Whalley Cistercian abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Whalley Cistercian abbey
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Ribble Valley (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SD 72902 36182, SD 73086 36065

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 75 of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or "white monks", on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Although some of the buildings associated with Whalley Abbey have either been demolished and partly built over by later structures or remain in present day use, large areas of the medieval abbey remain unencumbered by modern development and contain extensive upstanding remains of medieval fabric. These include the east and south ranges of the cloister, parts of the abbot's lodgings, the north west gateway, the north east gateway, Peter of Chester's chapel, and the foundations of the nave. Additionally limited excavation of the site during the 1930's has shown that buried remains of the abbey survive well beneath the later structures.


Whalley Abbey is located in the valley of the River Calder towards the south west end of Whalley village. It includes the upstanding and below ground remains of an abbey founded by the Cistercian order in the late 13th century and dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. The monument is divided into two separate areas. The monument is constructed of dressed sandstone. The most visible remains are the north east gateway, the north wall with round bastions along the roadside, the upstanding ruins of the east and south ranges of the cloister, the abbot's lodging, Peter of Chester's Chapel, the north west gateway, and the foundations of the nave. The well preserved standing remains demonstrate the usual layout of a Cistercian abbey but not the standard orientation. Traditionally monastic buildings were laid out so that the church ran east-west and formed the north range of a four-sided complex known as the cloister. Domestic buildings such as the kitchens would then form the south range, buildings such as the parlour, chapter house and abbot's lodgings would form the east range, and the lay-brothers' quarters would form the west range. At Whalley however, to enable the best use of the water supply provided by the River Calder, it was found necessary to dispense with the usual orientation and align the church on a NNW-SSE alignment, thus the church formed what amounted to the NNE range. For convenience the buildings are described as if normally orientated east- west. The earliest standing remains at the site of Whalley Abbey is the late 13th century chapel built by Peter of Chester, rector of nearby Whalley church, who died in 1295. The oldest part of the abbey is the north west gateway on which work began in 1320. Building of the church began ten years later and was completed in 1380. The cloister, abbot's lodgings and infirmary were completed by the 1440's. The south transept of the church, like virtually the whole of the church, survives only as foundations. It had three chapels at its eastern end. At the south end were the night stairs to the monks' dormitory and there are also remains of a doorway to the sacristy or vestry in the south wall. Also within the south transept are fragments of three tombstones, two of which have lettering indicating they are the tombs of John Walton, a `monk of this monastery', and Thomas Wood, one of the priors of the monastery. The north transept is larger than the south transept and also contains three chapels on its east side. A further four fragments of inscribed tombstones are located in the north transept. Separating the two transepts is the crossing, above which rose the central bell tower. Two of the bases of four large piers which supported the tower remain. To the west of the crossing are foundations of the choir stalls. West of the choir is the nave which was 52.5m long with north and south aisles. The bases of four pillars of the arcades separating the aisles from the nave remain on each side. A section of the south wall of the nave survives up to a height of c.3m. A later wall runs across the western end of the nave; beyond this the nave lies buried partly beneath the present English Martyrs' Catholic Church and an open area between this present church and the west range of the abbey's cloister. East of the crossing is the presbytery which was enclosed by a high screen on all sides except the west. Surrounding the presbytery is an ambulatory or processional path which would be used for the procession at high mass on Sundays or on festivals. At the east end of the presbytery a modern high altar has been reconstructed on the site of the original. In the north ambulatory are the remains of a tombstone depicting the coat of arms of the de Lacy family, the founders of the abbey. The cloister measures approximately 37m by 35m and had walkways on all sides. The north range is formed by the nave of St Mary's Church. The remainder of the cloister buildings survive up to 4m high in places. The east range was a building of two floors. On the ground floor, immediately south of the south transept, is the sacristry. Beyond this are three doorways; the first is finely decorated, flanked by two windows, and gives entrance into the vestibule of the chapter house. The chapter house is located at the rear of the east range and is an unusual octagonal shape. It contains two areas of original tiled flooring and was the daily meeting room of the monks. Beyond the vestibule is a door to the parlour and, beyond again, the entrance to the slype or passage which led through the east range to the abbot's house and infirmary. Above this range of buildings would have been the monks' dorter or dormitory. At the eastern end of the cloister south range is a doorway giving access to the day stairs which led to the monks' dorter. Next to this is the doorway to the warming house where a fire would be lit during the winter months. Adjacent to this doorway is the stone canopy and drain of a washing trough or lavatory where the monks washed their hands and feet prior to entering the refectory or dining hall. Only the site of the entrance to the refectory building remains. Adjoining the refectory is the doorway to the kitchen and beyond are remains of a narrow staircase leading to the west range. The west range is the most complete; it was the lay-brothers' dorter. It still stands to its original full two storeys and is roofed. In the time of the abbey it had a dormitory on the upper floor