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Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, UK

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Beaulieu Abbey's Domus Conversorum
The great bell of Beaulieu was ringing.
- Opening line, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company

The romantic remains of Beaulieu1 Abbey in the heart of the New Forest  National Park in Hampshire are part of the Beaulieu Estate, famous for being the National Motor Museum owned by the Montagu family. Located 25 miles from Winchester and 14 miles from Southampton, Beaulieu is both easy to get to and remote. Today the Abbey is both a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building

The Founding Of The Abbey

Beaulieu Abbey was founded as a Cistercian abbey by King John in 1204, among the last Cistercian Abbeys founded in England. King John during his reign (1199-1216) managed to have rows with pretty much everyone in his kingdom, including the Cistercian Order2. Four years into his reign, John had recurring nightmares in which he was beaten to death by a group of monks. Seeking the advice of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury and member of the Cistercian Order, he was advised to bestow some land upon the Order. In return for this, every Cistercian monastery would be expected to pray for John.

John's first choice of land was Faringdon in Berkshire, a site on the Thames. After a year, in June 1204 this site was changed in favour of a former hunting lodge in the New Forest3, where it was called Bellus Locus Regis, Latin for 'Beautiful Place of the King'. The Abbey, John's only religious foundation, was also the only Cistercian Abbey in Britain to be founded directly by the Cistercian mother house at Cîteaux in France, and was also the first Cistercian Abbey founded by a king of England. Founded by 30 monks rather than the usual 12, it was therefore from its start one of England's largest Cistercian Abbeys. The Normans who lived in Bellus Locus translated the name into French to become Beaulieu.

The Cistercian Order

The Cistercians were a holy order of monks that were established in 1098 when Saint Robert of Molesmes led a group of monks from the monastery of Molesmes in Burgandy to live in a wild area, Cîteaux in France. Under Saint Stephen Harding, a monk of Sherborne in Dorset who became the third Abbot of Cîteaux in 1109, the Order gained the approval of Pope Callistus II in 1119 and began to spread across Christendom. First introduced into Britain in 1128, the Order believed that the Benedictine Order had become corrupted, and attempted to return to the ideals of Saint Benedict4. Over 90 Cistercian abbeys were founded in Britain5.

The Cistercians believed in three vows, of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. They wore white habits and were sometimes called the White Monks6. They were led by an Abbot, whose deputy was a Prior, beneath whom were the nine Obedientiaries or officers of the Abbey. They also strongly maintained mother-house and daughter-house relationships.

An important part of Cistercian beliefs7 was that abbeys should be built far from cities, towns and villages in order for the monks to avoid contamination and corruption. Although this meant that most Cistercian abbeys in England were founded in the north, such as Yorkshire8, the sparsely-populated New Forest was ideal.

Hugh and John

Work on constructing the abbey had only just begun when the monks at Beaulieu, in particular the abbot, became embroiled in an international scandal. In July, 1205 Archbishop of Canterbury Hubert Walter, who had been instrumental in the abbey's founding, died. The Pope, Innocent III, elected Stephen Langton to succeed him, however King John had his own choice of candidate, and refused to allow Stephen into England. In return the Pope issued an interdict in 1208; in effect, the Church in England was on strike.

At first King John responded to this by confiscating church property while continuing to spend money on his abbey at Beaulieu. John appointed Abbot Hugh, the first abbot of Beaulieu, before his church had even been constructed, as his envoy to the Pope, rather than a bishop as was traditional. Abbot Hugh then negotiated between King and Pope for the five years that this dispute lasted, before full church services resumed in 1213.

At the Cistercian Order's annual General Chapter of 1215, Abbot Hugh was accused of extravagant and unbecoming behaviour, including fine dining and using silver dishes, keeping a dog on a silver chain at his bedside and having personal servants. Although he agreed to make amends, he was again accused of similar behaviour in the 1216 General Chapter, and deposed from office. In 1219 Hugh became Bishop of Carlisle.

In 1216 King John died at Newark. Although his will requested that he be buried at Beaulieu, he was instead buried in Worcester. The monks continued to request that John be buried at Beaulieu for many years, even appealing to the Pope during the reign of Henry III in 1228, however at Worcester he remains today.

John's son, Henry III, continued the close relationship between Crown and Beaulieu Abbey, founding the daughter-abbeys of Netley and providing the abbey with money. In return, the Abbots of Beaulieu were frequently sent by the king on missions to negotiate truces in times of war with France and other diplomatic duties.

