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My best abbeys, priories and monasteries

December 12, 2017

My last heritage blog was about my favourite castles. The surviving monastic buildings of medieval Britain and Ireland were largely built by the same people.  The king or his magnates built the castles to physically control and overawe the population.  They also founded monasteries and endowed chantries to shape the thought of the medieval world and to pray for their souls in the next world. Monasteries on our islands have existed since the coming of Christianity under Roman rule.  The Celtic Britons maintained the religion with small monastic cells and monasteries.  The most spectacular survival is at Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of county Kerry. Those in the east such as Lindisfarne were sacked by Scandinavian raiders.  Eventually the pagan Saxons, Danes and Vikings who ruled over fragments of what later became England converted to Christianity and turned from pillagers to monastic founders.

Most of the monasteries we can see today date from medieval times.  The Norman kings and magnates endowed daughter houses of their French foundations.  The Welsh and Scottish rulers followed suit.  A network of monastic franchises spread, with Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian and many other orders owing allegiance to continental mother houses.  They all controlled large tracts of land and were a major factor in the medieval economy.  They were also centres of learning, from scripture to medicine. Many monasteries became fabulously wealthy, with accumulated endowments from generations of departed souls for whom the monks were meant to pray.  Abbots were major local figures and also sat in the upper house of Parliament with the bishops and barons. For 500 years over 800 monasteries were at the centre of religious, economic and political life.

All of this was swept away during the sixteenth century.  Henry VIII approved the dissolution of the monasteries of England, Wales and Ireland in 1536. The agents of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, had already surveyed the monasteries, eying up the wealth as well as recording the lifestyles of the monks that were often far removed from the codes of their order.  Within a few years every monastery was closed.  What followed was the greatest act of cultural vandalism in British history.

The vast majority of monasteries passed into the ownership of the Tudor court favourites, creating a new class of country gentry.  The new owners stripped the lead off the roofs of the abbey churches and removed much or all of the stonework for the building of new mansions.  Libraries and artefacts were scattered.  Fortunately, some of the abbey churches in major towns and cities continued as places of worship either as cathedrals in Henry’s new Church of England or as parish churches.  Some monastic cloisters and domestic buildings were incorporated in new gentry homes or found civic use.  But most rural monasteries quickly became stone shells, relics of a former way of life.  By the 18th century many became appreciated as romantic ruins, the subject of poets and painters.  In the 21st century they are popular tourist attractions.

Here are my personal favourites. Which are yours?

1 The best Majestic Ruins

My favourite and most visited ruined abbey is Tintern.  Driving along the winding road that serves the Wye Valley you turn a bend and a huge roofless church fills the view. The former Cistercian abbey stands to its full original height and if you narrow your eyes and use your imagination you can picture the full splendour of this medieval masterpiece, with a lead roof on top of the shell of the building and stained glass filling the skeleton of the stone tracery of its windows.  It has stood as a stone jewel on the banks of the Wye, attracting visitors of the “picturesque” for the last 250 years.  It has been painted by Turner and its environs celebrated in verse by Wordsworth. Wander the site and curse the soul of Henry VIII.

The English rival for the scale and grandeur of Tintern is Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.  A fellow Cistercian house, Fountains was the richest in the order.  But its status was insufficient to save it, being too remote from any large town to have a new life as a cathedral and far too big to be a parish church.  After suppression in 1539 its lead roof and the glass from its windows was stripped for buildings in nearby Ripon and also York. Some of its stone was used to build Fountains Hall, a fine example of a medium sized Elizabethan house.  By the 18th century the ruined abbey lay at the centre of a landscaped water park on the Studley Royal estate.  In the 19th century it was owned by the 2nd Marquis of Ripon, a close friend of Gladstone who served in all Liberal governments from Palmerston to Asquith. He commissioned William Burgess (see my blog on castles, Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch) to build St Mary’s church.  The interior decoration is a beautiful example of Victorian high gothic.  The whole ensemble of abbey, house, park and church is now a World Heritage Site.

