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Cistercian Abbeys: VALE ROYAL

Name: VALE ROYAL Location: nr Winsford County: Cheshire
Foundation: 1274 Mother house: Abbey Dore
Relocation: 1281 Founder: Edward I
Dissolution: September 1538 Prominent members:
Access: No standing remains – now occupied by golf course

A later house at Vale Royal
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
A later house at Vale Royal

According to one of the abbey’s own historians, Vale Royal owed its foundation to a vow made by the future Edward I on a perilous voyage at sea. Edward was returning from the Holy Land, probably during the winter of 1263-4, and was caught in a violent storm in the English Channel. He vowed that if he was delivered from this danger he would found a Cistercian monastery in England, and endow it richly enough to maintain one hundred monks forever. The implementation of his plan was delayed for two years due to war but, in August 1270, he finally issued a foundation charter for the monastery of St. Mary at Darnhall, in the royal forest of Delamere. The monastery of Abbey Dore agreed to provide a colony of monks for the initial settlement and the community finally arrived at Darnhall in 1274. The site, however, proved unsuitable for the new abbey and Edward permitted the monks to choose a new one ‘out of all the kingdom of England’. The monks chose a site only four miles from the original one and Edward renamed the abbey Vale Royal. On 13 August 1277 Edward laid the foundation stone of the High Altar in honour of the Virgin and St. Nicholas. Just before Edward was crowned king he fought in the Holy Land (1271-2), playing a major part in the defence of the remaining territories against Baybars. He brought back to England a portion of the Holy Cross which he gave to the abbey at its foundation. The chronicler of Vale Royal also recorded how Edward sought everywhere for canonically approved relics of the saints to bestow on the abbey and how he endowed the abbey with hallowed vessels and whole-silk vestments and precious books.

Read more about Darnhall

In 1281 the monks moved from Darnhall to the temporary accommodation provided for them at Vale Royal. Edward had intended the abbey to be the largest and most impressive of all the Cistercian foundations in England: Edward’s patronage of the abbey is to be seen as an aspect of royal prestige and domination. Initially building work progressed rapidly, the huge costs met by annual payments made by the king. Most of the work seems to have gone into the construction of the abbey church although there is evidence that the cloister ranges were also being provided for. However, after thirteen years of work and for reasons unknown, King Edward declared that he was no longer interested in the construction of the abbey and thenceforth would have nothing more to do with the project. The community was left to manage a construction programme that was far beyond its means and, not surprisingly, the house never achieved the size or grandeur that Edward had intended. The abbey only had a community of twenty-one monks in 1336 and eighteen in 1381. A new phase of patronage began under Edward, the Black Prince and earl of Chester (d. 1376). He decided to continue the work of his grandfather and embarked upon a scheme to embellish the east end of the church with twelve new chapels. However, such promise was dampened once again when a violent storm swept through Cheshire in October 1360 and the entire nave of the church was said to have been destroyed. It was impracticable that the church should be entirely rebuilt and Richard II (1377-99) scaled it back in height and width.

By the early fifteenth century the house was said to have been in financial difficulties: legal disputes, local disorder and poor management all contributed to the wasting of the abbey. Despite all this, the house still turned over a substantial income. At the time of the Dissolution the abbey had a net annual income of £518 and a community of fifteen. The house was suppressed during the second round of closures, and was surrendered in September 1538. Following the Dissolution the site was acquired by the royal commissioner, Thomas Holcroft, who ‘plucked down’ the great church. Afterwards he built a house which incorporated some of the monastic buildings. Evidence suggests that the plan focused around the conversion of the south and west ranges. Holcroft’s house, although much altered since the sixteenth century, can still be seen at Vale Royal today. It has recently been converted to provide a clubhouse and other facilities for a golf course. There are no visible remains of the church, although a monument known as the ‘Nun’s Grave’ marks the spot where the High Altar is thought to have been.