Church Construction

The Cistercians were renowned for using the same basic architectural design in their abbeys. It was said that a blind monk from Scotland could easily find his way around a Cistercian monastery in Scandinavia as they were built to the same design, that of Cîteaux Abbey. Beaulieu Abbey did have unique features. To start with, it was by far the widest Cistercian abbey, and the largest Cistercian building, in England. Measuring 336 feet wide and 186 feet long, it was immense. The church's eastern end was also unique, having a semi-circular apse rather than the customary rectangular end. It is believed that this was the influence of master mason Durand, who had previously built Rouen Cathedral.

The principal source of stone for the abbey came from the Royal Quarry at Quarr on the Isle of Wight, the same source of stone that had built Winchester Cathedral. Softer stone from Caen was used for interior decoration, while Purbeck stone from Dorset was used for the columns. As the abbey's site was next to what was then called the River Otter, now known as the Beaulieu River after the abbey, the stone was transported by sea and landed to the abbey's quay 300 yards from the church construction site. The river between the abbey and the sea was granted to the abbey and is tidal up to the abbey, where a sluice gate controls the water level beyond. The wood of the royal forest also supplied all the timber required.

Construction of the Abbey took several years, and on 17 June, 1246, King Henry III, his second wife Queen Eleanor and son Prince Edward were there at the church's Dedication ceremony, 42 years after the church began construction. Sadly after this event Prince Edward became seriously ill, unable to travel. Queen Eleanor stayed with her son for three weeks inside the monastery, looking after her son. As it was against the laws of the Cistercian order to allow a woman to stay in the consecrated Abbey grounds, even if the Queen of England, both the Prior and the Cellarer9 were dismissed and deposed from office soon after.

Abbey Life

Life in the abbey was a series of services and hard work, with the timetable changing depending on the time of the year. There were two distinct classes of men in the monastery, the monks, known as 'choir monks' and the lay brothers or 'conversi'. The choir monks and lay brothers spent much of their lives segregated. The role of the lay brothers was to do all the actual work that needed doing in the abbey, and thus allow the choir monks to dedicate their entire lives in the service of God. They did, though, wear habits, learn simple prayers and attend services.

In the summer the day started at around 2am with the services of matins and lauds, before a rest in the dormitory, followed by the first hour of the monastic day, prime. At approximately 6am each day a meeting was held in the chapter house, at which the day's work was allocated, and any sins confessed. This would last until 7:30am, when the monks would go to their tasks, returning for the sext service at 11:30am in the church. At midday they would eat plain bread, cheese, eggs, vegetables and fish with milk, water, ale and wine to drink – only the ill in the infirmary were allowed meat. During the meal, one monk would read a passage from the bible and otherwise silence was strictly maintained.

After dinner the monks were allowed to rest before the service of nones at 3pm. Then they would return to their work until vespers at 6pm followed by a light supper. The monks would gather in the cloister for the collation - a cold meal during a Bible or other religious reading. Compline was held before nightfall and the monks would go to bed. In the winter the services were held at different times as daylight allowed, with only one meal in the day and a longer, nine-hour sleep at night.

How did the monks tell the time? Although clocks had been invented (nearby Salisbury Cathedral's clock dates from the 1380s), the monks used candles made from wax from their beehives to mark the passage of time, with sundials and the state of the tide during the day. Accuracy of time was not considered to be as important as making sure the nine divine offices took place during the day at roughly the right time, with the abbey's bell used to inform the community when to gather.

Abbey People

The abbey was led by an Abbot, whose deputy was the Prior. The other officers of the Abbey were the nine Obedientiaries:

  • Sacristan
    Responsible the sacristy, the church, the abbey's sacred vessels, books, vestments and other possessions.
  • Precentor
    The music master. He was responsible for worship and led the service's chants. Precentor originates from 'Pre-cantor', meaning the first singer.
  • Novice Master
    Responsible for the welfare and education of the novices.
  • Cellarer
    Responsible for the cellarium, the undercroft storeroom. His duties involved the day-to-day running of the abbey, purchasing food and the kitchen and bakery, and the buildings' maintenance. Also known as the bursar.
  • Kitchener
    Responsible for the serving of meals.
  • Refectorian
    Responsible for the Refectory, its furniture, crockery and cutlery.
  • Hosteller
    The Hosteller looked after the abbey's guests.
  • Infirmarian
    The Infirmarian looked after sick and elderly monks.
  • Almoner
    Distributed alms to the poor and needy, including fire wood.

Other positions included the larderer, who slaughtered the animals used in cooking, and the porter, who opened the door from the gatehouse and distributed alms to the poor and the chamberlain.

