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Points of Interest
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History of the Abbey
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Per omnia secula seculorum.
Amen) The Lord be with you.
) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Lady Chapel was added in the fourteenth century and excavations suggest it was a very important part of the Abbey.
Roesia of Dover's mummified heart was uncovered here in 1909 sealed in a metal casket.
Also found were some remnants of a stained glass window and an impressive tomb effigy, possibly of the Abbey Founder Richard de Luci.
This is now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Between the two sets of steps there would have been a highly decorated wooden shrine containing religious relics, the bones or possessions of a dead saint.
Notes made in one of the missals from the abbey library state that the relics included part of a handkerchief from the Virgin Mary from which the chapel's name arises, but also relics from Thomas a Becket: part of his chasuble and gown worn while giving mass, part of a handkerchief and part of the cerecloth used to embalm his body.
The grave of Thomas a Becket was opened in 1220 to facilitate reburial and it is known that several fragments of bone and other items were removed at that time and given to churches bearing his name.
Ecclisiastical records of 1371 document the reconstruction of the Lady Chapel, but, more importantly state that in it "our Lord has deigned to work many miracles".
The Lady Chapel may, therefore, have been rebuilt to provide room for a feretory for these new relics to attract the pilgrims heading to Canterbury who were passing in great numbers as the abbey was, and still is, on The Pilgrims Way.
This publicity would have created additional income from the pilgrims for the abbey.
The canons already ran a ferry across the Thames at Erith to assist pilgrims from Rainham in Essex in making their journey.
The unusual sunken chamber behind the shrine would have also been built at that time and was accessed from the Presbytery.
Destruction of the Shrine
The Presbytery and Lady Chapel appear to have been the most damaged parts of the abbey following its closure.
In 1538, Henry VIII, who had made himself supreme head of the church in England, ordered Thomas a Becket to be unsainted, his shrine at Canterbury completely and utterly obliterated, and all traces of him and his name to be eradicated.
For Henry VIII, Thomas a Becket was not just a Catholic traitor, he was an existential threat because of his popularity.
At the time his shrine at Canterbury was one of the three most visited shrines in the whole of Europe.
Lesnes Abbey had already been dissolved for two years by 1538, but since it was owned by Henry's Secretary of State at the time, it has to be assumed that any remaining references to Thomas a Becket in the ruins would have been thoroughly destroyed.
A stone effigy of a de Luci knight, possibly Richard de Luci, was found in a vault under the Lady Chapel during the twentieth century excavations.
It is extremely well preserved as it had been buried for hundreds of years rather than being exposed to the dangers of public display.
Although it is missing its head, a result of the wanton destruction of the abbey after dissolution, the fine detail is remarkable, especially of the lion at the Knight's feet.
The effigy is on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert museum.
The Presbytery or Chancel is the space before the steps up to the Altar and was used by the canon conducting mass as the priest.
It was also known as the sanctuary, the most holy place in the church, and the place that those fleeing the law could seek safety from arrest.
This peculiar loophole was recognised in law from the fourth century until the seventeenth.
The Presbytery was one of the most completely demolished parts of the Abbey and the small tomb on the left in front of the steps up to the site of the Altar was found badly damaged and already torn open during the twentieth century excavations.
Members of the public were not allowed in this space except by invitation.
The provision of the sunken chamber is further indication that there was a relic in the Abbey that had a well known reputation for enabling miracles.
Sometimes referred to as a "holy hole", such features are rare.
A similar one still exists behind the high altar of Winchester Cathedral allowing pilgrims to get as close as possible to the tomb of St.
Swithin who was reputed to have healing powers.
At Lesnes Abbey it probably allowed physical access to the back or base of a feretory, an ornate container for holy relics, which would have been on display in an elaborate wooden shrine in the Lady Chapel.
Since access to it was through the Presbytery access would have had to be granted by a canon, no doubt in return for a donation.
The plan of a church is designed to be in the shape of a cross with the most sacred part at the top facing east and the two transcepts forming the arms of the cross.
The North Transcept contains three chapels on the eastern wall.
Originally the South Transcept would have also contained three chapels, but these were replaced with the much larger Lady Chapel to hold the most significant relic of the church.
Each Chapel would have contained a small altar and be available for private prayer.
The middle of the three chapels contains a plaque where the mummified heart of Roesia of Dover was reinterred after being uncovered in 1909 sealed in a metal casket in the Lady Chapel.
