The abbey of the Blessed Virgin of Waverley
was the very first Cistercian monastery in the British Isles.
founded by William Giffard, bishop of Winchester, who brought a
colony across the channel from the French abbey of LAumone
(Loir-et-Cher), sometimes called Le Petit-Citeaux.
The abbot and community from LAumone were presumably foreigners
and settled down to an unostentatious life on a remote site,
from the main lines of travel. In its early years the abbey had
several important benefactors, including: Queen Adeliza (wife
Henry I), King Stephen (1135-54), and Henry of Blois (younger brother
of King Stephen and Williams successor to the bishopric
of Winchester). Waverley was never a rich house numerically,
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
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 Johns 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 Waverleys 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.