Medieval Skyscraper Reopens To Public After £620,000 Facelift

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 19 July 2007
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a photograph of a stone gateway

© Tony Bartholomew courtesy English Heritage

English Heritage officially reopened a 600-year-old gatehouse, one of the most important of its kind in the country and all that remains of a medieval abbey, on Wednesday July 18 after an ambitious conservation project.

Thornton Abbey, in North Lincolnshire, was for centuries a centre of spiritual and economic influence. Founded in 1139 by Augustinian canons from Kirkham Priory, near Malton in North Yorkshire, it became one of England’s wealthiest abbeys.

The gatehouse was built in the 1360s complete with barbican and battlements, as these were the nervous years after the Peasants’ Revolt.

Work to return the gatehouse to its former glory has been backed by the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward as part of a £4.5m scheme by the South Humber Bank Heritage Tourism Initiative, bidding to promote the natural and heritage assets of North Lincolnshire.

“The huge multi-storied gatehouse is the finest and best preserved of its kind surviving in England,” said Keith Miller, English Heritage Inspector of Ancient Monuments. “It has been described as a ‘medieval skyscraper’ and was the gateway to the abbey complex. While most of those buildings were plundered for stone centuries ago, the gatehouse stands almost intact as an astonishing survivor.”

“It has been a major challenge to undertake the restoration, access and interpretation works in such a sensitive setting, but the result is simply stunning.”

a photograph of a man seated on a stone windowsill looking at stone carvings

English Heritage Curator Kevin Booth pictured inside the historic gatehouse with some of its stone carvings. © Tony Bartholomew courtesy English Heritage

The project has cost £620,000 and has involved extensive repairs to crumbling masonry and the creation of state-of-the-art visitor facilities, along with a reception point, colourful displays and facilities for disabled visitors.

A spectacular new exterior oak staircase also grants unprecedented access to the building’s upper floors and atmospheric interior, with its warren of narrow corridors.

The improvements mean the gatehouse will now be opened to the public as a fully-fledged attraction, housing an exciting new exhibition on the site’s history. As part of the restoration project, archaeologists surveyed the abbey grounds, while historians re-examined scores of original documents.

They unearthed an astonishing wealth of new information, which has been used in the new exhibition and to create a series of vivid new illustrations of the abbey, which are displayed in the gatehouse.

Historic accounts reveal that the abbey earned £800 from its wool trade in 1313, which today translates into many millions of pounds.

Thornton’s canons built the gatehouse on the orders of Abbot Thomas Gresham, who was a shadowy figure. Pages relating to him in a 16th century history of the abbey were torn out 200 years later – a scribbled note saying it “was to protect the abbey’s reputation".

a drawing showing a church a qaudrant and associated outbuildings

© Tony Bartholomew courtesy English Heritage

The monastery was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539, but he was so enraptured by the buildings that he issued a warrant for a short-lived college to be established on the site rather than see it reduced to rack and ruin.

The project to restore what is left of the once powerful monastery is the latest achievement by the South Humber Bank Heritage Tourism Initiative, who have this year overseen the launch of the Anglo-Saxon Church of St Peter’s at Barton, which is also cared for by English Heritage, the Far Ings Education Centre and Julian’s Bower medieval turf maze at Alkborough.

“Not only is North Lincolnshire blessed with magnificent heritage sites, but many like Thornton Abbey and St Peter’s Church, are nationally significant and merit wider recognition,” said Maddy Jago, English Heritage Regional Director for Planning and Development. “Creating world-class visitor facilities will ensure the area emerges from the shadows as a top tourist destination.”

Other collaborative projects undertaken by the partnership in recent years include North Lincolnshire Council’s Waters’ Edge Country Park and Visitor Centre and the Environment Agency’s shoreline management scheme at Alkborough Flats.

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