My favourite Scottish grand ruin is at Melrose. Another Cistercian house, it was founded by David I in 1136 but what we see today is the rebuild from the end of the 14th century, in the Perpendicular style. The abbey became one of the burial places of Scottish kings, including reputedly the heart of Robert the Bruce. Dissolution came later in Scotland but the hand of Henry VIII was instrumental in the ruination of Melrose as his army attacked the abbey during the unsuccessful “rough wooing “of the Scottish royal family into a marriage alliance with Prince Edward.

Ireland is rather bereft of grand ruins, though is better endowed with cathedrals, both ruined and intact. I enjoyed visiting the scant remains of Mellifont, the principal Cistercian abbey in Ireland.

2 Small but pleasing

In between the west Somerset harbour towns of Watchet and Minehead lie the remains of Cleeve Abbey.  Here the interest is principally the well preserved domestic buildings of the monks, rather than the abbey church ruins.  The main gate house to the abbey precinct stands to its original height.  The most impressive building in the monastic enclosure is the monks’ refectory with a magnificent timber arched ceiling. The former Benedictine priory at Ewenny is a little known gem in the Vale of Glamorgan, which I first visited at about age 9 when I’d persuaded my father to drive me around the many local castles.  The priory church is largely intact, with the Norman nave functioning as the parish church.  Turner painted a watercolour of the choir and south transept in 1795. A 21st century glass screen now separates the nave from the east end, with its Romanesque niches and tomb of the founder William de Londres. To the south of the priory church is the best preserved fortified enclosure in Britain.  Walls stand to their full height, with two gatehouses.  They surround the manor house and farm buildings that now occupy the site of the priory’s domestic buildings. At nearby Margam the former Cistercian abbey church has also been preserved for parish use.  The real interest here is in the adjacent Cadw museum, housing a large collection of Celtic stone crosses from all over south Wales.   Llanthony Abbey nestles in the shadow of the Black Mountains, just inside the Welsh border.  The abbey church is quite ruined apart from the West end, long incorporated into a house that is now a pub.  This is the joy of Llanthony, sitting on the base of a pillar of the ruined nave, with a pint of beer in your hand, listening to the sheep baaaaing on the hill.  Magical.

3 Dissolution reprieves

We should be grateful for the fact that the dissolution did not sweep away every abbey.  The larger ones in the centre of the major towns of Tudor England found new life as cathedrals.  The abbeys of Bristol, Gloucester, St Albans and several others were saved in this way.  I will write a separate blog on my favourite cathedrals so here we are concerned with former abbeys now operating as rather grand parish churches.  Most are shorn of their cloisters and domestic ranges but the abbey churches live on.   My favourite is Tewkesbury, the grandest surviving abbey church apart from Westminster. A Benedictine house, it was founded in 1092 by Robert Fitzhamond, a close associate of William the Conqueror and his younger sons William II and Henry I. The fabric of the abbey church is still largely from the time of its founder, with a Norman arches in the nave and probably the finest Romanesque central tower in the country.  The west front is almost entirely filled by a Norman arch, framing a much later window.  The church has fine tombs of the leading aristocrats of the west of England and south Wales, including the de Clares, Despensers (see the Caerphilly entry in my castles blog) and Nevilles. Tewkesbury is a good place to go for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses. After the battle of 1471 many of the dead Lancastrians and Yorkists were buried at the abbey.  These included Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir of the soon to be deposed for a second time Henry VI.  For balance, George Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s estranged brother is also buried here.

Romsey in Hampshire is the grandest surviving nunnery church. It’s one of many buildings that I’ve visited during Parliamentary by elections, combining my twin interests of politics and heritage. The Liberal Democrat Sandra Gidley won the by-election in 2000, so it’s a good memory.  Like Tewkesbury, the architecture is largely Norman.  Bath and Sherborne are both reversals of the usual abbey survival story.  Originally cathedrals from Saxon times, they were both stripped of full cathedral status as the Norman and Plantagenet conquerors reordered the diocesan map.  Bath had to give way to Wells (though stays to this day at the head of the name of the diocese) and Sherborne to Old Sarum and eventually the new cathedral town of Salisbury.  The cathedrals became abbeys but survived dissolution as the principal churches of their locality.  Bath and Sherborne also share the architectural feature of exquisite fan vaulting in their naves.

