Cleeve Abbey

Cleeve Abbey

Cleeve Abbey is a medieval monastery located near the village of Washford, in Somerset.  The abbey was founded between 1186 and 1191 by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln and 12 monks led by Abbot Ralph, on land he had been given by the king.  The official name of the abbey was Vallis Florida (Latin: 'Flowering Valley') but throughout its history it was generally known as Cleeve after the nearby village.  Over its 350-year monastic history Cleeve was undistinguished amongst the abbeys of its order, frequently ill-governed and often financially troubled.  The sole member of the community to achieve prominence was John Hooper, who became a bishop during the Reformation.

view of Cleeve Abbey.  photo by Robert Kilpin

In 1536 Cleeve was closed by Henry VIII and the abbey was converted into a country house.  Subsequently, the status of the site declined and the abbey was used as farm buildings until the latter half of the nineteenth century when steps were taken to conserve the remains.  Today Cleeve Abbey is one of the best-preserved medieval Cistercian monastic sites in Britain.  Although the church is no longer standing, the conventual buildings are still roofed and habitable and contain many features of particular interest, including the 'angel' roof in the refectory and the wall paintings in the painted chamber.

Abbey buildings
The monastery would have been surrounded by gardens, fishponds, orchards, barns, guesthouses, stables, a farmyard and industrial buildings.  The abbey grounds were defended by a water filled moat and a gatehouse.  Excavation has revealed that a large stone cross, like a market cross, stood just west of the main building.

Cleeve Refectory.  photo Patrick Mackie

The refectory range was rebuilt in the 15th century to provide accommodation equal to that possessed by any contemporary secular lord.  In 1535 the abbey's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's great survey of church finances, at £155, which meant the following year that it came under the terms of the first Suppression Act, Henry's initial move in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Abbot William Dovell and his 16 monks were forced to surrender the abbey on September 6th 1536, leaving in the spring of 1537.  One former monk of Cleeve who rose to prominence came to a sticky end:  John Hooper who became Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester and was executed in 1555 for his protestant beliefs by Mary I.

Later history
Cleeve became Crown property and in 1538, the freehold of the site was granted to Robert Radclyffe, 1st Earl of Sussex.  The church was demolished, save for the south wall which bounded the cloister, and the rest of the abbey converted into a mansion suitable for a gentleman. By the early seventeenth century Cleeve had turned into a farm:  the dormitory was now a large barn, the cloister was the farmyard and the rest of the buildings were used for agricultural purposes and a farm house.  George Luttrell of Dunster Castle acquired the site in 1870 and the abbey stopped being used as a farm and extensive archaeological excavations took place with the site becoming a tourist attraction.  Cleeve Abbey was passed back to the Crown in 1950–51 to pay Death Duties on the Luttrell estate.

Present day
Expensive heraldic tiles demonstrate rising living standards at Cleeve in the latter part of the Middle Ages.

Cleeve Abbey tiles.  photo by MortimerCat

The church and infirmary have almost entirely vanished, but the site boasts some of the finest and best-preserved monks' living quarters still surviving in Britain.  The buildings round the cloister are still roofed and habitable and many of the rooms retain their vaults.  Among the most important preserved rooms are the chapter house, the refectory with its magnificent arch braced wooden vault and the painted chamber.  Much of the abbey's medieval tiled flooring remains.  Other major survivals include the abbey gatehouse, which still provides entrance to visitors, the moat and fishponds.

Cleeve Abbey dormitory.  photo by MortimerCat

Cleeve Abbey Gatehouse.  photo by Patrick Mackie