Skip to main content

The Buildings of West Malling Abbey

  • Tim Tatton-Brown

When John Newman wrote his two magnificent volumes on the buildings of Kent over thirty years ago, his great founding editor, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, described them as ‘the best of the whole series’. They were indeed exceptional volumes in the Buildings of England series, and it is very clear how well John knew Kent’s architectural monuments. One group of buildings, those of West Malling Abbey, could not, however, be examined in detail because they were within the enclosure of the Anglican Benedictine community. Part of his description of these buildings was, therefore, based on ‘inadequate photographs and pre-enclosure descriptions’ and are set in brackets in his text.

Hide All


1 The Buildings of England. West Kent and the Weald, 2nd edn (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 601-03.

2 Fairweather, F. H., ‘The abbey of St Mary, Mailing, Kent’, Archaeological Journal, 88 (1931), pp. 175-92, and Elliston-Erwood, F. C., ‘The plan of the abbey church of the Benedictine Nunnery of Saint Mary, West Mailing, Kent’, Antiquaries Journal, 34 (1954), pp. 5563 .

3 For the 1932 excavations see Elliston-Erwood (above), and for that carried out in 1961 by Martin Biddle, see Medieval Archaeology, 6-7 (1962-63), p. 316.

4 Knowles, D., The Monastic Orders in England, 2nd edn (1963), p. 139 . See also E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries (1922).

5 The main characteristic of the early Norman rubble masonry is the use of herringbone masonry with quoins of calcareous tufa.

6 ‘The place of Gundulf in the Anglo-Norman Church’, in Smith, R. A. L., Collected Papers (1947), p. 97 .

7 Elliston-Erwod, art. cit. (see n. 2 above).

8 This was part of an on-going debate in the first half of the twentieth century into the nature of the east ends of early Norman churches in Kent. It centred upon the east end of Gundulf’s new cathedral at Rochester, and is still unresolved.

9 Biddle, art. cit. (see n. 3 above). This excavation found only the robber trenches for the early wall foundations.

10 Biddle’s 1961 excavation also apparently found square turret foundations on the north-east and north-west corners of the north transept, which had been added in the twelfth century.

11 W. Stukeley, ‘The Court of Mailing Abby’, 17 Oct. 1724.

12 S. and N. Buck, ‘The north-east view of Mailing Abby in the County of Kent’, 1735.

13 The Bucks’ view seems to show a square-headed two-light Perpendicular window on the north side of the tower. The relieving arch above this probably fifteenth-century window still survives.

14 The ruined side walls of these chapels can be seen in the Buck view.

15 It is just possible, however, that late eleventh-century foundations for the original west wall survive below the later façade, and that the west end of the original nave was never built.

16 The rubble masonry of the north and south return walls must be contemporary with the west façade.

17 Calcareous tufa was, and is, still available nearby at Wateringbury; see notes by Livett, G. M. in Archaeologia Cantiana, 26 (1904), p. 333 .

18 The form and dating of the west front of Rochester has recently been fully discussed by McAlear, J. P., Rochester Cathedral, 604–1540, an architectural history (1999), pp. 5685 .

19 Stukeley shows part of a stone spirelet surviving on the south. Unfortunately the ruined tops were removed in 1956 or 1957, and replaced with low-pitched roofs.

20 See Oakley, A. M., Mailing Abbey, 1990-1990 (1990), pp. 711 .

21 There seems to be no evidence of an earlier west tower, as some writers have suggested.

22 There is no evidence for a crossing tower.

23 The heads of the windows on the south only disappeared in 1968. On the east a single light survives, which allowed the ringers a view down into the nave.

24 Although it was rebuilt in 1713 and 1837; see A. W. Lawson and G. W. Stockley et al., A History of the Parish Church of St Mary-the—Virgin, West Mailing, Kent (1904), and an unpublished survey by the present writer.

25 See nn. 11 and 12 above.

26 The Bucks’ perspective is clearly all wrong here.

27 It should be noted that the Stukeley drawing was not known to most earlier writers on the abbey. It is, however, now reproduced in Oakley (n. 20).

28 A fine thirteenth-century porch of this type can be seen going into the prior’s house at Winchester Cathedral Priory (now the Deanery).

29 A good example is the west range at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury which was converted into a very fine new abbot’s house in the late thirteenth century.

