tree carvings in the abbey grounds and woods.

Tom's sculptures can be found all over the country as he is quite renowned for his work which is performed on-site with a chainsaw to rough out the shape and then chisels to add the fine detail.

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Wild Daffodils

The wild daffodils found in the woods are a British plant (narcissus pseudonarcissus) and can be seen from mid March to mid-April although this will vary depending on the weather. They are smaller than the ones you put in your garden and their "trumpet" is yellow, but the petals surrounding it are a much paler colour.

It is considered a native plant having been recorded in Britain since medieval times and is sometimes called the English Lent Lily because it tends to flower and die-off during Lent.

They provide a lovely carpet on the ground and large areas of the woods are fenced off to protect them as they are quite rare and will not survive being trampled on.

You will find the Daffodils throughout the woods, but walking to this location should ensure you see them.

If you want to see them with the bluebells, better to visit mid April, but they may be past their best.

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Bluebells flower from the middle of April to the middle of May depending on the weather, but Lesnes Abbey woods have plenty of them and they look great when they are out.

You will find Bluebells throughout the woods, but walking to this location should ensure you see them.

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The Green Man6.1

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 Point7.1

View Point

This pleasant spot with its steel arches emulating the windows that would have once graced the abbey, provides a view not just over the abbey, but also over the City of London.

In the opposite direction on an area of leveled ground would have stood the massive tythe barn of the abbey.

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The Dorter and Sub-vault

This long space contained a two storey building of which the walls on the western side are almost complete.

The ground floor, or sub-vault, was a vaulted under croft providing additional living space and storage for the canons. It was separated into different rooms, one of which, unusually, was the warming house, or calefactory.

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Dorter - Warming House8.2

The Warming House

The location of the Warming House, or Calefactory, is revealed by a fire hearth located at the north end of the sub-vault. For monasteries, this is an unusual position as it would normally have been much closer to the washing area in the reredorter.

Since it would have been the only heated space in the Abbey it would have been the most popular place in the winter months when the fire would have been kept alight continuously. After the night and early morning prayers in the cold of the church, the canons would congregate here by the fire and warm up.

The unusual location of the warming room may have arisen because of the poor state of repair of the buildings, making this site in the undercroft the least draughty and easiest to keep warm.

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Dorter - Dorter8.3

The Dorter or Dormitory

Upstairs, the Dorter would have originally been one large space containing beds without screens or partitions, but later it was divided into 8 separate chambers to provide more comfort.

Each chamber would have had a window with a desk and space for books. This conversion would have occurred when the Abbot's house was constructed to provide a more luxurious home for the Abbot as well as comfortable accomodation for important guests.

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Dorter - A Canon's Life8.4

A Canon's Life

The rules and essential activities of the abbey were defined in a book called the Misal. These rules also defined the daily lives of the canons which revolved around prayer and worship. Formal worship in the Church was required around the clock at eight specific times every day. It was obligatory for all the canons to take part unless they were sick.

The canons had to get up to be ready for prayers at 2:00am and, therefore, retired to bed before 8:00pm. The prayer timetable would have been as follows and would have taken place formally and communally in the church.

2:00am Matins: vigil or night prayer.

5:00am Lauds: dawn prayer so time might vary.

6:00am Prime or early morning prayer.

9:00am Terce or mid-morning prayer.

12:00am Sext or midday prayer.

3:00pm Nones or mid afternoon prayer.

5:00pm Vespers or evening prayer, recited before dark at "the lighting of the lamps" so again, the time might vary.

7:00pm Compline or the last prayer of the day after sunset, recited before retiring to the Dorter.

It was expected that the canons would stop everything they were doing immediately and attend the church at these times as worshipping God was always their most important task.

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Passage to Infirmary9.1

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 Dorter10.2

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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The Cloister

Cloister means covered walkway, and in an abbey their main purpose is to connect the various parts of the building. However, the cloister was also used for exercise, study and as a general work space.

One activity that would have occured here was hair cutting which included shaving the top of the head bald to leave just a ring of hair. This practice, known as tonsure, was required for all the canon.

At Lesnes Abbey the cloister is situated on the north side of the church which is unusual as they are usually sited on the south side where they receive more sun.

The north walk, which looked out south over the garden, captured the most sun and was the warmest. It would have contained the Abbot's seat and those of the other senior canons.

The west walk would have been reserved for the junior canons where they could be supervised by the elders practicing chants and other aspects of monastic life.

The east walk would have been a proper thoroughfare as this connected the sleeping and eating areas to the other parts of the abbey.

The southern walk, which would have been the darkest and coldest, would have probably been kept empty. The western end of it contains the door from the outside world into the heart of the Abbey.

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Cloister - What it may have looked like11.2

How it might have looked

The rectangular central space would have been surrounded by high walls each having a path next to it covered by a roof supported by columns. The centre, or cloister-garth, would have been visible through the columns and contained an attractively laid out garden with a fountain, well or other central feature. The garden would have provided space to grow specialist herbs for medicine, perfuming and brewing.

The cloister walls could have been lined with oak and may have been glazed or had shutters, so that they could be used all year round, even on the least welcoming of days. As the cloister was a working space, there would have been small desks, shelves, cupboards and bookcases to hold items for work or study.

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Western Range12.1

Western Range

This area is known as the western range and is just outside the cloister. It was an enclosed area making up the abbey precincts where much of the day to day external work of the abbey took place.

It was extensively redesigned as part of the fourteenth century rebuilding work and the doorway here was the main and official entrance into the abbey. Before it was excavated only the top third of the archway could be seen above ground.

