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Cistercian Abbeys: SWEETHEART

Name: SWEETHEART Location: New Abbey village County: Dumfries and Galloway
Foundation: 1273 Mother house: Dundrennan
Relocation: None Founder: Lady Dervorguilla of Galloway
Secularised: 1624 Prominent members:
Access: Historic Scotland – open to the public

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

Sweetheart Abbey was founded in 1273 by Lady Dervorguilla, and was the last Cistercian abbey to be founded in Scotland. The abbey was founded in memory of her late husband, John Balliol (d. 1268). Following the death of her husband, Dervorguilla had his heart embalmed and placed in a silver and ivory casket which she carried with her at all times. When she died in 1289 she was laid to rest, with the casket, in front of the High Altar of the abbey church. The monks chose to name the abbey Dulce Cor or ‘Sweetheart’ in honour of her memory. John Balliol was a generous benefactor himself. During his lifetime he founded Balliol College in Oxford, which Dervorguilla continued to endow after his death. Dervorguilla is best known as the mother of John Balliol (d. 1313) who was set on the Scottish throne in 1292 at the behest of King Edward I. He was deposed four years later by Edward when he failed to toe the line. The first monks arrived at the abbey from Dundrennan and apparently worked quickly to construct the abbey. The buildings could hardly have been completed when, in 1300, King Edward I stopped at the abbey for a night during the Scottish War of Independence. In 1308 the monks were to complain that the king’s troops had caused damage to the abbey amounting to more than £5000 through the burning of their granges and destruction of their goods in war. It is likely that the monks exaggerated the extent of the damage for the original church building of the late thirteenth century still stands in part today. In any case the monks never received the compensation they were looking for.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century the abbey found a powerful patron in Archibald, earl of Douglas, known as ‘Archibald the Grim’ or ‘Black Archibald’. He was said to have done so much for the abbey that he was regarded as Sweetheart’s second founder. In 1397 the abbey buildings were reputedly hit by lightening, and severely damaged by the resulting fire. In the following year, 4 July 1398, the abbot received the mitre. The last pre-Reformation abbot, John Brown, resigned in 1565, whereupon Gilbert Brown became commendator and titular abbot. Gilbert remained an ardent Catholic and allowed the church to be used for Catholic worship for many years after the Reformation had taken place. In 1579 it was reported that there was still a High Altar within the abbey church, though this was removed some years later. In 1586 the abbey was granted to William Lesley and Gilbert Brown was exiled to France for continued participation in Catholic rites. He returned two years later only to be exiled again in the following year. In 1608 Gilbert returned to Sweetheart, he was once more arrested but on account of his old age was allowed to remain at the monastery. It was at this time that the last of the monks were forced to leave the monastery, although Gilbert was found still saying mass in 1609. He was exiled for the third and last time and died in France in 1612. It is believed that it was his obstinacy which ‘probably ensured that Sweetheart was the last British monastery at which mass continued to be said after its official abolition in Scotland in 1560’.

In 1624 the abbey was erected into a temporal lordship for Sir Robert Spottiswoode. Following the Reformation the monastic refectory was used as a parish church. In 1731 it was demolished only to be replaced with another church on the site of the western range. This too was later demolished when the present church was built in 1877. The abbey was used as a quarry for building materials for many years and the church eventually lost its roof. Fortunately, a group of local residents acquired the church in 1779 and protected it from further destruction. In 1928 the ruins were placed in the care of the state.
Today the church remains substantially complete and stands almost as it was originally constructed, apart from some remodelling carried out after the fire at the end of the fourteenth century. The west front of the church stands to its full height and the south transept still retains its ribbed vaulting. It is in that part of the church that the sixteenth-century effigy of Lady Dervorguilla now stands (albeit headless), clasping the casket to her chest. This monument replaces the thirteenth-century original which was sadly lost. The chief remains of the monastic buildings consist of the inner wall of the south range, and the lower walls of the parts of the east range closest to the church. To the north and north-west of the church is a long stretch of the outer precinct wall, which is the most extensive survival of a precinct wall of any Scottish Cistercian abbey. Another point of interest is the arms of ‘Archibald the Grim’ which can still be seen above the doorway of the west range. The site is now managed by Historic Scotland and is open to the public on a regular basis.