As I have mentioned Bath it would be remiss of me not to feature Bristol. The abbey of St Augustine became the city’s cathedral in 1542.  The second city of medieval England was richly endowed with other monastic houses and a large number of churches.  Facing the cathedral across College Green is the chapel of the monastic St Mark’s Hospital, founded in 1230.  At the dissolution the chapel was bought by the city corporation.  It is now the country’s sole civic church, which I’ve had cause to attend on many occasions. The interior is packed full of tombs and monuments covering several centuries, all sheltered by a beautiful gilded oak ribbed nave roof and stone fan vaulting in the side chapels.  The vaulted cellars below became the storage place for the city’s eponymous “cream” sherry made by Harveys.  Upstairs on Remembrance Sunday I am grateful for the warm mulled wine at the end of the annual civic parade.   Bristol’s oldest building is the Priory of St James.  This building has a remarkable story, switching between denominations. It was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine daughter house of Tewkesbury by Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester.  He owed his surname and title to the fact that he was one of the many illegitimate children of Henry I, this one by the Welsh princess Nest. The church retains its Norman nave and west front, topped with a wheel window.  The church survived dissolution as a parish church, losing most of its out buildings except for the guest house, which is now the White Hart pub. It was the parish church of the most prolific hymn writer in English, Charles Wesley.  By the 1980s it was redundant and when I first came to Bristol was closed to visitors.  In the last couple of decades it has been reborn, returning to its catholic roots and with an attached mission of working with people with drink and drug addictions.

Honourable mentions should go to Beverley and Selby, praised by many but I am yet to visit.

4 Remotely rural or coastal

Some of the greatest abbeys were located in rural settings, owning large country estates. Their earnings from sheep farming and agrarian products supplemented their endowments and donations. Market towns were not far away.   But a large number of abbeys were built in remote locations, perhaps on pilgrimage routes but in any event more than a day’s walk for a monk or nun from the nearest settlement.  Today they offer a long drive up a minor road, often through rolling hills and blind bends.  Visit for the journey as much as the destination. On a Lake District holiday you shouldn’t miss Shap Abbey.  The site is quite ruined apart from the west front tower but its small scale allows an easy impression of the typical layout of an abbey. Shap gives me an excuse to mention one of the smaller religious orders, the Premonstratensians. They were canons, not monks and so preached in nearby parishes rather than living a life of ordered contemplation at their abbey.   If in the vicinity of Aberystwyth do make a rural detour through the Ceredigion countryside to Strata Florida abbey.  A small Cistercian house largely endowed by the Deheubarth Prince Rhys ap Gruffudd, better known as the Lord Rhys, founder of the national eisteddfod. Apart from its beautiful setting, the main thing to see is the unique design of the west front doorway. The usual Romanesque round arched shape is set in a series of five receding roll mouldings, rather like stone pipes.

The coast also provided sufficient isolation for religious contemplation.  In the first few centuries of post Roman Christianity it meant that monasteries were exposed to heathens arriving by sea as the unfortunate Saxon followers of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne discovered in 793 when the Vikings raided their Northumbrian monastery. The site was all but abandoned until the Normans refounded a monastery.  The remains we see today date from that period.  There’s a conventional west doorway to compare with Strata Florida.  Like Ewenny, there was a fortified enclosure, built to protect the site from the Scots. The historical significance of the site was not enough to save it from dissolution and in any event the cult of St Cuthbert had been centred on the cathedral at Durham for many years.

You can’t be more coastal than an island monastery and my selection here is Caldey Abbey, on an island off the coast from the splendid harbour town of Tenby.  The medieval Benedictine priory buildings are well preserved and are now cared for by their Cistercian successors who took over the site from the Anglican Benedictines who had refounded the monastery in 1901.  The modern buildings with whitewashed walls and red tiled high pitched roofs look like a transplant from Bavaria.  Apart from the island setting and interesting collection of buildings, another good reason to take the boat to Caldey is to sample the bars of chocolate made by the monks.

