Research on Thornton Abbey

Until recently Thornton Abbey was under-researched in relation to its size, significance and standard of preservation. In 2007 English Heritage began to redress this through a programme of non-invasive research. This was followed by an excavation-based project launched in 2011 by Sheffield University.

Engraving of the rear of the gatehouse, Thornton Abbey and Gatehouse, 1832
Engraving (1832) by JN Rhodes and A Watkins showing the rear of the gatehouse and the small gateway (right) later destroyed by the insertion of a custodian’s cottage. This is one of the historic images of Thornton analysed in recent research by English Heritage

Early Research

The excavations of the 1830s and 1850s were, quite typically, incompletely recorded and published by modern standards.[1] Those of 1936–53 were also characteristic of their day, but the resulting publications provided more detailed accounts, and made a clearer distinction between evidence and inference.[2]

This early research concentrated on the medieval period and aimed to recover ground-plans for display to visitors and to identify the physical remains of the principal buildings documented in the Thornton Chronicle. Consequently, many questions that now concern researchers, even those that do relate to the medieval abbey – about its setting, economy and development – were barely addressed.

Recent and Current Research

English Heritage’s non-invasive investigations in 2007–10[3] comprised fresh primary documentary research (with previously unpublished images reproduced in the report) and a reappraisal of secondary sources. They also encompassed:

  • a re-examination of the building remains
  • a detailed earthwork survey of almost 7 hectaares of the most complex part of the main precinct
  • transcription of the earthworks and cropmarks in the North Bail visible on aerial photographs.[4]

This research also provided an opportunity to incorporate the hitherto unpublished findings of geophysical surveys of parts of the main precinct undertaken by English Heritage in 1995, and to re-evaluate earlier excavations. Concurrent small-scale excavations also produced new information on medieval wall-lines and post-medieval use of the area immediately south of the gatehouse.[5]

All these research strands took as their starting point a 1991 analysis of the site, in turn based on a 1985 earthwork survey.[6] A 1984 desk-based study of Skinner’s early 17th-century house[7] and a 1993 analysis of the chapter house also provided further information.[8]

English Heritage’s work prompted a five-year programme of research excavations and geophysical survey by Sheffield University, which began in 2011. The interplay of medieval and post-medieval land use, particularly during the transition to private ownership, is the primary focus of this research.[9]

In 2013 the Sheffield archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing 48 skeletons, including 27 children.[10] Carbon dating and analysis of the DNA from the skeletons have shown that the people buried here were victims of the Black Death, which is known to have reached this part of Lincolnshire in 1348–9. The large burial pit suggest that the community was overwhelmed by the Black Death and the number of people who fell victim to it.

Nearby, archaeologists found the site of a medieval hospital attached to the priory. This suggests that the dead or dying had been brought here as plague struck, overwhelming the canons who then buried them together.

Nothing comparable has been found before in a rural setting, making this a discovery of national significance.


Reconstruction illustration of the east cloister walk at Thornton Abbey and Gatehouse in the 1530s
Reconstruction of the east cloister walk as it may have appeared in the 1530s. The cloister was probably destroyed in the early 17th century to make way for a designed landscape around Sir Vincent Skinner’s new house, but further research on this is still required © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

Questions for Future Research

Although the basic framework of the abbey’s layout and history from 1264 to 1547 is reasonably well understood, many questions remain about individual events and buildings within this period. The pages of the Thornton Chronicle relating to the abbacy of Thomas Gresham (1364–93) were torn out deliberately in the 17th century. This loss is all the more regrettable because it was then that the gatehouse was built and the abbey as a whole perhaps reached its zenith.

It seems highly improbable that the abbey complex experienced no change at all under the succession of owners between 1547 and about 1607, but Sheffield University’s excavations (2012) have only just begun to shed light on this period. The 2007–10 research by English Heritage highlighted problems with the long-accepted account of the ‘collapse’ of Sir Vincent Skinner’s house.

English Heritage’s research also demonstrated that the house stood within a previously unrecognised designed landscape, possibly never completed. Its creation resulted in the destruction of some of the medieval remains (eg the church and cloister buildings) and the adaptation and enhancement of others (eg the gatehouse).

Key gaps in current knowledge and areas requiring further study are:

  • the use of the site before 1140 and from 1547 to about 1607
  • the layout and survival of the early abbey (1140–1264)
  • the forms and histories of all buildings and other features surviving only as earthworks and/or sub-surface deposits
  • the mechanics of water management on and around the site, notably in relation to the supposed tide-mill(s), the navigability of the Skitter Beck, and how water levels were maintained in the moats
  • the nature of land use in the North Bail, especially in the apparently open spaces, and the condition of the remains there
  • the wider landscape context of the abbey, particularly features immediately outside the moated precinct boundary and at Skottermouth – a harbour at the mouth of the Skitter Beck apparently controlled by the abbey
  • the nature, extent and condition of the designed landscape that accompanied Sir Vincent Skinner’s house of c 1607, and the truth of the story of the house’s collapse
  • the impact of the 19th-century mass temperance movement and army gatherings
  • the effects of de-watering and excavation-related spoil-dumping, especially on waterlogged buried deposits
  • the ceramic finds (alongside the ongoing work by Sheffield University to examine post-medieval habitation on the site); grave covers/cross slabs reused within the gatehouse and under the main columns of the church; a small collection of window glass (about 50 fragments); and decorative architectural stonework and sculptures.


1. Relevant publications are J Greenwood, A Picturesque Tour to Thornton Monastery (Barrow, 1835); F Pyndar Lowe, ‘On the abbey of S Marie, at Thornton on the Humber’, Associated Architectural Society Reports and Papers, 2 (1852), 149–63 (accessed 23 Jan 2013); Anon, Handbook for Visitors to Thornton Abbey (London, 1851); JR Boyle, A Handbook to Thornton Abbey in the County of Lincoln, with Brief Notices of Adjacent Places of Interest (London, 1897); AR Maddison, ‘Notes taken of the excavated floor at Thornton Abbey, 31st August 1835’, Lincolnshire Notes and Queries, 11 (1911), 16–17 (including transcription of grave covers revealed by the 1832–5 excavations).
2. 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); PK Baillie Reynolds, Supplement to the Official Guide to Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire: the Monastic Buildings (London, 1954).
3. A Oswald et al, Thornton Abbey, North Lincolnshire: Historical, Archaeological and Architectural Investigations, English Heritage Research Department Report 100/2010 (Swindon, 2010).
4. Most of the aerial photographs are held in the Historic England Archive. The pre-1955 images are the most informative (see Sources for Thornton Abbey).
5. C Atkins, ‘A programme of archaeological work associated with the repair and development of Thornton Abbey gatehouse, north Lincolnshire’, unpublished report, English Heritage (2010).
6. 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), 37–44.
7. DL Roberts, ‘John Thorpe’s drawings for Thornton College, the house of Sir Vincent Skinner’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 19 (1984), 57–64.
8. JS Alexander, ‘The building of Thornton Abbey chapter house’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 146 (1993), 113–20 (accessed 29 Jan 2013; subscription required).
9. See also H Willmott and P Townend, ‘Thornton Abbey Project: 1st Interim Report, 2011’ (2011).
10. H Willmot et al, ‘A Black Death mass grave at Thornton Abbey: the discovery and examination of a fourteenth-century rural catastrophe’, Antiquity, 9:373 (2020), 179–96

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