30 Though this is not a certain identification.

31 A plan was made of the house in c. 1850. It is now in the County Archives, Kent Archives Office, Chilston Papers CS73/29.

32 Three of the bays here have four thirteenth-century openings, while one has five. This is shown on Fairweather’s plan, art. cit. (n. 2 above), p. 75.

33 The abaci and sub-bases are semi-octagonal, rather than round, and have characteristic late medieval mouldings.

34 Some stone corbels, for the timber floor joists, survive in the upper wall.

35 The c. 1850 plan of Frazer Honeywood’s house (n. 31 above) records on the ground floor, ‘ancient cloisters broken up into compartments and used as passages of communication between kitchens’. This may relate to small stairs up to the chamber, but this seems unlikely.

36 See Street, G. E., ‘Some account of the church of St Mary, Stone, near Dartford’, Archaeologia Cannatiana, 3 (1860), pp. 97–134 , and an unpublished survey by the present writer; also the paper by Paul Crossley, pp. 195-211 below.

37 Gervase of Canterbury tells us the fire burnt the monastery and nearly all the town, see VCH Kent, 11 (1926), p. 147.

38 Testamenta Cantiana, West Kent (1906), p. 51.

39 At least two graves were found within the eastern arm in the excavations of 1932, see Elliston-Erwood (n. 3 above), plate X.

40 It should be noted that this stream was clearly canalized and moved westwards for the monastery.

41 For example Fairweather (n. 2 above), p. 191.

42 This may have connected with the abbess’s house, with these lodgings being for her guests. The lodging for a former abbess, Elizabeth Rede (who was forced to retire by Thomas Cromwell in 1536), is mentioned in a letter to Cromwell, see Councer, C. R., ‘The Dissolution of the Kentish monasteries’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 47 (1935), P. 137 .

43 There is also evidence for original sliding shutters to these windows.

44 The queen-post, rather than crown-post, roof in the barn suggest a post-Dissolution date; see Rigold, S. E., ‘Some major Kentish timber-barns’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 81 (1966), pp. 130 .

45 The copy of a drawing of it, made by H. Petrie at the beginning of the nineteenth century (now in the Kent Archaeological Society library), still show this wing with an oast house cowl protruding from its roof. Hasted (n. 54 below) says, however, that it was the abbey’s prison, ‘and is now used as an oast?’ He mentions the ‘narrow gothic windows’ in it and ‘the walls of great thickness’.

46 In fact there are two blocked doorways, one of which is perhaps post-Dissolution. A rental of 1410 from East Mailing suggests that the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr.

47 The northernmost of these is almost certainly a later addition. The brick chimneys above may be contemporary.

48 Not yet identified. It is described by Hasted, art. cit. (see n. 55) as ‘Ermine, a crozier in bend sinister, on a chief three annulets’, and may have belonged to one of the last abbesses.

49 All the symbols of the Passion can be found on the outer gate of Canterbury Cathedral Priory — the so-called Christ Church Gate which is of the same date as the West Mailing gateway, even if a much grander affair; see Blake, P. H., Christ Church Gate, Canterbury Cathedral (1965), p. 15 .

50 The east window of the southern chamber may originally have been a bay window, while the northern chamber had a bay window to the north, and a west-facing window (revealed and covered up again in 1960) which was later blocked by the northernmost fireplace.

51 The steps at the bottom of the staircase (on the west) have been modified, and turned southwards later.

52 It has been suggested that the gatehouse was used as a dwelling for the ‘prebend of the High Mass’ — Oakley, art. cit. (n. 20 above), p. 13 — but there is no firm evidence for this.

53 Dugdale, W., Monasticon Anglicanum, 8 vols (1817-30), III, pp. 382-86. For a recent discussion of the last abbesses see Erler, M. C., ‘The Abbess of Mailing’s gift manuscript (1520)’ in Riddy, F. (ed.), Prestige, Authority and Power in Late Medieval Manuscripts and Texts (2000), pp. 147-57. I am grateful to Nigel Ramsay for this reference.

54 Oakley, art. cit. (n. 20 above), p. 66.

55 Hasted, E., The Historical and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, 2nd edn, IV (1798), p. 520 .

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Architectural History
  • ISSN: 0066-622X
  • EISSN: 2059-5670
  • URL: /core/journals/architectural-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *

Related content

Powered by UNSILO


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed