Rare French monastery from Norman times discovered on farmland in Ireland

For a time several hundred years ago, Anglo-French Lords occupied Ireland, and they invited French monks known as Cistercians to build Norman monasteries around the countryside. And one of them has just been found under a pasture by archaeologists.

In Beaubec near the city of Drogheda in County Meath just north of Dublin in Leinster province, local historian John McCullen owns a cattle farm. In the field his livestock often graze, McCullen insisted that there must be something special to find on his property that archaeologists should explore.

After all, the history of the area is certainly rich, especially during Norman times when Anglo-French Lords took over much of Ireland under King Henry II.

It all started when Leinster King Dairmait Mac Murchada lost his rule to a rival, so he sought a meeting with Henry in 1166 to ask for his help in regaining his kingdom. Henry declined, and that’s when Murchada struck a deal with Earl of Pembroke Richard Strongbow, who agreed to help Murchada in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage and inheritance of the Leinster throne upon his death.

Marriage of Strongbow & Aoife MacMurrough in front of Christchurch Cathedral by William Murphy via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Murchada would die in 1171, and Strongbow became King Richard of Leinster, and the first king to be an Anglo-French outsider. This upset King Henry, who expressed outrage that one of his own nobles would be a king to rival his own kingdom.

And so, Henry finally brought an army to Leinster. Strongbow realized he could not defeat Henry’s forces, so he bent the knee. Henry then took possession of Dublin for himself and left other lands in Leinster, Meath and elsewhere to other Anglo-French Lords. Strongbow agreed to help Henry elsewhere while still retaining some Irish lands. Strongbow would die in 1176 from a foot infection.

Through Strongbow’s daughter with Murchada’s daughter Aoife, their descendants include most of the nobility of Europe since then, including many kings and queens.

Meanwhile, to cement Norman rule over Ireland, the Anglo-French Lords invited an order of monks known as the Cistercians to build monasteries and bring order.

According to The Ireland Story:

The Cistercians founded 33 monasteries across Ireland between 1142 and 1230 and also established a large number in Britain. They were very different from the preceding Irish monasteries, and reached the height of their success in the 1200s, before declining after this time due to financial difficulties and general stagnation.

The Cistercian monks excelled at manual labor, particularly agriculture as they ran farms around the monasteries, so it’s not a stretch that McMullen would believe that they may have built a monastery on his own property, especially since there is a ruin from the time that already exists above ground.

Pasture in Beaubec, Ireland where the Cistercian monastery was found. Image via Beaubec Excavations.

It turns out that he was right.

Archaeologist Geraldine Stout and her husband Matthew Stout, a medieval expert, agreed to explore the grounds to see what they could find. What they found was a Cistercian Catholic monastery that hasn’t been seen since the early 1500s during the Protestant Reformation.

Aerial photo of the excavation site featuring part of the monastery and outer buildings. Image via Beaubec Excavations.

“The monastery played a crucial role in medieval Leinster, even during the so-called Gaelic Revival of the 14th century when the Irish Celts re-occupied most of the lands taken by the Normans,” Ancient Origins reports.

“It appears that some 100 monks and possibly many others lived at the site for centuries. The monastery was a religious center until the early 16th century when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all the monasteries in English-held lands in Ireland.”

Referring to the find as “hugely significant” because such discoveries are rare, the pair called in medieval building archaeologists David Sweetman and Con Manning to help them.

“John has always believed that Beaubec is a special place and we are fortunate people that we were able to unearth this amazing story,” Matthew Stout told the Irish Mirror.

“Beaubec is ideally located to throw light on the involvement of the Cistercians in commercial development and international maritime trade in the Boyne Valley during the medieval period.”

“The main aim of the project was to uncover structural remains of the layout of the Cistercian foundation, retrieve evidence of French pottery and identify the kind of agricultural produce that the monastic grange would have exported and imported,” Stout continued.

And the team found plenty, including French roof tiles and clear evidence of advanced agriculture.

Norman roof tiles not made in Ireland. Image via Beaubec Excavations

“It was a big site but we struck gold almost straight away and filled a shed with medieval pottery and artifacts which will now go for post excavation work,” Stout said.

“We uncovered a corn drying kiln and even dried peas which prove that crop rotation was ongoing even back in the 13th century.”

Remains of a kiln used by the monks. Image via Beaubec Excavations.

Geraldine Stout explained how many monks were living on the site and when it may have built.

“We know that Walter de Lacey gave lands to this Abbey in Beaubec in Normandy in 1215, so there would have been about 100 monks living here up until the 16th century,” she said.

“De Bello Becco was flourishing in Ireland in 1302 when it had to pay a tithe of 29s 4d to the Diocese of Meath, which placed it in a group of the highest valued churches in Meath.”

At the conclusion of the dig for the season, the team marveled at what they had found, but it’s not the artifacts that bring them the most satisfaction.

“Archaeology is not about finding treasures but answers, but I think in this case we’ve hit the jackpot on both fronts and we’re hugely looking forward to getting back here next year,” Geraldine Stout said.

Again, you never know what could be under the ground you’re standing on. Just because a field is largely empty, does not mean there wasn’t something there before. McMullen trusted his gut that there was more to his property than meets the eye. Now Ireland can add another little chapter of lost history to the books.

Featured Image: Beaubec Excavations

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