Roesia, or Rose, was born in 1186 and and as the last surviving decendent of Richard de Luci inherited his lands including Lesnes Manor.
Throughout her adult years she fought hard to keep her hereditary interest in the Manor of Lesnes at a time when a woman's property automatically transferred to the husband when they married.
In 1214, when she married Richard FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of King John, he became the owner of Lesnes Manor.
Rather like his father, he was a rogue, and got into significant debts.
He did support Rose when her inheritance of the Manor was challenged, but this was only because of his financial interest in it.
The challenge eventually culminated in a successfully fought duel which, needless to say, he had a champion fight for him.
He continued to live beyond his means and by 1229 he was declared insolvent potentially spelling ruin for Rose as all her estates apart from Lesnes Manor were sold.
In 1232, an unusual intervention by Henry III ordered the sheriff of Kent that Richard could not sell any of Rose's inherited land without the King's permission and so at long last Lesnes Manor was safe as a source of income for Rose.
Her troubles continued until Richard died in 1247.
Three years later she paid a substantial forfeit so that she could marry again.
William of Wilton, a prominent Judge, became her new husband and happier times followed.
She was finally able to be rid of her first husband's debts in 1256.
Rose died in 1261 at the age of 75 and her husband must have overseen her burial, ensuring that her wishes were carried out.
Wilton died at the battle of Lewes three years later in 1264.
The separate burial of heart and body had become a fashionable practice among the aristocracy in the 12th Century.
It was especially common for casualties in the crusades to be buried where they fell, but have the heavily perfumed mummified heart sent home.
For Rose, Lesnes Abbey was part of her heritage and had been a constant source of spiritual support throughout her life.
She would have felt it right that her heart would be united with it.
She would also have been aware that Saint Augustine had been a strong critic of resurrectionist beliefs which favoured burying the body whole.
The internment of her heart in the abbey, away from her body, would have been a symbolic act in support of the abbey and its principles.
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.
The sacristy is where the priest and attendants got dressed and prepared before conducting a service.
Unlike Benedictine monasteries, all of the canons in a Augustine abbey would be ordained as priests after completing their seminary training.
Sacristies usually contain a special wash basin, called a piscina used to wash linens used during the celebration of the Holy Communion.
Since the water was holy it had to be drained into the ground and not treated as normal waste water.
The sacristy is also the secure store house for all the valuable items used in the church for services, such as hangings and chalices.
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.
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.
The Chapter House is a relatively large room where the canons would have had regular formal meetings at least once a day.
This was referred to as "holding chapter" because it would always include the reading of a chapter from the Rule of Augustine by the Abbot or another senior canon.
As with most monasteries, the Chapter House is situated on the eastern side of the cloister, as near to the church as possible.
At Lesnes Abbey it is a rectangular room, but it was quite common for the chapter-house to be polygonal to make the seating arrangements more equal.
The canons sat around the walls on tiered wooden benches and the stone work supporting these is still prominent and can even be sat on.
At the eastern end of the room was the chair of the abbot, with a crucifix or other religious symbols placed over it.
The room would have been wood panelled and elaborately decorated, possibly with portraits of past Abbots.
The abbey officials, presided over by the abbot, would execute all the important administrative business of the abbey in the Chapter House.
All the canons would be present so that they were kept informed of what was happening in the Abbey.
For example, it was here that they would agree whether to accept new members into their community.
Chapter Meetings would also included a short devotion, the open confession of sin, and the meting out of punishment, which, if it were corporal, was administered during the meeting itself.
Also known as the refectory, this was the room where all meals were taken.
To avoid noise and smells of the food being served from reaching the Church, it was located on the opposite side of the cloister quadrangle.
Only one meal was served per day, and for that meal the canons processed from the church through the cloister to the refectory, underwent washing at the lavatory sinks, washing their hands, faces, and knives, and then, when the Kitchener announced the meal was ready, they processed into the frater.
They sang psalms before and after taking their meal.
The Frater-House walls would have been wood panelled and the room furnished with large tables arranged lengthways where the canons would sit, backs to the walls, with the Abbot and other senior canons seated at one end on a raised dais.
The floor would be covered in hay and herbs and the walls decorated with sacred symbols such as a crucifix and paintings.