The lay brothers, who were peasants, did the hard work in the monastery and outlying granges. They ploughed and harvested the fields, looked after the animals and mined the iron ore and had a separate refectory, dormitory and privies to the monks. They had two meals a day, larger than the meals of the monks as they carried out the hard physical work, and access to medical care, but were not taught how to read and write and talking more than absolutely necessary was discouraged.

Income and Food

Much of the abbey's income came from wool, along with corn and hay. English wool was considered the finest in Europe, and Beaulieu's wool was considered of particularly high quality. The 8,500 acres of land surrounding the abbey, known as the Great Close, were separated from the Royal forest by a dyke. A wall, 12-foot in height and over a mile long, enclosed an area known as the Precinct, which was around 58 acres. Fish such as trout, mackerel, pike, trench and eels came from the sea and river, as well as a series of fishponds the monks constructed. Pigeons were also eaten by the sick. The abbey had a curtilage or walled garden, where leeks, beans, peas, onions and garlic as well as herbs were grown. The abbey had its own orchard called the Gardinarius, with apples also used to make cider. Food was kept fresh in winter by salt from the abbey's salterns, where salt from the Beaulieu River was produced. Bees were kept, with the honey used as both a medicine and disinfectant. Grain would be ground in the abbey's mill, and four different types of bread were made in the abbey's bake-house.

In 1337, during the Hundred Years' War, Beaulieu Abbey was ordered to send two bowmen to help defend the Isle of Wight. In 1338, Portsmouth was burned by French raiders, followed by Southampton in October. The Hundred Years War also cut off Beaulieu Abbey from Cîteaux, its mother-house in France. Enemy raids in the area were followed by the arrival of the Black Death in 1349, all of which resulted in Beaulieu suffering a long period of severe hardship. This period lasted until 1424.

Abbey Layout

In the centre of the abbey was a central cloister, a courtyard with a covered walkway around it. Here monks could study, read and contemplate in the benches arranged around the cloister. The cloister had a paved walkway all around, which was covered and supported by columns.

North of the cloister was the Church, a large crucifix shaped building on an east-west axis. This no longer exists, but the outline is clearly visible in the grounds today. East of the cloister was the Vestry, Scriptorium (where religious texts were written and illustrated) and the Chapter House. West of the cloister was the lay brother's frater or dormitory. South of the cloister were Choir Monks' Dormitory, the Warming House, the only room in the abbey allowed a fire outside the kitchen, the lavatorium where the choir monks washed their hands before and after meals, the refectory where the meals were eaten as well as the kitchen.

Arranging the Granges

The Abbey did not exist in isolation, and was in fact the centre of a range of granges, a network constructed to help support the abbey. A grange was an outlying farm that acted initially as a storehouse to produce food to supply the abbey, with the word 'grange' deriving from 'grain' – its prime function was originally that of a granary. As monastic granges were small or medium sized country estate, after the dissolution of the monasteries these were sold off and the word 'grange' became synonymous with small or medium country estates as a whole. In addition to barns and granaries, each grange would have a large house for accommodation and religious purposes at the centre of the estate. Any surplus food would be sold to raise funds for the abbey.

These satellite granges were of considerable importance to the abbey. Normally a grange would only be set up within twenty miles of a parent abbey. Beaulieu's granges existed across the New Forest region, establishing nearby granges at Beufre, Sowley and St Leonards to the south, Colbury Shireburn, and Pennerley in the north and Otterwood, Hartford and the manor of Holbury between the Beaulieu River and Southampton Water. Nearby St Leonard's barn, which still exists today, was built in the mid 13th Century and was an incredible 222 feet long, 55 feet high and by far the largest barn in mediæval England. This is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building.

Additionally, Beaulieu Abbey also owned land in the Meon Valley, the Hampshire River Avon10, Berkshire, Cornwall, Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. The manor at Faringdon effectively became the abbey's first grange, and the land there included the Great Coxwell Barn, which is a Grade I Listed Building.

Beaulieu even founded four daughter houses; Netley Abbey in Hampshire in 1239, Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire in 1246 and Newenham in Devon in 1247, all founded as Royal Foundations by King Henry III, and later St Mary Graces in London under Edward III in 1350. Its closest daughter-house and only other Cistercian abbey in Hampshire was Netley Abbey. Located on Southampton Water, this was three miles outside Southampton and only 15 miles from Beaulieu. That an abbey was established and strong enough to found three daughter-houses in such rapid succession was unheard of in England.


