Grey abbey was founded in 1193 by Affreca, wife
of John de Courcy and daughter of Godfred, king of Man. Tradition
says that Affreca
founded the abbey in thanksgiving for a safe landing after a perilous
journey at sea. The abbey was colonised with monks from Holmcultram in
Cumberland, with which it maintained close ties in the early years.
The construction of the stone church began almost immediately.
1222 and again in 1237 abbots of Grey went on to become abbots
of Holmcultram. The abbey was situated in the Ards Peninsula, seven
miles from Newtownards, at the confluence of a small river and
the Strangford Lough. The Latin name of the abbey is Iugum
which means ‘Yoke of God’. Little is known of the history
of the abbey, though it appears to have been almost completely
during the invasion of Edward Bruce (1315-18). No reliable sources
concerning the value of the house survive, but Grey is not
likely to have been prosperous. The abbey was dissolved in 1541
and in the same year part of the monastic property was granted
to Gerald, earl of
Kildare. The monastery was destroyed during the
military operations of the Elizabethan era. In 1572, Brian O’Neill
burnt Grey abbey in order to stop it being used as a refuge for
English colonists trying to settle in the Ards Peninsula. In the
seventeenth century the church nave was re-roofed and served
a parish church until 1778.
In the late nineteenth century repairs were
executed by the Commissioner of Public Works. Unfortunately, an
excessive amount of concrete was used,
the crudity of which is still obvious today. The remains of the
abbey include the abbey church and some of the conventual buildings,
dating from c. 1193- c. 1250. The original plan of the monastery
can be followed with ease through foundations and earthworks.
abbot’s seat is preserved at Grey abbey, which is one of
the few monastic seats to have survived. It is fitted inside
a pointed arch and flanked by detached colonettes. Corbel tables
a rarity in Ireland, but the Cistercians can boast two of them,
one at Tintern and one at Grey.
At Grey the corbels were inserted when the roof was raised, probably
in the early fifteenth century.
There are eight of them altogether, carved with oak leaves, human
figures and animal heads. An outstanding effigy of a ‘sword
seizing’ knight survives at Grey abbey, thought to date
from c. 1300. Also at Grey is an effigy of a woma carved in
and attired in thickly cut robes. Tradition relates that this is
Affreca, who was buried in the abbey, but the style suggests
the effigy originated in the fourteenth century, a hundred years
after her death.
The ruins are now set in a private parkland,
to the eighteenth-century mansion, Rosemont House. The park is
not accessible to the public.