Cleeve Abbey was a Cistercian foundation. Cistercians were initially an order of Benedictine monks who felt that the rule of St Benedict had slackened over time. A group of these reformers founded the abbey at Citeaux in 1098. They placed emphasis upon prayer, manual labour, austerity and poverty.
The Cistercians or White Monks, named after their undyed rough woolen habits came to England in 1132. They arrived from Clairvaux in order to establish a ‘daughter house’ to the abbey in Clairvaux. The abbot and his twelve companions (the usual number for a new daughter house) journeyed north until they arrived at the River Rye.
Rievaulx Abbey would become one of the greatest abbeys in the country founding daughter houses of its own in England and Scotland. Patrons of Rievaulx included kings of England and Scotland. Little wonder that they began with twelve choir monks but exceeded one hundred and fifty less than a century later. Much of this expansion was due to the influence one of Rievaulx’s abbots – a monk called Aelred who later became a saint.
Rievaulx’s own daughter houses can be found north and south of the border between England and Scotland. Melrose Abbey in Scotland was a daughter house, as were Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Revesby in Lincolnshire and Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. A second abbey was founded in Scotland – Dundrennan.
Each of these abbeys in their own turn founded daughter houses; grand-daughter houses to Rievaulx. For example Melrose Abbey is the mother house of Hulm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria. In England, Revesby Abbey created a daughter house in Somerset – Cleeve Abbey to be precise – so you can take a blogger out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the blog for very long as I discovered this morning.
Having listened to the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha pass overhead in the night in the form of a heavy downpour and a thunderstorm we ventured coastwards to Cleeve Abbey in Washford with our fingers firmly crossed that we would avoid any rain.
The information that follows comes from the very informative display at the beginning of the tour and the ever helpful Victoria County History.
The 3rd Earl of Lincoln, William de Roumare, was the founder of the monastery in the late twelfth century when abbey building was at its peak. His own grandfather had been one of the patrons who founded Revesby.
The abbey was known as Vallis Florida meaning ‘flowering valley’ – it still does have plenty of flowers.
The first abbot was called Ralph. He and twelve monks arrived from Revesby to found the only Cistercian abbey in Somerset. It was never wealthy but by 1300 there were twenty-eight monks. In the years that followed monks from this picturesque community toiled on the land, studied (rather than the usual cupboard of books, the brothers at Cleeve had an entire room of them) and a couple were even raised to the rank of papal chaplain.
And so things might have continued but Henry VIII was a man in need of a son. In Autumn 1535 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners came knocking on the gatehouse door. The man of the moment was Dr John Tregonwell. He liked what he saw –even if it was only worth in the region of £155 a year- in fact he liked it so much that he wrote a politely worded note to Cromwell asking if he could rent it as he had a wife and children to support. Given that the monastery hadn’t even been dissolved his request seems to be ‘a bit previous’ as my step-son would say.
The plot thickened as there’s also a letter in existence dated 1537 written by Sir Thomas Arundell, the king’s receiver who was writing to ask what Cromwell intended with Cleeve as it was still operational and rumour said that King Henry VIII had ‘pardoned it.” He went on to ask for clarification and to comment that Cleeve contained “seventeen priests of honest life.”
It was to no avail. The abbey was required to submit. The abbot received a pension of 40 marks a year (about £9000 these days apparently). One of the monks – John Hooper- went on to become Bishop of Gloucester. He managed to irritate Queen Mary in 1555 and was burned as a heretic.
Tregonwell was not successful in his suit. Still, there were plenty of other abbeys for him to lay hands upon. He acquired Milton Abbas in 1540 and numerous other Dorset properties. According to his parliamentary biography there appears to have been some irregularity about the number of leases he handed over for the nunnery of St Giles at Flamstead which must have been resolved and not to his credit. He went on to become Chancellor of Wells Cathedral and later, during the reign of Queen Mary, the MP for Scarborough.
As for Cleeve Abbey itself, it was granted in January 1538 to Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex by way of a thank you present.
Radcliffe was a loyal servant to the Tudors. He was the privy councilor who suggested that Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with Bessie Blount, should be named heir to the crown ahead of the legitimate but female Mary. He was an active agent in promoting Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and later after the suppression of the minor monasteries he helped to put down the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) in Lancashire.
The church of Cleeve Abbey was swiftly demolished but the cloister remains as do many lovely, if cracked thirteenth century floor tiles, which lay hidden beneath the soil for many centuries. The display in the abbey buildings includes tiles showing Richard the Lionheart and Saladin on horseback. The display also explains how the tiles were made. Other tiles are heraldic and reflect the names of the abbey’s patrons including Richard of Cornwall who was the brother of Henry III. His tiles are the ones with the lion rampant on them.
Henry III was also a patron. He gave the monks of Cleeve Abbey the right to any wrecks that arrived on Cleeve’s stretch of shoreline.