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Cistercian Abbeys: BUCKFAST

Name: BUCKFAST Location: nr Buckfastleigh County: Devon
Foundation: 1136 Mother house: Savigny
Relocation: None Founder: King Stephen
Dissolution: 1539 Prominent members:
Access: Open to the public

The original monastery at Buckfast was founded in 1018 by a local nobleman and was from the first a Benedictine abbey. It seems that the abbey did not generate much wealth and by the end of the twelfth century it was probably in decline. Not much is known of the original community, although a list of the abbey’s property is given in Domesday Book. According to its value in Domesday Book, Buckfast Abbey ranked as one of the three poorest monasteries in the Wessex group.(1) In 1136 King Stephen (1135-54) assumed responsibility for the monastery and gave Buckfast Abbey to the Abbot of Savigny, who chose a monk from his own monastery to lead a group across the channel and establish the Savigniac rule at Buckfast. Buckfast Abbey thus followed the customs of the French mother house until, in 1147, the entire Savigniac group became part of the Cistercian Order.(2) As soon as this transformation had taken place, the whole monastery was rebuilt in stone in the Cistercian pattern. By the later Middle Ages Buckfast Abbey had risen to be one of the wealthiest Cistercian abbeys in the south of England, and ran its own guest hall, almshouse and school. By the time of the Dissolution, however, the monastery was in some decline, housing only twenty-two monks, compared to the 180 monks and lay-brothers that probably made up in the community in the twelfth century. Even so, in 1535 Buckfast’s annual income was assessed at the comparatively large sum of £466. The abbey was surrendered in 1539 and a year later the manor of Buckfast and the site of the abbey were sold to Sir Thomas Dennys.(3)

The ruins of the former abbey remained evident until the site was bought by Samuel Berry in 1800. He flattened the abbey church to make way for a Gothic mansion which had been completed by about 1806. The property changed ownership four times over the next eighty years, finally falling into the hands of Dr. James Gale in 1872. In 1882 Dr. Gale decided to sell the property and was keen to offer it to a religious community. The house was bought by an exiled group of Benedictine monks from La Pierre-qui-Vire in France.(4) The monks arrived at the abbey site during October and November of that year. Within two years the monks had laid bare the medieval foundations of the abbey and Mr. Frederick Walters, one of the leading architects of his day, drew up plans for restoration in the style of the mid twelfth century, based on studies of other Cistercian abbeys such as Kirkstall and Fountains. Boniface Natter was blessed as abbot on 24th February, 1903, exactly 365 years after the closure of the medieval abbey, but was tragically drowned in a shipwreck only three years later.

Anscar Vonier was elected as the new abbot and soon after announced his ambitious project to rebuild the abbey church, following Frederick Walter’s design. Construction began in 1907 by a small group of monks lead by Br. Peter Schrode, who had previously been sent to a monastery in France to learn the art of masonry. The church was consecrated in 1932, by which time all but the upper section of the tower had been completed. The consecration ceremony was an impressive affair; taking part were the popes representative, five archbishops, sixteen bishops, thirty abbots and many priests and religious. Thousands heard the ceremony outside via loudspeakers and the service was also broadcast by the BBC. The church was finally completed in 1937 when the last stone was laid on the tower. All that remained was to complete the pointing and remove the scaffolding; this was finally accomplished in the last weeks of 1938. Abbot Anscar died only three weeks later, satisfied that his life’s work had been completed. Abbot Anscar is buried in the church and a memorial plaque has been erected in the south aisle to celebrate his achievement. The abbey is now open to the public, and remains the only medieval monastery in England to have been restored and used again for its original purpose. The only medieval buildings to survive are the guest hall and its service buildings in the inner court, now re-roofed and serving as a visitor centre.(5)