If you want to arrive by steam train rather than boat, I recommend Hailes Abbey, which has its own station on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire preserved line, reopened this summer. Little remains of the abbey above knee height but the on-site English Heritage museum is excellent.

5 Royal connections

I couldn’t write an article on our best abbeys without including Westminster, probably Britain’s most famous church.  The setting for all coronations of England’s monarchs since 1066 and the final resting place for many of them between Henry III (who rebuilt the abbey and was buried there in 1272) and George III in 1760.  I’ve wandered around the church and its precinct many times as a tourist and in an official capacity and it is impossible to take in the multitude of tombs and monuments to the many non-royals commemorated in every nook and cranny.  Eight Prime Ministers are buried there, including Gladstone and Attlee and there are monuments to numerous writers and scientists. There are works of art as well as monuments, including a view of the abbey by my favourite artist Canaletto.

The decapitated body of Mary, Queen of Scots was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey by her son James VI and I.  Her predecessor Scottish monarchs were mainly laid to rest at Iona (which I have not visited) until 1093 when Malcolm Canmore (Malcolm III) was the first to be buried at the abbey he founded with his Queen Margaret (later canonised as a saint) at Dunfermline. The abbey was rebuilt by their son David I in 1128 in the style of the Normans.  The nave survives with its thick round columns and round arches.  It is now the vestibule of the parish church built as an extension in the early 19th century. Robert the Bruce’s body lies here, separated from his heart which was initially sent on crusade and then interred at Melrose in a lead casket. Dunfermline is another of my successful by election visits. In January 2006, after a walk down the high street with Charles Kennedy, I escaped the freezing weather to visit the abbey in the snow. In the summer of 2018 I made a longer visit, including the adjacent palace where the second son of James VI, later Charles I, was born in 1600.

Many of the abbeys in Wales were associated with the native princes of Gwynedd, Powys and Dyfed. They were small and poorly endowed compared to their counterparts founded in south and east Wales by Cambro-Norman lords.  Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ab Iorwerth) supported the building of a Cistercian cell of Strata Florida at Aberconwy in 1198.  Monastic life lasted for less than a century as Edward I decided that the mouth of the Conwy was a perfect site for a castle and new town (see my best castles blog) and the monks were evicted.  The abbey church became the parish church for the new English settlers within the walled town.  Llywelyn’s tomb was evicted with the monks, eventually finding a place of rest at the church in Llanwrst.  The headless body of his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was buried at Cwmhir Abbey after being killed by one of Edward’s mercenaries near Builth in 1282.  Despite this famous association with the last native Prince of Wales the abbey church was reduced to mere fragments after dissolution. The Tudors did not respect their Welsh origins. Five of the nave bays from the abbey were used for the nave of the parish church at the nearby market town of Llanidloes, my favoured lunchtime stopping point on journeys to north Wales.

6 Famous associations

Monasteries were usually founded and endowed by a monarch or magnate for spiritual reasons.  But the first Norman foundation in England could not have more secular origins.  In gratitude for his victory over the English in 1066 William the Conqueror founded an abbey at the site of the Battle of Hastings.  The battlefield site and village, near to Hastings, is now known as Battle.  Not much remains of the abbey and no one can be certain of the location of the tomb of the vanquished King Harold.  But the gatehouse is worth a look and if you’re going to visit a battlefield, there are none more famous in England.  Neath abbey was the last refuge of Edward II, on the run from his vengeful queen Isabella.  The king had fled west from the castle of his favourite Hugh Despencer (see my best castles blog) and was given sanctuary by the monks of Neath.  They quickly grew wary of the implications of hosting the doomed king and asked him to leave.  Edward was captured on the hill above Llantrisant, a spot that used to be marked by a plaque but it had disappeared when I went to look last year.   The abbey was dissolved and a mansion was built in the grounds by Sir Richard Williams, who later took the surname of his sponsor Thomas Cromwell and was the great-grandfather of Oliver. The mansion is now a ruin too. Glastonbury abbey was the richest and most visited in medieval times.  It must now be among the most visited ruins.  But today’s pilgrims are hippies drawn to the music festival town and its alternative shops, many with a whiff of incense or something stronger.  Hippies dance and busk in the town square, with ankle and wrist bells.  It’s a whole new meaning to the bells and smells associated with Catholicism or high Anglicanism.

