Thursday, 31 July 2008

Local History

Very local to me are the remains of Waverley Abbey. The construction was started in 1128 by the first Cistercian monks to establish an order in Britain . The small colony that had emigrated from France consisted of only an abbot and 12 monks. By 1187 the community supported 70 monks and 120 laybrothers. By the time the abbey was fully dedicated in 1278 the buildings centred on an imposing church that was 300 feet (91 metres) long and 150 feet (45 metres) wide at its transepts. Such were the capabilities of the community that over 7,000 guests were reportedly invited to the dedication including abbots, knights and lords and ladies.

The Cistercians were at the forefront of agricultural development in the 12th century, and by 1300 Waverley had 14 farms (‘granges’) which included valuable stocks of sheep enabling the monks to undertake a lucrative trade in wool with merchants as far away as Flanders and Florence. The wool was shorn from sheep bred from the original flock brought over from France when the abbey was first established. Wool produced in England was considered to be the best quality in Europe at the time. Although much of the abbey’s income was earned from farming, much benefit was gleaned from the various properties gifted to them by the Bishop of Winchester.

The abbey fell to the wholesale destruction wreaked by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536, and despite the abbot’s protestations to the outside world the buildings were systematically stripped of their finery, and eventually even the fabric of the buildings were dismantled to be used as building materials elsewhere. It is thought that many of the great houses between the 16th and 18th centuries in Surrey took advantage of building materials from the ruined abbey including Loseley House near Guildford.
Today little remains of the splendour of the place, but the ruins are nevertheless still impressive and give a good idea as to exactly what this industrious community of brothers had achieved. Now in the care of English Heritage the site has been well preserved and is open to visitors for no charge all year round.