Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Benedictine Monks, Knights Templar, Poor Clares

One of the less known Abbeys in the UK, Denny Abbey about half way between Ely and Cambridge has an unusual history.

The Domesday Book records that the land here was owned by Edwith Swanneck, the widow of King Harold I. It later passed to Alan of Richmond who held it for the Crown.

The first religious house was founded by Benedictine Monks who abandoned their waterlogged monastery at nearby Elmeney and set up here in the 1150s. Their priory opened in 1159 and parts of it survive to this day. The Benedictines stayed for just ten more years before leaving to go to Ely Abbey (now the Cathedral) in 1169.

The monastery and lands were then moved to the Knights Templar. The Templars greatly enlarged the site, adding a large arched doorway to the church and the Refectory which still stands today. Denny became a hospital for sick members of the Order. In 1308, however, Edward II had all the members of the Order arrested for alleged heresy and Denny was turned over to the Knights Hospitallers who were not interested in the property at all. By 1324 it was Crown land.

In 1327 Edward III gave the Priory to the Countess of Pembroke (who also founded Pembroke College, Cambridge). The Countess lived within the Abbey church and built and new church and gave the rest of the property to the Poor Clare Nuns. They moved in from their flood-prone Nunnery at Waterbeach. It was in this period that Denny was first referred to as an Abbey.

The Poor Clares stayed until the Dissolution, but by the time that happened, in 1536, only a few Nuns were still at Denny. Parts of the structure were demolished, but the original Abbey church survived as a farmhouse and the Refectory as a barn. In 1928 the Abbey and lands were bought by Pembroke College, Cambridge.

In 1947 the Ministry of Works took over the property and they were succeeded by English Heritage who still own the Abbey today. It now forms part of the Farmland Museum which is open during summer months. As well as the Abbey remains there are exhibits focussing on rural life in Cambridgeshire.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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