Description of Thornton Abbey

Thornton’s late 14th-century gatehouse, a rare surviving example of early brick architecture, is the outstanding feature of the abbey’s visible remains. Part of the boldly designed chapter house also stands, while 19th-century excavations exposed the foundations of the church and cloister, built between 1261 and about 1418. The remainder of the abbey complex can be understood through well-preserved earthworks.

Carved figures on the gatehouse, Thornton Abbey
Carved figures above the gatehouse doorway. Many other stone figures would have stood on the gatehouse ‘battlements’ but most are now lost


Thornton’s three-storey outer gatehouse (1377–82) is largely built of brick, which originally would have been concealed by render. The building was adorned with features copied from military architecture, including turrets, battlements, arrowloops and a portcullis.

Post-medieval sources indicate that the gatehouse once carried dozens of religious and allegorical statues, although most are now lost.[1] The stonework at the rear is covered with post-medieval graffiti, including a sketch of a ship, illustrating the continued importance of the nearby Humber estuary.

The roof, floors and windows were reinstated by the 1st Earl of Yarborough in about 1832.[2] The gatehouse rooms were probably originally used as offices. They perhaps housed the abbey court, where the abbot sat in judgment over minor disputes and grievances brought by tenants of the abbey lands. The first-floor oriel window (around which are some of the numerous surviving masons’ marks)[3] allowed glimpses of the abbey precinct.

In 1900 the 4th Earl fitted a ‘Tudor Gothic’ purpose-built custodian’s cottage (still occupied) into the angle of a surviving medieval wall behind the gatehouse. The cottage’s front door is in the location and approximate form of a gateway shown in earlier depictions (see Research on Thornton Abbey).

Barbican and Moats

A long barbican projecting from the gatehouse spans a broad moat (now usually dry). Both are slightly later than the gatehouse, although there may well have been a drainage ditch around the abbey perimeter from as early as the 12th century. Though the barbican walls are punctuated by arrowloops, the structure appears to have been primarily symbolic rather than defensive, for there is no evidence of any significant barrier at the outer end.

The moat is one of several that surrounded and subdivided the main precinct and the North Bail (probably the site of the main monastic farm or ‘home grange’), covering 30.2ha in total (see downloadable map, right). The circuit was completed on the east by the Skitter Beck and, perhaps, by a mere, dammed by the embankment that carries College Road across the valley.[4]

View of the chapter house remains, Thornton Abbey
The two surviving walls of the chapter house, with the gatehouse in the background

Church, Chapter House and Cloister

The floor level of the church, cloister and lost portion of the chapter house were exposed by excavations.[5] No trace of the pre-1264 church was identified, though the tomb of the abbey’s founder, William Le Gros, was reportedly still visible in 1539,[6] suggesting that the earlier church was on the same site.

The church begun in 1264 had a huge east window, probably imitating that of the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral. Two walls of the octagonal chapter house, built 1282–1308, survive to almost their full height, displaying tracery that also recalls that of the Angel Choir.

The abbot’s lodging probably initially occupied the west range of the cloister, although a geophysical survey in 2011 identified what may be a separate abbot’s house south of the chapter house.

Other Visible Medieval Structures

These include:[7]

  • the remains of a ‘new hall’ recorded in 1313[8] and converted in the 17th century into the present Abbot’s Lodge
  • the ruinous south gate
  • a tiny (but elegant) bridge over a mill race north of the church
  • College Bridge (probably late 14th-century), which still carries College Road over the Skitter Beck.

Earthworks and Buried Remains

Throughout the main precinct the earthwork remains of other buildings, closes and fishponds are visible. Among these are the infirmary, a watermill and Sir Vincent Skinner’s short-lived house (c 1607). Though the earthworks in the North Bail were mostly ploughed flat in the 1950s, a study of earlier aerial photographs and the geophysical survey in 2011 have allowed identification of several other buildings, including a circular structure that may have been a windmill or large dovecote. 


1. Most helpful is Abraham de la Pryme’s description in 1697: see A de la Pryme, The Diaries of Abraham de la Pryme, the Yorkshire Antiquary, Surtees Society, 54 (Durham, London and Edinburgh, 1870; accessed 23 January 2013), coupled with the 1726 engraving of the frontage by S Buck (see Sources for Thornton Abbey). At least one of the medieval statues that now adorn the building is not in its original position.
2. A 1797 watercolour by J-C Nattes (private collection) helpfully depicts the interior at that date, when the building lacked a roof, windows and floors.
3. Comprehensively recorded in the later 20th century and reproduced in A Oswald et al, Thornton Abbey, North Lincolnshire: Historical, Archaeological and Architectural Investigations, English Heritage Research Department Report 100/2010 (Swindon, 2010), fig 22.
4. The potential of an embankment across the valley of the Skitter Beck to act as a dam was dramatically illustrated by flooding in June 2007; ibid, section 5.2.
5. There was very limited archaeological recording and no report that would meet modern standards arose from any of these investigations, but the essence of the findings was collated in the wake of the 1936–53 excavations: see A Clapham, ‘Thornton Priory, Lincolnshire’, Archaeological Journal, 103 (1946), 172–4 (accessed 23 Jan 2013); A Clapham, Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire (London, 1951); A Clapham and PK Baillie Reynolds, Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire (London, 1956; reprinted 1963). For an account of the process and physical traces left by the earlier excavations, see Oswald et al, op cit, section 4.1.
6. According to the inventory begun the day after the abbey’s suppression; see EH Minns, ‘Documents relating to the dissolution of the monastery of Thornton Curtis in the county of Lincoln left by the Rev. Charles Parkyn to Pembroke College, Cambridge’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 10 (1898), 493.
7. These structures and the earthwork remains are discussed in Oswald et al, op cit.
8. Thornton Chronicle (Bodleian Library, Tanner MS 166), 42; this re-interpretation of the so-called Abbot’s Lodge was reached by G Coppack, ‘The precinct of Thornton Abbey, south Humberside: the planning of a major Augustinian house’, in Land, People and Landscapes: Essays on the History of the Lincolnshire Region, ed D Tyszka, K Miller and G Bryant (Lincoln, 1991), 40.

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