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Cistercian Abbeys: WAVERLEY

Name: WAVERLEY Location: nr Farnham County: Surrey
Foundation: 1128 Mother house: L’Aumone
Relocation: None Founder: William Giffard
Dissolution: 1536 Prominent members:
Access: English Heritage – open during visiting hours

Waverley west range
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Waverley west range

The abbey of the Blessed Virgin of Waverley was the very first Cistercian monastery in the British Isles. It was founded by William Giffard, bishop of Winchester, who brought a colony across the channel from the French abbey of L’Aumone (Loir-et-Cher), sometimes called ‘Le Petit-Citeaux’. The abbot and community from L’Aumone were presumably foreigners and settled down to an unostentatious life on a remote site, away from the main lines of travel. In its early years the abbey had several important benefactors, including: Queen Adeliza (wife of Henry I), King Stephen (1135-54), and Henry of Blois (younger brother of King Stephen and William’s successor to the bishopric of Winchester). Waverley was never a rich house numerically, but was to become one of the largest of the Order. In 1187 there were seventy monks and 120 lay-brothers in the community. Between 1133 and 1150 at least sixty-five monks and a large number of lay-brothers left Waverley to colonise five other abbeys: Garendon (1133), Forde (1136), Thame (1137), Bruern (1147), and Combe (1150).

The location of the abbey, in the valley of the Wey, was not altogether convenient: the monks suffered from periodic flooding, crop failure and bad seasons. During times of severe hardship the community at Waverley was forced to disband and seek asylum in other monasteries: once in 1203 owing to a bad harvest and again in 1210 as a result of King John’s exactions. Waverley was, however, very well managed and was thus able to revive after these times of depression. Whilst it was tucked away in the Surrey countryside and attracted no recruits of any repute, the abbey was nevertheless one of the three most influential Cistercian houses in England, alongside Rievaulx and Fountains. In 1208 King John spent the last days of the Holy week at Waverley and was so impressed by his hosts that he ordered that the building of the abbey church, at that time in progress, should be continued at his own expense. In 1264 the abbot of Waverley was summoned along with other barons and prelates to consult on the affairs of the kingdom and was also called upon to attend the Parliament of Westminster in September of the following year. During the reign of King Edward I the abbot seems to have attended the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order on a regular basis, and in 1305 King Edward appointed the abbot of Waverley, with other commissioners, to consult with Scots.

One particular case reveals the extent of Waverley’s influence. In 1240 a shoemaker working in the precincts of the church was arrested by a knight for homicide. The abbot of Waverley saw this as a violation and loss of distinction between places sacred and secular, and thus took the case to the papal legate, Otho, and thereafter to the king and council. It was eventually acknowledged that the enclosures of Cistercian abbeys and granges were exempt from episcopal authority and from civil actions; anyone who violated this would be excommunicated. The shoemaker was restored and returned to the abbey. The outcome of this case had an impact upon the entire Cistercian Order in England. However, by the end of the thirteenth century the number of monks and lay-brothers living at the abbey had dropped significantly. At the time of the Dissolution there were only thirteen monks in the community and the abbey had an annual net income of £174. The house was suppressed in 1536 and the property was granted to William fitz William (d. 1542). William built a house on the site which incorporated portions of the former monastic buildings. However, between 1725 and 1735 much of the abbey complex was demolished by Mr. Child of Guildford in order to build a new house to the north-west of the precinct area. In 1964 the ruins, including fragments of the church and the cloister ranges, were placed under state care and have been preserved for public display since this date. The site is now managed by English Heritage and can be visited by the public during open hours.