In Anglo-Saxon times the right of Sanctuary was introduced. This allowed criminals the right to take refuge in a church for forty days without fear of arrest, allowing them time to prepare to leave the country. Beaulieu Abbey was one of the few places in England that had the right of Privileged Sanctuary. The right of granting permanent sanctuary covered the whole estate, with even traitors allowed the right to claim sanctuary there. Those wishing to stay for more than 40 days had to apply and be formally accepted.

Among the most notable claimants of Sanctuary were the Countess of Warwick, wife of Warwick the Kingmaker, in 1471 and Perkin Warbeck in 1497. Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the young Prince in the Tower, challenging Henry VII's claim to the throne. When Warbeck was told he had been granted a royal pardon he left the safety of Beaulieu, only to be taken to the Tower and executed.

When the Abbey closed there were 32 men and their families claiming Sanctuary. It was decided that all criminals guilty of minor offences were free to start a new life, however those accused of serious crimes such as murder stood trial for the crimes.

The End of Beaulieu Abbey as a Monastery

The Cistercian order in Britain, like the Clunaic and Benedictine orders before them, suffered from the gain of wealth and power, corrupting those inside. One of the last abbots, Thomas Skevington, Bishop of Bangor, was described as 'the richest monk in England'.

In the early years of Henry VIII's reign the king often visited Beaulieu, staying there in 1510 and 1516. However by 1535 Henry VIII took advantage of the unpopularity of the monasteries by closing the smaller monasteries, around a third of all monasteries in England, and seizing their assets. Beaulieu was not affected by this directly, however Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and Netley Abbey11, Beaulieu's daughter-house, were closed and their monks relocated to Beaulieu.

However in 1536 the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion against the closures of the monasteries erupted in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. A consequence of the Pilgrimage of Grace was that now all monasteries, large and small including Beaulieu Abbey, were now to be closed. Beaulieu surrendered on 2 April, 1538. The monks either left to become parish priests elsewhere, or were granted a pension.

After the Dissolution

Beaulieu was bought by Thomas Wriothesely, Earl of Southampton, for £1,340 6s 8d for the Beaulieu estate on 29 July, 1538. Thomas Wriothesely also purchased nearby Titchfield Abbey, which he made the family seat. Beaulieu was considered of secondary importance, useful for the income it generated. Most of the abbey buildings were demolished, with the stone and lead re-used to construct nearby Hurst Castle, Calshot Castle and Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight, as Henry VIII feared a French attack. This attack came in 1544, and is famous for the sinking of the Mary Rose. The church was the first to go in 1539, followed by the Chapter House and cloister. At Beaulieu the gatehouses were allowed to survive, with the Great Gatehouse adapted to become a modest manor house.

In 1667 the fourth Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, died with no male heir. Beaulieu was inherited by his third daughter, Elizabeth, who married Ralph, Duke of Montagu. The second Duke of Montagu founded a shipbuilding village, Buckler's Hard, in the early 18th Century two miles down the river from the abbey. From the 1740s this village was an important shipbuilding site for the Royal Navy, including several that fought under Nelson at battles such as Trafalgar, until the introduction of iron ships such as HMS Warrior. The estate is still owned by the Baron of Montagu today.

One of the surviving abbey buildings is the former Refectory, now Beaulieu's Grade I Listed Parish Church. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it and still contains a lectern dating from the 13th Century. As the building began as the refectory, originally a monk would read from the Bible during meals.

The Grade I listed Domus Conversorum 'House of the Converts', the former lay brothers' quarters, also survives. Although only half its original size, some of the New Forest oak roof beams date to the 1440s. Since the dissolution it has been used as a guest house, farmhouse, school and a carpenter's. In the Domus can be found a series of tapestries made by Belinda, Lady Montagu in 1991 depicting monastic life.

Other surviving buildings include the outer gatehouse, now the clock house, the Great Gatehouse, now expanded beyond all recognition, as well as remains of the weaving shed. This is attached to the abbey's fulling mill, a water mill used to full or cleanse and thicken cloth by beating it with hammers. The fulling mill was previously believed to be the abbey's wine press.

The White Company

In 1891 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for creating Sherlock Holmes and for his Professor Challenger novels including The Lost World, published The White Company. Set in the 14th Century, it begins in Beaulieu Abbey. Two of the novel's main characters, Hordle John the expelled monk and young clerk Alleyne Edricson, come from Beaulieu. Conan Doyle would later consider The White Company one of his favourite novels and later wrote a prequel, Sir Nigel, which is not set in Beaulieu. The first page of the first chapter reads,

All round the Abbey the monks were trooping in. Under the long green-paved avenues of gnarled oaks and of lichened beeches the white-robed brothers gathered to the sound. From the vineyard and the vinepress, from the bouvary or ox-farm, from the marl-pits and salterns, even from the distant ironworks of Sowley and the outlying grange of St Leonard's, they had all turned their steps homewards...

