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Strata Marcella Abbey, Welshpool
Survey and Recording 2011-12

The earthwork remains of the Cistercian abbey of Strata Marcella lie on the west bank of the Severn, to the north of Welshpool (SJ 2515 1044). The abbey was founded in 1170 at the invitation of Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, and he was buried there in 1197. In 1400-5 the abbey was partially destroyed during the Owain Glyndwr risings, and though the abbey remained active until the Dissolution it went into decline as a result. By 1536, when it was dissolved, there were few monks and some of the monastic buildings were already ruinous. It seems that the monastery was then largely dismantled, with some of the stone apparently being taken for use in the building of nearby churches, while Abbey Farm was erected in the ruins, probably over the claustral ranges with the cloister being used for the farmís courtyard. The site was the subject of excavations in 1890 by the Powysland Club, which largely focused on the abbey church, while a geophysical survey was undertaken in 1990, although this was not particularly revealing (Silvester et al. 2011; Arnold 1992).

Strata Marcella earthwork survey 2012

Right: Earthwork survey of Strata Marcella carried out by CPAT © CPAT 2012

The current project follows on from a scheduling enhancement programme of medieval monastic sites conducted by the CPAT in 2010-11 (Silvester 2011), funding for both studies being provided by Cadw. At that time it was felt that an interpretation of the visible earthworks would benefit from a detailed topographical study since no measured survey of the site had been conducted, other than that by the Ordnance Survey. In addition, various features, including stone surfaces, walls and gullies were noted during a field visit, eroding from the northern bank of the River Severn and the opportunity was therefore taken to recod these as part of the wider survey.

The results of the topographical survey present a complex and layered landscape within which elements of the abbey and associated features may still be seen, overlain by a later trackway, traces of ridge and furrow, and the site of Abbey Farm, which occupied the claustral area.

The Abbey Church and Cloisters

The earthworks relating to the abbey itself are often very slight and the picture has been confused to some degree by the 1890 excavations. Indeed, the most readily visible element, the earthworks of the abbey church, is entirely a product of the excavation, within which several parts of column bases were revealed. The earthworks are misleading, however, since the western end of the nave was never excavated to floor level and extends a further 25m beyond the obvious earthworks. This suggests that the north and west walls of the nave may be upstanding, though buried, to a height of perhaps 0.7m.

The plan of the abbey which resulted from the 1890 excavation (Williams 1992, 81; fig. 9) fits well with the earthwork evidence, indicating a high degree of accuracy in the late 19th-century recording. The plan, together with a reinterpretation by Dr Chris Arnold (1992, 93; fig. 15), has been used to produce a suggested outline of the known structure in Figs 3 and 4. On this basis the church may have had an overall length of 83m, with small north and south transepts and a nave around 21m in width. A series of earthworks, together with the excavated evidence, suggest the presence of a small chapel to the east of the south transept.

The cloisters, to the south of the nave, were only partly revealed in 1890, suggesting a courtyard area around 22m across from east to west, which is now occupied by a low mound, presumably spoil from the excavations. There is little visible evidence for the extent and layout of the cloisters, despite their later reuse as the buildings of Abbey Farm which was still standing until at least 1780.

Conventual Buildings

A number of slight earthworks suggest the presence of several conventual buildings to the south of the abbey church. The position of the Chapter House was postulated following the 1890 excavations, along the eastern side of the cloisters (Williams 1992, 81; fig. 9), although this has yet to be confirmed. What is clear, however, is that there was a long range of buildings in this position which extended at least as far as the leat. The eastern side of the buildings may be readily identified, including a short stretch of wall facing which was originally uncovered during the excavation. Indeed the line of this wall-appears to be extended to the south of the leat, raising the possibility of a latrine block which would have straddled the leat, perhaps with a dormitory between it and the cloisters.

Other earthworks to the south of the leat include a pair of parallel banks and a slight platform, both of which may be associated with buried structures. Evidence from the investigations along the river bank in 2011 suggests that this area may have been subject to a considerable build-up of alluvium which could be masking further evidence.

On the north side of the leat there is a level area bounded to the north and west by a substantial boundary in the angle of which are faint earthworks and vegetational changes which suggest the presence of a rectangular building. To the north-east of this there are two slight, parallel gullies and also faint earthworks overlooking the leat.