7 Conversions to other uses

Tudor owners plundered dissolved abbeys for stone and lead for their new houses.  Sometimes they obliterated almost everything above ground. The Herberts, one of many Welsh families to prosper under the Tudors and do well out of dissolution, built their quadrangular Wilton House directly on top of the demolished Benedictine nunnery. Often the name of the abbey has been retained and the house is an adaptation of the monastic domestic buildings, for instance at the former convent of Lacock Abbey.  Monasteries all had large barns and the one at Lacock now houses the museum of photography, it was through a window at Lacock that Fox Talbot took one of the earliest photographs. At Francis Drake’s Buckland Abbey the house is built within the walls of the abbey church itself. In Bristol alternative civic use was found for the medieval halls of the Dominican Friary, in medieval times in the shadow of Bristol castle but now surrounded by a 21st century shopping centre. The two medieval halls were taken over by the trade guilds for bakers and cutlers and are still known by those names.  The building between the two became Bristol’s main Friends Meeting House, hence the religious oxymoronic name for the whole modern restaurant and function room complex, Quakers’ Friars. The friary church itself was lost following the dissolution, which is a shame as it contained the tomb of a Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Dafydd, who died as a prisoner of Edward I in Bristol castle in 1287. It would have been the city’s only royal tomb.

8 Working monasteries

Four centuries after dissolution came a monastic resurrection.  The Victorians coupled strong religious observance with tolerance for denominations outside the established Church of England. This allowed for a reestablishment of catholic religious orders, often from communities that had long existed in exile elsewhere in Europe.  At Ampleforth (Yorkshire) and Downside (Somerset) new Benedictine monasteries were built, following the gothic revival architecture seen in hundreds of parish churches and cathedral restorations.  The new abbey church at Prinknash in Gloucestershire was built as recently as 1973. Its modernist design resembles a 1970s university laboratory rather than a church.  Modern monasteries have done more than put up new buildings for religious contemplation.  The resident monks have also revived many of the domestic crafts such as pottery, bee keeping for honey, brewing beer and making perfumes.

The star for me is Buckfast Abbey, on the southern edge of Dartmoor. I have visited at least 20 times and have stayed on retreat, though my contemplation has been more secular and political than religious.  The site has one of the most remarkable stories in English monasticism. Next year the current Benedictine community will celebrate the millennium of monastic life on the site.  The Saxon monastery founded in 1018 had fallen into decline by 1136 when King Stephen granted the site to the Savigniac order from his Norman abbey of Savigny. In 1147 the Savigniacs merged with the Cistercians and Buckfast was a house of the white monks until dissolution in 1539.  Over the next three centuries the abbey church disappeared above ground level and part of the cloisters and other buildings were incorporated into a mansion.  In 1882 Buckfast entered the fourth phase of its monastic history when the mansion was bought by a group of French Benedictines. They excavated the remains of the abbey church and began plans for a rebuild, with construction eventually starting in 1907.  Over the next 30 years a small number of lay brothers built with their own hands a new abbey church in a mainly Romanesque style.  In 1966 the modernist Blessed Sacrament Chapel was built at the east end. The whole of the east wall is made of stained glass bricks, manufactured on site by one of the monks. They depict the figure of Christ with welcoming arms,  standing behind the communion table with the bread and golden chalice.  The best time to see it is early on a summer morning, with the rising sun shining through the colours.  Whatever your thoughts and beliefs, it is impossible not to be moved.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Roger Opie permalink
    December 12, 2017 9:01 pm

    As requested please re send to

    Sent from my iPad


  2. December 12, 2017 9:02 pm

    Sorry to see no mention of Whitby Abbey, probabl the only abbey to have been shelled by enemy warships (German, 1914) and much earlier location of Synod of Whitby which agreed method for the date of Easter for Northumbria.

    • December 12, 2017 9:55 pm

      Ian, omitted as I’ve not been there! There are several sites in Yorkshire that I am yet to visit, plus numerous castles, houses and museums. There is so much to see in this country!

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