Meals were eaten in silence and a small bell was rung to indicate the start of each course.
Any food left uneaten at the end of the meal was taken into a basket and given to the poor.
The steps up to a pulpit can be seen in the centre of the north wall.
The pulpit allowed one of the senior canons to oversee the novices and recite psalms and other scriptures.
Psalms were sung before and after the meal.
There is a bay tree growing here today to the right of the pulpit, perhaps as a reminder of Richard de Luci, whose body was reburied under a bay tree by Sir John Hippersley.
When the first documented examination of the ruins took place in 1753, by historian William Stukeley, he mistook the refectory for the church, because it was north of the cloister, and this is normally where the church would be sited.
Ironically this bay tree is located where the choir would have been had the refectory been the church, and it was under the choir that Richard de Luci is known to have been buried.
It's worth noting that bay trees do not live forever, they typically survive for up to 50 years.
It is very likely that the occupants of the farm would have wished to maintain the tradition of the bay tree and replaced them as they died, especially as bay is a very useful herb.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the back of the Dorter or Dormitory on the first floor were the wash rooms and toilets, known as the Reredorter and Garderobes.
This was a communal area and was located close to the upstairs sleeping area for convenience, but also positioned such that there was a water course to take away the dirty water, urine and excrement.
What can be seen today is the underside of the reredorter.
The canons were required to take personal hygiene very seriously and had to wash themselves in cold water thoroughly before each prayer session.
The fact that the Warming Room is in the undercroft of the Dorter near the Reredorter suggests there may have been a fresh water supply provided here for the purpose of washing.
The luxury of a bath with hot water taken from the kitchen was generally only permitted a few times a year.
Covered by iron bars today for safety reasons, these were the urinals and toilets used by the canons and were situated over the watercourse so that the unpleasant waste would be washed away by the water from the reredorter and kitchens.
Normally a stone watercourse would exist to channel the waste water away as quickly as possible, but no evidence of this was found.
All monasteries required an ample and reliable water supply, not only for drinking and washing, but also for brewing and other tasks.
Many were built on a river or stream, but this is not the case for Lesnes Abbey.
Geographically, the buildings are situated at the northern end of a small valley and this provided the opportunity to capture and store water flowing down from the high ground.
An earthen work dam was built about 500 meters up the valley to create a small reservoir known as the Conduit Pond.
This still exists today, but would have been much larger and deeper when it was in use.
The water would have been channelled to the Abbey by gravity, but there is no evidence on exactly how this was achieved, but it would most likely have followed the contours and then run underground along the west wall, through the brew house and kitchen before reaching the reredorter.
It was common to use hollowed tree trunks as water pipes in medieval times and even as late as the eighteenth century.
These survived well as long as they were kept waterlogged, but once out of use rot and deteriorated rapidly.
Lead pipes may have also been used as they were in other sites such as Waltham Abbey especially as the run was relatively short, but these would have been normally been protected by stone conduits and some evidence of these should have been traceable and found unless they were taken and reused for another building.
Lead piping would definitely have been used within the abbey itself feeding the water to the kitchens, brewhouse, washing areas and infirmary.
A later addition to the water supply was a large circular well which can be found in the south east corner behind the ornamental garden.
There are no remains of this building visible today but it stood between the Dorter and the Mulberry Tree where it could share the kitchen and garderobes of the main building.
It would have stood out from the abbey as it was built with brick and timber rather than ragstone.
By the fourteenth century the abbots of the larger religious houses found an increasing need to act as hosts for important guests.
Being on the Pilgrim's Way, guests would have been common at Lesnes Abbey.
To preserve the tranquility of the dormitory, many such abbey's built separate accommodation for the abbot, some quite sumptuous.
This allowed him to entertain important guests in the style they were accustomed too, without disrupting the austerity of monastic life for the canons.
Considering nothing remains of it today, it is somewhat ironic that the Abbot's Lodging was actually the last habited part of the abbey to remain standing.
Being the most modern and luxurious building, it was retained and converted into a house known as Lesnes Manor while the other monastic buildings gradually disappeared as they were "quarried" for stone used to construct walls and other buildings such as Well Hall Place in Bexley.
The site is also home to a striking mulberry, now supported by steel props and fenced off to protect it from being climbed.
The mulberry tree has been valued since Roman times for medicinal reasons, and also for their tasty berries in Tudor times.
