Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire near Loughborough was a Cistercian abbey founded in 1133 by Robert, Earl of Leicester. The first monks at Garendon probably came from Waverley Abbey which was the first Cistercian monastery in England. As it happens Garendon is the only Cistercian abbey in Leicestershire.
Don’t get carried away with the notion that the earl of Leicester was a particularly spiritual or generous man. Survey of his endowments and bequests to the Church by Postles reveals that he gave land which he regarded as of little value to him to a range of monastic orders. Postles describes his actions as “spiritual insurance.” Given he was also alive and kicking during the reign of King Stephen his actions undoubtedly held a political dimension.
Over time the monastery at Garendon acquired more generous land bequests in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire making them agriculturally viable. The monks could do what the Cistercians were very good at, sheep farming, through the grange system. We know exactly what the monks of Garendon owned because of the existence of a cartulary in the British Library. A cartulary is a list, or file, of charters, privileges and legal rights which is how we know that the monks at Garendon owned granges at Roystone near Ashbourne, Biggin and Heathcote – all in Derbyshire and described by Mick Aston in Monasteries in the Landscape.
Essentially a grange was a monastic farm, stud or industrial unit. It was a way of managing monastic landholdings effectively. The system was developed in the twelfth century by the Cistercians or white monks as they were known on account of their undyed woollen tunics. The system was then utilized by the other monastic orders. Each unit could be managed by a few lay brothers who reported directly to the cellerar of the abbey. It all went swimmingly well until the Black Death of 1349 and then labour became something of an issue. Some granges effectively became monastic holiday homes or were required to take on labourers according to the seasons. Those granges that farmed sheep remained the most efficient ones because very few people were required to tend the flocks. At Roystone Grange the monks stopped farming and leased the grange to tenants reflecting the changing economy of the period.
In 1225, however, according to the Cistercian History the abbey was exporting wool to Flanders and they had a chapel in Cripplegate, London. The problem for the Cistercians who were initially an austere order and who sought to live in isolation away from the temptations that had beset the Benedictines was that sheep farming made them wealthy which led to backsliding. In addition, it appears that the monks at Garendon weren’t without their personal foibles. One of their abbots is recorded as having been married, which rather goes against the vows of chastity whilst another of the brethren was purported to have converted to Judaism. There was also a small problem at the end of the twelfth century with drunkenness and brawling amongst the abbey’s inhabitants. They got themselves into debt and hid robbers. In short Garendon, if accounts are to be believed, was the kind of abbey that encouraged anti-clericalism and drove the demand for reform.
The Valor Ecclesiasticus reveals that in 1535 the abbey was worth £160 per annum so was defined as one of the lesser monasteries. Over the centuries, if Cromwell’s visitors are to be believed, the monks hadn’t really changed their unfortunate habits either. Five of them were guilty of “unnatural vices” whilst a further three were fed up with being monks. It was however found that five children were maintained by the monks’ charity along with five “impotent persons.” Twelve of the monks were described as being of good character.
Unsurprisingly the abbey was suppressed in 1536 with the abbot receiving £30 pension. The abbey and the land upon which it stood ended up in the paws of Thomas Manners, earl of Rutland. He paid just over two thousand pounds for it. The abbey was partially demolished whilst the cellars and drains were incorporated into a manor house which remained in the Manners family until it passed into the ownership of the dukes of Buckingham when it formed part of a dowry.
Garendon House, as it was known, was in its own turn demolished in the middle of the twentieth century. The lost country houses website puts its disappearance down to general neglect and death duties in 1964. According to Wikipeadia the rubble from the house is somewhere under the M1.
‘House of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Garendon’, in A History of the County of Leicestershire: Volume 2, ed. W G Hoskins and R A McKinley (London, 1954), pp. 5-7. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/leics/vol2/pp5-7 [accessed 8 November 2016].
Aston, Mick.(2012) Monasteries in the Landscape. Stroud: Amberley Publishing
Postles, David. The Garendon Cartularies in BL Lansdowne 415 (http://www.bl.uk/eblj/1996articles/pdf/article7.pdf) accessed 14 November 2016
http://www.lostheritage.org.uk/houses/lh_leicestershire_garendonhall_info_gallery.html (accessed 14 November 2016)