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Cistercian Abbeys: Beaulieu

Name: BEAULIEU Location: nr Southampton County: Hampshire
Foundation: 1203 Mother House: Citeaux (from Faringdon)
Relocation: 1204 Founder: King John
Dissolution: April 1538 Prominent members:
Access: Church and Museum – open to the public

The former refectory at Beaulieu Abbey
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The former refectory at Beaulieu Abbey

The abbey of St. Mary of Beaulieu, situated in the heart of the New Forest, was founded in 1203 by King John and was colonised with a group of monks brought directly from Citeaux. (1) The original site was at Faringdon but the community had moved within a year to its permanent site on the left bank of the Beaulieu River. It was the site of the kings hunting lodge and had the name ‘Bellus Locus Regis’, ‘the beautiful place of the king’. When the monks arrived from Citeaux they renamed it in their own tongue, ‘Beaulieu’. The foundation of Beaulieu brought a new and vigorous current of monastic life into England after a period of relative inactivity that had marked the last fifty years.(2) King John’s relations with the Cistercian Order had been strained since he had used questionable methods in an attempted to impose taxation on the Cistercians in England earlier in his reign. It is believed that King John established Beaulieu as an act of penance after he dreamt that he was being flogged by Cistercian abbots.(3) It was intended to be a large royal abbey with provision enough for thirty monks and a large number of lay-brothers; indeed, it was immediately set apart as the only Cistercian house in Britain to be colonised by monks sent directly from Citeaux. The layout of the church transepts also seems to imitate the pattern at Citeaux.

Hugh, the abbot of King John’s new foundation of Beaulieu, was from the first used as an agent by the king and earned a reputation for lax and inappropriate behaviour. Abbot Hugh was deposed before 1218, but soon after his public services were rewarded with the bishopric of Carlisle.(4) King John’s son, Henry III, continued the tradition of royal patronage and generously endowed the monastery. By the end of the thirteenth century royal donations accounted for well over three quarters of the community’s total income.(5) Beaulieu served as a place of sanctuary for several famous people throughout the fifteenth century. After the battle of Barnet (1471) Queen Margaret and the Countess of Warwick took refuge at Beaulieu Abbey, as did Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, after the failure of the Cornish rising in 1495.(6) In total area, Beaulieu was the largest Cistercian church in England and was responsible for three royal daughter houses: Netley (1239), Hailes (1246) and St. Mary Graces in London in 1350. A non-royal daughter was also established at Newenham in 1247.(7) The survey of 1535 gave the abbey a net value of £326 and the abbey was thus dissolved with the larger monasteries three years later, on 2 April 1538.(8) After the Dissolution the abbey church and many of the monastic buildings were pulled down but the great gatehouse was converted to provide domestic accommodation, and was to become known as Palace House.

The Dissolution brought with it an unusual problem at Beaulieu. It was the only place in central southern England which offered permanent sanctuary for criminals. In 1538 there were thirty-two men claiming sanctuary. On closure a compromise was reached: debtors and others of ‘good family’ were set free but murderers and felons would have to stand trial for their crimes. Today the abbey church has almost entirely disappeared; the monk’s refectory and the chapter house stand as the principle remains. The monk’s refectory has been used as a parish church since the sixteenth century and, although extensively restored and added to, is in an excellent state of preservation.(9) The foundations of the medieval church have been laid out for display and the outer gatehouse, the remains of the mill, and other fragmentary buildings survive within the remains of a walled precinct. The abbey site comprises the grounds of the National Motor Museum and what was once the lay brothers’ refectory now houses an exhibition of monastic life prior to the Abbey’s purchase by Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton in 1538.(10) Palace House is still privately owned by Lord Montagu but is open to visitors on a regular basis.