This tree is most likely to have been planted around 1720 as part of an initiative by King James I who wanted to set up his own English silk industry.
He imported thousands of trees from Europe and as well as planting his own Mulberry Orchard, required land owners to plant Mulberry trees.
At this time Lesnes Abbey grounds were part of Lesnes Manor and so it is likely that this tree, like others, was planted then.
Unfortunately the Mulberry trees imported were black ones rather than white ones.
Although the black variety is more suited to the English climate, silk worms only thrive on the white variety.
As a result the English silk productin industry never really got off the ground.
Today only the original kitchen and storage rooms remain along with the brew house, all located to the west of the Frater.
This small kitchen would have been the only kitchen before the construction of the Abbot's Lodging.
The canons would have prepared their own food on a rota basis, often soups or stews served with bread.
These formed a staple part of the monastic diet which was not meant to be extravagant.
Later, in the fifteenth century, when the canons' lives became considerably less austere, a second, larger kitchen was built on the other side of the Frater wall to serve both the abbey and the new abbot's lodging.
The original kitchen was retained, probably for making bread and pastry.
Nothing of the new kitchen remains today and this explains why the serving Hatch appears to connect the Frater to the outside.
The new kitchen was separated from the Frater by the original exterior wall and this simple serving hatch was built so that food could be passed between the rooms.
The flat base is made from an old tombstone.
The new kitchen would have been staffed by lay-canons and produced more elaborate fare both for the canons, and for the abbot in his lodging.
By the time of the dissolution, the kitchens and cuisine in some of the richest monasteries were comparable to those in stately homes, but at Lesnes, with its troubles, it would have probably remained a much more modest affair.
Augustine abbeys were not as strict as the Benedictine ones in terms of eating, but would have still only normally had one meal which was taken at midday.
A meal was served with bread and ale and would have consisted of two, or sometimes, three courses.
Fruit and vegetables would be accompanied with fish, poultry or cheese.
Red meat would have been allowed perhaps once a week, but this gradually became more often as the rules were relaxed over the centuries.
If you were ill enough to be in the infirmary, to speed your recovery you were not bound by the rules until you were better.
Other ingredients such as herbs and honey would also occasionally be added to meals to improve the taste, and on occasions wine might be made available.
The kitchen equipment was fairly basic and designed for mass catering.
It consisted of spits, large cauldrons, pans, ladles and, of course, knives.
On rare occasions the cauldrons would also have been used to provide hot water for shaving and bathing.
In the North of Europe, which lacked the climate to grow vines reliably and make wine, monks perfected the art of making beer, or more correctly, ale.
Many monasteries are still famous for their rather fruity ales, especially the Trappist monasteries in Belgium.
Lesnes Abbey was no exception and this is its brew house where ale would be made for internal consumption, but also as a source of revenue.
Brewing was one of the crafts that the canons were expected to excel at.
In this room you can see the remains of a hearth which would have probably been the site of the kiln used to dry the grain and on the west wall can be seen the remains of a rectangular vat and a channel running along the wall.
In medieval times every Abbey had a brew house and the canons became master brewers.
The canons would brew beer for themselves, for guests and even for paying customers.
It was a common practice to maximise the yield from the grain mash by taking three runnings.
The first would have the highest alcohol content and best flavour and would be reserved for guests or sold.
The second, about three percent alcohol, would be drunk by the canons and the third weakest brew given to the poor.
The canons would drink one or two pints of beer each day.
Athough that may sound a bit unusual for the House of God, in those times beer was much safer and more pleasant to drink than the untreated water that was available.
This was because the heat process killed bacteria, the alcohol acted as a preservative and the malt disguised any unpleasant tastes.
Strictly speaking the Abbey would have been brewing ale, the term for beer made without hops, as hops did not become commonly used until after the dissolution.
For flavouring the canons would have added a mixture of herbs grown in the cloister garth called gruit which were generally not bitter, so the ale would have been quite sweet.
It would also have been a darker colour than is common today with a slightly smokey taste as the malt was often roasted over an open fire and became slightly charred.
Since ale does not keep as well as beer, the production process at the abbey would have been continuous, with the grain supply being used for both bread making and brewing.
Hops eventually took over from Gruit as they not only add a more pleasing bitter flavour, they also act to stabilise and preserve the beer.
Lesnes Abbey had its own hop yard behind the barn in later days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.