Wright’s Discovering Abbeys and Priories lists the principal monastic sites in England. It’s alphabetical. Devon follows Cumbria. There are no significant monastic sites remaining in the county but in medieval England as with the rest of the country Derbyshire was home to more than one monastic foundation.
Darley Abbey, confusingly a priory rather than an abbey as it housed Augustinian canons, was founded by Robert Ferrers, who was the seond Earl of Derby. The Victoria County History for Derbyshire is quick to point out that there is no evidence for a claim that there was an earlier abbey closer to Derby. Perhaps this was because the abbey was founded during the reign of King Stephen – so the “Nineteen years when Christ and all his apostles slept.” In any event Robert Ferrers survived the demise of Stephen and continued his abbey building with the approval of King Henry II. Funds came in part from the church at Crich which was in Ferrers’ possession. The land itself came from a Rural Dean of Derby. So, Hugh is the abbey’s joint founder. It was populated as a daughter house to the Augustinian Canons of Calke Abbey.
The Victoria County History goes on to explain:
Other gifts speedily flowed into the new foundation, so that in a very short time the abbot and canons, in addition to lands at Crich, Wessington, Lea, Dethick, Tansley and Little Chester, and various mills, held the advowsons of the churches of Bolsover, Pentrich, Ripley, Ashover, South Wingfield, and the three Derby town churches of St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Werburgh.
So, while there may not be many – okay none- great abbeys in Derbyshire remaining it is evident that their influence covered the religious needs of many villages in the region.
Over the next three hundred years the abbey gained more land and many more gifts including one man who was seeking to avoid giving all his possessions to a moneylender in return for his debts. Some of its abbots gained reputations as arbitrators amongst their fellow clergy but by 1538 the writing was on the wall. Thomas Cromwell needed to fill his master’s treasury.
Darley Abbey had escaped the cull of 1536 being worth considerably more than £200 per annum but in October 1538 Abbot Thomas Page and twelve other Augustinians signed the surrender document and handed the abbey nto the hands of Dr Leigh who sold off the granges, the harvest and the livestock that belonged to the outlying farms. In the abbey itself he calculated the worth of the paving and the glass in the windows. He even sold off the cooking utensils.
As was usual all the monks received a pension, in 1555 the prior and sub-prior were still receiving their pensions. What is more unusual was that a certain “Doctor Legh” who has featured elsewhere in this blog appeared on the list in receipt of £6 13s 4d per year. Cromwell spotted the addition and had stern words with his commissioner for his dodgy accounting.
In 1541 the site of the abbey was granted to Sir William West who built himself a rather nice house on the site of the priory. As is the way of these things the house passed through several hands and each owner and each new generation wished to place their own mark upon Abbey House so that in the end no evidence of the abbey which had once been so important to the economy and faith of the people of Derbyshire. Ultimately the house was demolished in 1962. The image at the start of this post comes from a website entitled England’s Lost Country Houses which not only lists all the demolished stately stacks in the country but provides photographs of many as well as an informative discussion about their demise. Click on the image to follow the link in a new window.
However, there are other remnants of the monastic foundation. The Abbey Pub is housed in a former abbey building – the abbey guest house as it happens.