The monastery was established by Franciscan monks, who first came to Dunwich in the 1250s and set up a monastic house near the harbour. A massive storm, on New Year's Eve in 1286, destroyed their building, along with much of the harbour facilities and many homes in the lower part of the town. The monks were then given land just outside the old town boundary and started building the monastery whose remains you see today.
The standing ruins are believed to be those of the refectory, or southern, wing of the monastery, where the monks would have eaten. To the north was a cloister and beyond that the monastery church. This was very large, nave and chancel together were some 58m long and up to 17m wide. (For comparison, Blythburgh Church - the 'Cathedral of the Marshes' - is 39m long). The east and west sides of the cloister would have included accommodation for the monks, the abbot and guests and travellers. Dunwich itself was not, so far as we know, a site of pilgrimage, but it was a major port and so would have seen many pilgrims needing food and shelter whilst en route to shrines abroad. The village Museum contains a number of pilgrim badges found locally.
The monks probably built the church as their first priority, through the first half of the 14th century, and followed with the remaining buildings through the rest of that century. At some point they enclosed the site with a perimeter wall, most of which is still standing, though much of it has been repaired and rebuilt over the centuries. There were three gates, one, now lost, on the east side leading towards the town and the other two on the west allowing access to the one of the principal roads into the medieval town. These gates still stand and still make an imposing entrance to the site, just as their makers intended when they built them in the late 14th/early 15th century.
Some parts of the perimeter wall are original, particularly on the east side where sections are made of blocks of a cragstone quarried near Orford, some 15 miles south; parts of Orford Castle are made of the same stone. The rest of the wall is an interesting mixture. Much of it is local flint, as found on Dunwich Beach, but there is a great variety of other stone. Some of it is thought to have been brought in as ballast on ships trading in and out of Dunwich port. And there are many pieces of architectural cut limestone, sections of window tracery and columns, even a reused gargoyle incorporated into the wall. These pieces will have been recycled stone from churches, either pieces salvaged from other churches as they fell victim to coastal erosion, or possibly parts of the monastery church itself, demolished after the Dissolution and reused in a rebuilding of the perimeter wall.
We do not know how many friars lived here, though it was probably a substantial community in the early years. Monasticism as a whole declined through the 15th century, and with Dunwich itself much impoverished after the destruction of the port, it is likely that only a handful of friars remained here by the time of the Dissolution in 1538. The site passed initially to the Bishop of Dover and then through a number of private owners. All of the valuable items were removed, most of the stone (a scarce commodity in East Anglia), and all of the lead from the church roof, and the land was used for agriculture. When the Downing family bought into the village in 1720 little more had survived than now remains. However the Downings used the structure as the basis for their own building, called The Place, and built a brick façade on the east face. This was successively used as a home, the Town Hall and a jail. The Barne family replaced the Downings in 1807 and demolished all the accretions of the previous century, leaving the central ruins much as they are now. They built a small stable block on the edge of the site, and rebuilt a substantial part of the south perimeter wall - this work is obvious, being in strips of flint and brick.
In the past 10 years extensive work has been undertaken to cap the surviving walls to protect them from water and frost damage. Partial restoration of the perimeter now gives visitors the impression of the peaceful, contemplative community it must once have been. Dunwich Greyfriars Trust, established by the village in 2012 to own and manage the site, is now responsible for its maintenance.
Beyond the perimeter wall
To the south of the monastery lies Greyfriars Wood, also owned and managed by the Trust, see here.
To the east is a narrow strip of land between Greyfriars and the cliff edge. The cliff has been eroding westwards since the end of the last Ice Age, and about 700 metres has been lost in the last 700 years. Greyfriars itself will eventually disappear. The medieval town of Dunwich, and probably a Roman settlement before it, lay within this lost land. Dunwich was not a walled town, but it was defended by a ditch 9 metres deep (called Pales Dyke) and a wooden palisade on a bank behind it. The ditch was filled in when the monks moved to the Greyfriars site and the eastern perimeter wall was built along the line of the palisade. Pales Dyke can still be detected as a depression in the ground on your left as you pass from the precinct into Greyfriars Wood, and as a distinct V shape when viewed from the beach below. Its origins have long been thought to be late Saxon/early Norman, but there is a small piece of evidence that suggests it might date from the Iron Age, about 350BC.
Most of medieval Dunwich lay inside Pales Dyke so the small strip between Greyfriars and the cliff is all that remains of the old town. Closest to Greyfriars was the church of All Saints, the last surviving of the 8 parish churches in the town. All Saints eventually became too large for the shrinking populace to maintain and it was abandoned in the 1750s. It was another 150 years before the cliff started to crumble beneath it and the church fell onto the beach between 1904 and 1920. Although the church was no longer being used, its graveyard continued to receive new burials until the early 1800s, and one remaining gravestone survives on the cliff top beside the east gate into Greyfriars.