Founded outside the walls of Winchester on the orders of Henry I and consecrated c.AD 1110, the Benedictine edifice of Hyde Abbey was one of the most important royal monasteries of its time. In particular, it was significant as the burial place of certain celebrated members of the royal dynasty of Wessex. New Minster was located in the centre of Winchester, where the Norman Cathedral is today, on a site immediately adjacent to the Old Minster (see CA 344). When its the monks moved north of the city to establish Hyde Abbey, important items from their previous home were also relocated, including the bones of two Anglo-Saxon kings – Alfred the Great (r. AD 871-899) and his son Edward the Elder (r. AD 899-924) – as well as of Alfred’s wife Ealhswith (Alswitha).
The abbey prospered for more than 400 years, but in 1539 it became one more victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, its religious community disbanded and its buildings demolished. Today, all that remains above ground of the once-grand complex is an elaborate stone gateway, an arch that spanned the abbey millstream, and the church of St Bartholomew, which was built mainly for lay servants of the abbey and inhabitants of the community that had sprung up nearby. The abbey’s fine stonework was recycled in local building projects, and elements of its materials can be spotted in structures around the city – but traces of the monastery, including its royal burials, were also preserved below the surface as the land was left empty for centuries.
While the site’s significance slowly faded from memory, the monastery was brought to light once more in 1788 when a Bridewell, or small prison, was constructed over its footprint. The convicts who were tasked with digging the foundations of their own jail had little care for the remains they disturbed – in a contemporary account the local Catholic priest Dr Milner describes looking on in horror as ‘at almost every stroke of the mattock or spade, some ancient sepulchre was violated… the bones were thrown about’. These burials included two great stone coffins which may have held the royal bones – today the location of the royal remains is a mystery, though it has been suggested that a fragment of male pelvis recovered during Winchester Museum Service excavations in the 1990s, and radiocarbon dated in 2014 to c.AD 895-1017, may have come from Alfred or Edward (see CA 288).
The Bridewell was short-lived, being demolished in the 1840s, and around half a century later the site became home to rows of Victorian houses – King Alfred Place, King Alfred Terrace, and Alswitha Terrace – which lie within the area of the abbey complex. For the last five years, community excavations in their back gardens have been producing illuminating clues to the layout of the complex and the lives of its inhabitants.
The ‘Hyde900’ excavations began in 2016, following on from a programme of community events of the same name that was launched in 2010 to mark the 900th anniversary of the abbey’s consecration. Beginning with two test pits in a single garden, the project has since expanded to encompass hundreds of local volunteers working in multiple locations, assisted by David Ashby of the University of Winchester and WARG, the society for Winchester archaeology and local history. The investigations – which also include detailed ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys to target the trenches – are helping to piece together the jigsaw of what the abbey looked like. Its outline has long been something of an enigma, after Hyde900 excavations showed that the cloisters appeared to be at an unusual angle to the church, if it was drawn from the results of Graham Scobie’s investigations of 1995-1999.
These plans, established on the basis of the excavation of the east end, show a conjectural nave conventionally aligned true east–west, and conjectural claustral buildings aligned to that nave. It was only after the lines of the claustral buildings began to be determined by the Hyde900 excavations, though, that it became apparent there was a problem. The present project is keen to establish whether such a prestigious site really did have a crooked cloister, or whether the proposed plan is incorrect; previous phases of the initiative have so far established the location of the east and south ranges.
Previous digging seasons have also added vivid details to our understanding of the abbey’s appearance. In 2017, Hyde900 trenches uncovered a series of finely moulded early 12th-century voussoirs – wedge-shaped stones that would have formed one of the cloister arches (today, they have been reconstructed and are displayed in Winchester City Museum) – as well as fragments of early 12th-century abaci, load-bearing stones placed on top of columns. The 2020 dig, meanwhile, yielded over 400 fragments of medieval painted window glass from a high-status building that had stood within the abbey’s inner precinct, as well as quantities of oyster, mussel, whelk, and periwinkle shells to shed light on what its inhabitants were eating.
When CA visited the latest excavation this summer, the team had returned to the area of the cloisters and had opened trenches in five gardens. These investigations were revealing clear signs of the site’s Victorian use, such as an intact little stoneware inkwell and colourful fragments of painted plaster thought to come from the walls of the Bridewell – but traces of monastic life were also very much in evidence, including fragments of medieval pottery and stonework. During our visit, we were shown the robbed-out remains of what were thought to be the foundations of a 14th-century internal wall, together with the remains of a floor surface – and by the end of the four-day excavation the count had expanded to three previously unknown abbey walls, including a plastered section from one of the phases of the abbey build that had fragments of a contemporary tiled floor next to it. This surface comprised pieces of four glazed tiles surviving in a row, and although most of their colour had been lost, traces of black and yellow were still visible. Some more broken tiles had been used as infill when the original wall was demolished to be replaced by a narrower one at a later date. While analysis continues and interpretation is still uncertain, the team wonders whether they might now have established the position of the elusive west range of cloister buildings; they plan to follow up on these discoveries next year.
‘So much more new knowledge of the abbey has been gained this year than was ever expected,’ David Spurling – Hyde900 trustee and dig organiser – said. The project’s architectural consultant, Dr John Crook, agreed, suggesting that it may be time to redraw the abbey’s outline with a more orthodox orientation for the cloister. ‘I am investigating the possibility that the church was not aligned true east–west, but at a slight angle, which would allow the nave and claustral buildings to be correctly aligned,’ he said. ‘The proposed realignment remains compatible with the excavations of the east end of the church.’
Some 260 volunteers (including more than 80 children) took part in the latest excavations, and the work was supported by grants from the Council of British Archaeology Wessex and local estate agents Belgarum, with graphic design from ADAM Architecture and the loan of equipment from WARG. With plans to return to the area’s back gardens next year, the Hyde900 team hopes to uncover even more echoes of the long-demolished royal abbey in the future.
All images: Hyde900, unless otherwise stated. Further information A new book about the history of Hyde Abbey and investigations of its remains – including descriptions of the 2016-2018 Hyde900 excavations – has recently been published: K Qualmann, G Scobie, and J Zant (2021), Excavations at Hyde Abbey, Winchester, 1972-1999, Hampshire Cultural Trust, £30, ISBN 978-1999978020. Courtesy of the Trust, the book is also available at a discounted price of £22.50 to Hyde900 members. To join, or for more information on the publication and the wider Hyde900 project, visit www.hyde900.org.uk.