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Western Range - Guest House12.2

The Guest House

Lesnes Abbey would have almost certainly had a guest house, because providing hospitality was a fundamental activity that Augustine abbeys were expected to perform.

As Lesnes Abbey was on the Pilgrims Way, there would have been a steady stream of poorer pilgrims seeking a bed for the night who were not expecting luxury.

If you look either side of the arched doorway you will see corbel holes for wooden beams to support an upper floor.

It is known that other abbeys had guest accommodation above this entrance so this is the most likely location and would have stretched along the wall providing storage for the cellarer underneath.

Another role for this entrance was the giving of food and other essentials to the poor and needy by a canon called the almoner. Having the guest house over the doorway would have provided some shelter for this activity.

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Western Range - Business12.3

The Abbey as a Business

By the sixteenth century most abbeys were effectively large businesses and as major land owners the abbot had to attend parliament and ensure that their estates were properly maintained. They also employed a large number of people to run the farm and abbey.

One new building added during the reconstruction was the would outer-parlour located on the north side of the range and attached to the original kitchen.

This room would have been used to conduct the ever increasing amount of business taking place with the external community and to engage with all the lay canons that were now responsible for most of the day-to-day work.

Another new building was a large tythe barn for storing the farm produce. This was located to the east of the infirmary. Like the Abbot's house this was not destroyed when the abbey was closed and was used by Abbey Farm for hundreds of years until finally being demolished when the area became a park.

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Western Range - Hauntings12.4


Lesnes Abbey by night is rumoured to be the home to three ghosts, but dont worry too much as they are not seen very often.

One manifestation is a monk who was supposedly caught in a compromising position with a woman and murdered. He returns once a year, and may have last been seen in 1981 by a teenager who reported seeing him in a brown robe holding a lantern on a hooked pole outside his window. Historically the canon at Lesnes Abbey were Augustine and would have worn black robes, so perhaps he was a visitor or in disguise.

Another is a phantom horseman said to roam the ruins. A photograph was taken in 1930 and he was seen again in 2017 by a member of a walking group. The photograph, showing a pair of stockinged legs, looks remarkably like a double exposure, but according to expert analysis is apparently definitely not.

Not suprisingly, the ghost of Roesia of Dover is also said to wander the grounds searching for her heart which was buried here by her father. However, there are no recorded sightings of her and as she actually died of natural causes at the grand old age of 75 at a time when it was common for the heart to be buried separately from the body, the story does look very much like it was made up.

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Western Range - The Environs12.5

The Abbey Environs

If you are not in a hurry you should take the path around the Abbey and try and imagine it as it would have once looked.

By the standards of the time it was a very significant set of buildings and the church was much larger than its contemporaries. Since the founder was the most powerful man in the country after the King, that is not too surprising.

It would have nestled nicely in the valley with the wooded hills providing shelter from the prevailing winds and the flat marshes that stretched north towards the river providing uninterrupted views of the ships as they passed to and from London.

In addition to the regular tolling of the church bells to signify services, there would have been a lot of hustle and bustle around the abbey as it was in effect a relatively large business. There would have been deliveries, storage, brewing, cooking and many other activities, and on top of that the day-to-day running of the abbey's farm.

Location, location, location

The abbey was not built in the most practical of locations. Poor quality land that was expensive to maintain and a lack of flowing water were the most significant issues. It would seem that the primary reason for building here was that Richard de Luci owned the land and liked it.

Monasteries like Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire were sited on rivers and surrounded by rich farm land making them incredibly wealthy through the sale of their farm produce.

Lesnes Abbey never managed anything close, and without a sustainable way to earn money it fell into massive debt.

The marsh land was only properly drained at the end of Elizabeth I's reign, but a working farm did exist on the Abbey site for 300 years after the dissolution of the monasteries.

The land down to the river was most recently the main site of munitions testing for Woolwich Arsenal.


Today the ruins look over the new town of Thamesmead with its high-rise towers and raised concrete walk way adding a twentieth century backdrop to the ruins.

Owned by the Borough of Bexley, the park and ruins have recently been made far more accessible with many explanatory signs put in place.

Despite the fact that there is relatively little remaining of the abbey, the history, charm and romanticism it invokes cannot be questioned and it well deserves its Grade II listed status.

If you have quite a lot of time you should explore the woods, especially in the spring, or even make your own mini-pilgrimage to Erith on the original Pilgrims Way and find the spot where the canon of the abbey set up a ferry service across the Thames.

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Western Range - Want to know more?12.6

Printed Version of this Guide

You can get a printed version of this guide from Amazon.

References and sources

Even today, the best reference book on Lesnes Abbey was published over 100 years ago and is "Lesnes Abbey in the Parish of Erith, Kent" by Alfred Clapham.

He was the Director of Works of the Woolwich Antiquarian Society when he oversaw the extensive archeological survey of the abbey between 1909 and 1913. He was only 26 years old at the start of the excavations and went on to become the President of the Antiquarian Society and receive a knighthood.

That book is so complete in its coverage that it has formed the base of this guide with various other sources being dipped into to provide more information on the lives of the canons.

The book can be bought as a reprint from forgotten books or found on-line at archive. org, a truly amazing internet resource where you can just search for "Lesnes Abbey" to bring up a digitised copy.

The photographs and drawings in this guide are either original or from public domain sources.

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History of the Abbey13.1


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 Abbey13.2

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 - Corruption13.3

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 - Dissolution13.4


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 Manor13.5

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 - Excavations13.6


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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