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Cistercian Abbeys: CLEEVE

Name: CLEEVE Location: Washford County: Somerset
Foundation: 1186-1191 Mother house: Revesby
Relocation: None Founder: William de Roumare II, earl of Lincoln
Dissolution: 1536 Prominent members:
Access: English Heritage – open to the public

Cleeve Abbey refectory
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Cleeve Abbey refectory

Cleeve was founded sometime between 1186 and 1191 by William de Roumare II, earl of Lincoln, whose grandfather, the earl of Lincoln, had founded Revesby Abbey in 1143.(1) William de Roumare had a grant of the Crown estate of Cleeve in Somerset and gave all these lands to the monks of St. Laurence of Revesby to the end that Hugh, the abbot of Revesby, might found a daughter house upon this site.(2) Building work for Cleeve Abbey had begun by 1198 and the monastery was to be one of the last Cistercian foundations to be made in England. The new abbey was named Vallis Florida, although it has always been generally referred to as Cleeve.(3) It took a hundred years before the first set of buildings was completed, and during this time the numbers grew, until by about 1300 the community had grown from the initial twelve to a community of twenty-eight monks.(4) However, the abbey was never a rich house and during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the monastery was found to have been heavily in debt to various London merchants. This decline in fortune was accompanied by a decline in internal discipline and a fall in the number of monks. The situation later improved, and in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a new phase of building projects was inaugurated under Abbot David Juyner. His successors, notably Abbot Dovell, continued the reconstruction of the abbey until the mid 1530s. The abbey was transformed into a mansion appropriate to men of affluence, the most significant alteration being the lavish additions to the refectory.(5)

In 1535 the abbey was assessed to have an annual income of little over £155 and thus was dissolved in 1536 with the lesser monasteries. The church was demolished soon after the Dissolution, and a house was established over part of the claustral complex. This was later to become a farm, with the cloister serving as a farmyard.(6) Practically nothing has survived of the church except some outlines of the foundation in the turf. However, the gatehouse and the east and south ranges of the monastic buildings are well preserved. The fifteenth-century refectory hall is known for its magnificent arch-braced timber roof, with carved wooden angels that project from the main trusses. Also of note is a room called the ‘painted chamber’, a room which derives its name from the fact that its east wall is covered by a late fifteenth-century allegorical wall painting, the meaning of which remains unclear.(7) The site is now in the care of English Heritage and can be accessed by the public at all reasonable times.