A Bishop of Winchester called Peter des Roches wanted to found an abbey for Cistercian monks. The bishop died in 1238 having purchased land for this purpose, not only for its building but to support it financially. King Henry III completed the project in 1239 and went on to make them other gifts including a tun of wine each year. A group of monks came from the Cistercian abbey of Beaulieu. Three of the four remaining crossing pillars contain inscriptions dedicated to Henry III relating to his foundation of the abbey. Building continued during the thirteenth century. The days of Cistercian austerity had passed and this is, in part, reflected in the size of the church.
Disaster struck in the fourteenth century. The abbey was too close to The Solent. Passing mariners demanded hospitality and in 1338 stole large numbers of the abbey’s flock of sheep. The days of the abbey’s financial prosperity were over. It struggled with debt thereafter.
The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 estimated Netley’s annual income at £160 2s. 9½d but the income it received was only £100 12s. 8d.; it was a lesser monastery. On 30 May, 1536, Sir James Worsley and the other commissioners presented their report. Netley was ‘A hedde house of Monkes of thordre of Cisteaux, beinge of large buyldinge and situate upon the Ryvage of the Sees. To the Kinge’s Subjects and Strangers travelinge the same Sees great Relief and Comforte.’ In addition the commissioners listed seven monks with whom no fault could be found as well as thirty-two servants who worked the abbey estate.
The king gave to Sir William Paulet, the comptroller of his household the site and buildings of the abbey. Paulet turned the abbey into a Tudor mansion. The nave of the church became his hall while the eastern range became his living-rooms. The cloister was turned into a courtyard.
It was only in the eighteenth century the abbey/mansion was to be demolished by a builder from Southampton. The enterprising chap was crushed to death beneath some falling masonry at which point everyone else decided it was a sign not to knock the building down. In 1922 it passed into the hands of the delightfully named Ministry of Works.
Of the ruins that remain today the abbot’s house retains evidence of the abbot’s own personal convenience whilst the drainage system for the reredorter (the monks toilet) is a work of engineering excellence. It should also be added that Netley Abbey is today the largest Cistercian ruin in the south of England – it’s not as grand as Rievaulx or Fountains but it’s story is still very interesting as are the narrow Tudor bricks that show where Paulet made some of his alterations.