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Cistercian Abbeys: HAILES

Name: HAILES Location: nr Winchcombe County: Gloucestershire
Foundation: 1246 Mother house: Beaulieu
Relocation: None Founder: Earl Richard of Cornwall
Dissolution: December 1539 Prominent members:
Access: English Heritage – open to the public

Hailes Abbey
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Hailes Abbey

Hailes abbey was founded in 1246 by Earl Richard of Cornwall, the second son of King John (1199-1216) and the brother of King Henry III (1216-72) who was later crowned King of the Romans. Four years earlier Earl Richard had been in a perilous storm at sea and vowed that if he was delivered from this danger he would found a monastery. King Henry III granted him the manor of Hailes in Gloucestershire expressly for the provision of a monastery. The abbot of Beaulieu consented to send twenty monks and ten lay-brothers to found a new monastery and in June 1246 they arrived to colonise the site.(1) The abbey was built extremely quickly and according to the chronicler, Matthew Paris, a monk of St Albans, the dedication ceremony in 1251 was attended by thirteen bishops, all the major barons of the realm, and the king and queen.(2) Earl Richard intended the abbey to serve as a mausoleum for his family. Over the next twenty years Richard, his wife Sanchia, and his son Henry were all laid to rest in the abbey. Although Richard of Cornwall was the wealthiest man of his day, the abbey failed to prosper until 1270 when his son, Edmund of Cornwall, presented the abbey with a phial containing the Precious Blood of Christ.(3) The blood was guaranteed as genuine by the patriarch of Jerusalem, later to be Pope Urban IV.(4) This transformed the abbey into one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the country and the east end of the church was extended in order to provide a suitable setting for the phial.

However, the abbey was not free from financial difficulties. A return of the plague in 1361-2 killed many of the monks and lay-brothers and hardship followed for almost a century.(5) In the survey of 1535 the abbeys annual net income was assessed at £357 and the house was dissolved in December 1539.(6) After the Dissolution the phial of blood was removed to London for inspection, following which it was declared that the blood was in fact only ‘honey clarified and coloured with saffron’. We cannot be sure whether this was the truth or whether it was declared as such in an effort by Henry VIII to discredit the church.(7) Of the buildings, the church, chapels, steeple, cloister, chapter-house, dormitory, refectory, infirmary and the prior’s chamber were all deemed superfluous and were dismantled.(8) The west range, the gatehouse and the great barn were all retained and passed into private ownership. Hailes was occupied until 1687 and thereafter was gradually allowed to fall into ruin. The ruins, including the walls of the church and cloister ranges, now stand amid a fairly well-preserved earthwork precinct. The site includes a small museum and a fine display of English Cistercian decorative painting, dating from 1320-30. The area is now in the care of the English Trust and is open to the public at all reasonable times.(9)