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Cistercian Abbeys: WARDEN

Name: WARDEN Location: nr Bedford County: Bedfordshire
Foundation: 1136 Mother house: Rievaulx
Relocation: None Founder: Walter Espec
Dissolution: 1537 Prominent members: Waltheof of Kirkham
Access: No remains to be seen

Warden Abbey, one of the earliest Cistercian settlements in England, was founded in 1136 by Walter Espec (d. 1154). Four years earlier Walter had founded the abbey of Rievaulx, one of the most famous houses of the Cistercian Order, and now he invited the monks to settle a daughter-house on his lands at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. By 1536 fifteen monks and the abbot, Waltheof (d. 1160), had arrived at the site. Waltheof was the stepson of King David of Scotland and had been prior of the Augustinian monastery of Kirkham before joining the ranks of the Cistercian monks at Rievaulx. He began his new life at Warden but soon returned to the mother-house. When the See of York fell vacant in 1140 Waltheof (Waldef) was among the candidates, but he was vetoed by King Stephen because of his close relations with the King of Scotland. He remained at Rievaulx until he returned to Scotland as abbot of Melrose.

Warden was able to establish three daughter-houses of its own: Sawtry (1147), Sibton (1150) and Tilty (1153); it had also created twelve granges by 1190. It is thought that in the early thirteenth century there may have been over fifty monks at the house. In 1224 approximately thirty monks were imprisoned in Bedford Castle after Falkes de Breaute led an attack on the abbey. In the early fourteenth century Warden Abbey succumbed to the popular desire for mosaic pavements and had a very expensive and elaborate one constructed in the monastery. At the time of the Dissolution Warden Abbey was still a relatively wealthy house, having a net annual income of £389. In 1536 there were fifteen monks besides the abbot, who wrote claiming that they opposed the surrender, which finally took place in 1537.
After the Dissolution the site was acquired by Robert Gostwick who added some brick extensions to the monastic buildings. Today these are the only identifiable remains, although several important artefacts have been found at the site, including fragments of carved and painted stonework and stained glass, decorated tiles, and three small copper gilt and enamel roundels bearing the arms of the abbey.