A stranger who knew nothing either of the Abbey or its immense resources might have gathered from the appearance of the brothers some conception of the varied duties they were called upon to perform, and of the busy widespread life which centred in the old monastery... there were few who did not bear upon them some signs of their daily toil.

The Abbey Today

The Beaulieu estate remained a modest manor until Lord Henry Scott extended the former gatehouse in Gothic style in 1871-74 and also 1885-87, forming what is now known as Beaulieu Palace House. In 1905 John, 2nd Baron Montagu inherited the estate. He was fascinated by transport, especially cars but also was the only member of the House of Lords to be a fully qualified railway engine driver. He began collecting cars, and what is now the National Motor Museum grew out of his collection.

In 1923 The Virgin Queen, a silent colour film about Elizabeth I, was filmed at Beaulieu.

In April 1952 Beaulieu Abbey and Beaulieu Palace House were opened to the public for the first time, with the Montagu Motor Museum formed in 1956. Ten years later, in 1966, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg filmed many sequences for The Avengers using the cars in the collection. On 4 July, 1972 the National Motor Museum was opened, with the Wombles opening the monorail that runs around the grounds, including close to the Abbey, in 1974. This is an elevated monorail and it travels around the grounds, through the Motor Museum, giving a birds-eye view of the cars on display, to a stop for the Palace and Abbey. A ride on the monorail is included as part of Beaulieu's admission cost. It is one of only six Monorails in Britain, the others are at Alton Towers, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Butlins Skegness, Chester Zoo and Flamingoland Theme Park in Yorkshire.

Today the Abbey can be visited as part of the National Motor Museum, which includes four land-speed record breaking cars in its collection, as well as The World of Top Gear12 and a James Bond Vehicle display. The abbey's fulling mill and domus survive, with an exhibition on the abbey's history found in the domus.

Also in the grounds is a monument to King William II Rufus, who was killed by Act of God in the New Forest13. Although generally accepted to have died where the Rufus Stone is located, the Montagu family believe that he died in Beaulieu's grounds.

Located at the mouth of the Beaulieu River on the Beaulieu estate is Beaulieu Millennium Lighthouse, the most recent lighthouse to have been built in the UK.

1Pronounced 'Bew-Lee'.2The Cistercians considered themselves exempt from all worldly affairs, including paying tax. John disagreed, and in 1200 demanded that the order pay a Plough Tax, and confiscated the Order's pigs and horses.3A 'forest' was a royal hunting ground and not necessarily comprised of woodland.4In the 6th Century AD Saint Benedict founded a set of rules for monks to live their lives by. These rules were later adopted by the Benedictine monks, but over the years the Benedictine order was considered to have lapsed its standards.5The Cistercians were not the first Order with these beliefs; the similar Savigniac Order, originating in Savigny in 1105, also considered the traditional Clunaic Order to be corrupt and had founded 15 houses around Britain, including Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight in 1132. The Savigniac order merged with the Cistercians in 1148, making Quarr Abbey the closest Cistercian abbey to Beaulieu. Many abbots of Beaulieu were previously abbots of Quarr.6Not to be confused with the White Friars, who were the Carmelite friars of the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Friars differ from monks by living among the wider community, while monks live separate from the outside world in secluded monasteries.7Another important Cistercian beliefs was that monks should not wear underwear. They based their beliefs on the rules of St Benedict and as St Benedict had never mentioned underpants in any of his writings, they considered them to be evil.8Including Cistercian abbey Kirkstall Abbey.9The person in a monastery who is responsible for food and drink.10The river's name is a tautology. As the word 'Avon' meant river, there are many river Avons in England, including two in Hampshire (the River Avon and Avon Water), as well as a river Afan or Avan in Wales.11Netley Abbey was then converted to become Netley Castle.12Based on the BBC television programme Top Gear presented by Richard Hammond, James May and Jeremy Clarkson.13William Rufus was out hunting in the New Forest when he was killed by an arrow. Strongly opposed to the power of the church, the church declared his death an Act of God. Curiously his older brother, Richard, Duke of Bernay, had also died in a hunting accident in the New Forest in 1081, although God was not considered a suspect in that death. William Rufus was buried in Winchester Cathedral, but shortly after he was buried, the tower of Winchester Cathedral collapsed on his tomb. This was taken to mean that even in death, God disapproved of him.

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