Two field experiments examined the influence of soil nitrogen on grain yield, wateruse efficiency and residual nitrate accumulation of four winter grain legumes in a legume–fallow–wheat rotation. In the first experiment, conducted on a clay soil with a high total soil nitrogen content (0·194%), the three legumes Cicer arietinum, Vicia faba and Pisum sativum gave similar yields, with Lupinus angustifolius showing poor yields. Water-use efficiencies followed similar trends to the grain yields. Wheat yields and concentration of nitrogen in the grain, following a fallow after the legume crops, showed no differences from a full 2-year fallow. In the second experiment on a low fertility soil (0·081 % total soil nitrogen), Cicer arietinum gave the highest yield and the greatest water-use efficiency. All legumes and long fallow resulted in a similar increase in wheat yield when compared with a wheat-fallow-wheat rotation. The legume crops generally increased soil nitrate status between their sowing and the sowing of a wheat crop 2 years later; such increases were greatest with Pisum sativum at the high fertility site, with a suggestion of the reverse occurring at the low fertility site.