The Abbey Precinct and Leat

Aerial photograph of Strata Marcella © CPAT 2012, photo number 88-004-0033

Left: Aerial photograph of Strata Marcella Abbey © CPAT 2012, photo number 88-004-0033

Evidence visible on aerial photographs has revealed the presence of a former boundary to the south-west and north-west of the abbey which has been suggested as a possible precinct boundary. It is equally possible, however, that this is just part of a field system which predates present the pattern of fields.

Perhaps of rather more interest is a substantial boundary bank which extends north-west from the leat for 15m before turning to the north-north-east. In places this survives as a substantial bank up to 5.5m wide and 0.9m high, with what may be a holloway along its outer side. It seems likely that this is associated with the abbey since it appears to predate the ridge and furrow in this area, which is assumed to be associated with the later Abbey Farm. The boundary and possible holloway are cut by a later trackway, beyond which they are visible for a short distance before all trace is lost.

The earthworks of a substantial leat pass through the area of the abbey earthworks, contouring around the slope. The source of the leat is not known, although given its height above the river at this point it must be assumed to have been some distance upstream. The leat is likely to have fed a mill at Pool Quay, 720m north-east of the abbey (SJ 2551 1107), although whether this was originally the abbey mill, or a later structure which utilised the monastic watercourse is uncertain. The leat had certainly become redundant by the later 18th century when a new weir was constructed downstream of the abbey to provide water for a smelting works, and was later used for a textile mill.

The leat, which is up to 6.6m wide, has become infilled with silt to some extent and now survives to a depth of up to 0.6m. At one point stonework is visible within the leat suggesting that it was culverted or perhaps bridged.

Although its association with the abbey has yet to be determined with certainty, this is perhaps the most likely interpretation. Cistercian abbeys elsewhere in Britain are often known to have had good supplies of water and it was not uncommon for latrines to be built above the watercourse.

Post-dissolution Features

It would not be unreasonable to expect that the most obvious earthworks post-dating the abbey should be associated with Abbey Farm which adopted the claustral area and presumably reused some of the monastic structure. However, there is surprisingly little evidence for buildings in this area other than a series of low mounds on the south-west side and a rectangular mound occupying the courtyard/farmyard area, which may be spoil from the 1890 excavation.

There are a number of former field boundaries which are presumably associated with the farm, together with three areas of straight ridge and furrow, one of which overlies the western end of the abbey church. The other feature of note is a broad trackway which is terraced into the slope to the north and west of the abbey church and then occupies a substantial holloway to the west, where it is cut by the modern road. Aerial photography indicates that the track also extends eastwards, passing through the site of Weir Head Farm and on towards Pool Quay, perhaps suggest that this was a precursor of the 1756 turnpike road.

Archaeology along the riverbank

On the river bank © CPAT 3364-0022

Right: Recordiong features in the river bank at Strata Marcella © CPAT 2012, photo number 3364-0022

A range of features visible in the river bank between SJ 25123 10321 and SJ 25099 10321 were recorded in October 2011. Where possible, the exposed river bank, which was up to 4.5m above the level of the river, was cleaned by hand to enable a written and photographic record to be produced, with the features being recorded in plan and section be means of total station surveying.

The exposed section demonstrated that there had been considerable deposition since the medieval period, effectively sealing features beneath up to 1.7m of alluvium. The 28m-long section of riverbank contained four gullies, a ditch, and three sections of stonework which could represent the remains of walls. Although it was not possible to examine any of the features in detail owing to their location there was the impression that the gullies at least may have been aligned at an angle to the river bank, perhaps extending to the north-north-east, a slightly different alignment to that of the abbey. It was evident that this section of the river bank is actively eroding and further archaeological features are likely to be revealed over time.


    Arnold, C. J., 1992, Strata Marcella: the archaeological investigations of 1890 and the results of a geophysical survey in 1990, Montgomeryshire Collections 80, 88-94.
    Silvester, R. J., Hankinson, R. and Owen, W. 2011, Medieval and Early Post-Medieval Monastic and Ecclesiastical Sites in East and North-East Wales: The Scheduling Enhancement Programme. CPAT Report No. 1090.
    Williams, D. H. 1992, An appreciation of the life and work of Stephen Williams (1837-99), Montgomeryshire Collections 80, 55-88.

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