and a refectory below. At the southern end of the cloister east range, across the slype, is the monks' day room, a long narrow building still containing some of its original windows and a fireplace. At the south east corner of this building is a passageway leading to the rere-dorter or the monks' lavatory. Beneath the rere-dorter is the abbey's main drain. A short distance to the north of the drain are the low walls of the abbot's lodgings, built by Abbot Paslew in the 16th century. An entrance door at the west leads into the parlour. This room has a small projecting room at the south west corner and the base of a spiral stair at the north east corner which led to the upper storey. A doorway leads from the parlour into the dining room. There are traces of a stone screen parallel to the north wall together with traces of two windows, a doorway, and a hearth with an adjoining window recess. The ruined standing walls overlying the eastern end of the abbot's lodgings and the site of the abbey's infirmary are the remains of the long gallery, built in the latter half of the 16th century, after the dissolution of the abbey, by the Assheton family as part of their new manor house. Other sections of this manor house remain in use, now used as a conference centre. South of the long gallery are the upstanding ruins of the abbot's kitchen, which may also have served as part of the infirmary, together with the foundations of other rooms associated with the abbot's lodgings. Nearby are remains of the infirmary chapel which contains three windows, and the remains of the late 13th century chapel built by Peter of Chester which contains two small windows in the east wall. The present entrance to the abbey grounds is through the north east gateway which was completed in 1480. Centrally placed inside the gateway are the two passageways for vehicles and foot passengers complete with what are thought to be the original wooden doors decorated with iron studs. On the west side of the door, housed in a projecting turret, is a spiral stone staircase which gives access to an upper room and to the roof. On the north side of the gatehouse are two single-light windows, two stone shields, and a central niche which would have originally contained a religious figure but now contains a 17th century carved wooden figure. To the east of the gateway is the porter's lodge, now functioning as the ticket office, and further to the east, beneath the single storey range of 17th century buildings associated with the Assheton mansion, the abbey stables would have been located. To the west of the gateway there is a roadside wall running initially north then turning west and continuing as far as the English Martyrs' Church. Along the wall's western length are two projecting round bastions. About 130m beyond the western end of this wall is the abbey's north west gateway, construction of which is thought to have commenced about 1320. It is built of sandstone rubble and has two storeys, the upper of which is now roofless. It is a substantial structure measuring approximately 25m long by 11.5m wide. Inside there is stone vaulting throughout, and approximately a third of the way from the east end are two passageways, one for vehicles and the other for pedestrians. In the eastern or inside portion of the gateway are the two side doors, now blocked up; the one on the south probably led to a now demolished guest house, the one on the north gave access to a staircase leading to the upper floor and to the lodgings of the vicar of Whalley. There is another door in the western or outer part of the gatehouse, which would have been used by local people who wanted to see the vicar. The upper floor of the gatehouse is a large room with three three-light decorated windows on the north and south sides and one on the east and west sides. On the north sides there are traces of the doorway which provided an entrance to the room from the stairway. The room was probably used as a chapel for the guests. Whalley Abbey was constructed in response to the pleas for a move from the monks at the Cistercian abbey of Stanlow in Cheshire, which was suffering from periodic flooding from the adjacent River Mersey during the latter part of the 13th century. Negotiations to move to Whalley began about 1279 but it was not until 1296 that Abbot Gregory and a party of about 20 monks arrived to take possession of the Rectory House, built by the recently deceased Peter of Chester. Initially work on the abbey construction at Whalley was slow as a series of legal disputes with nearby Sawley Abbey and then with the Bishop of Lichfield involved both time and money. A further move, this time to Toxteth near Liverpool was considered, but papal refusal to grant this move in 1319 eventually saw work begin in earnest on construction of the abbey. Work commenced on the north west gateway the following year; construction of the church began ten years later and was completed in 1380; and the full set of abbey buildings including cloister, abbot's lodgings and infirmary were finished in the 1440's. In 1480 further construction work saw the completion of the north west gateway and in the 16th century the abbot's lodging was reconstructed and a Lady Chapel added by the abbot, John Paslew. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536, however Paslew became involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace which broke out in opposition to the king's religious changes and paid for this with his life, being executed for treason the following year at Lancaster. After the dissolution the abbey lands and manor of Whalley were bought by John Braddyll and Richard Assheton in 1553, the latter obtaining the monastic site and its buildings. Throughout the following century the Assheton family gradually continued the conversion of the abbey to a private residence. The abbot's house and infirmary buildings were dismantled down to the foundations and on the site a large dwelling house which survives today was built. Further demolition took place about 1660 when the greater part of the church, the monks' dormitory and the south side of the cloister were demolished. From the 18th century the abbey passed through the hands of various families until 1923 when the house and abbey grounds were bought by the diocese of Manchester. Three years later it was purchased by the new diocese of Blackburn. The abbey's north west gatehouse, the land on which it stands but not including the highway, and a strip of land to the north of the gatehouse, were all taken into the guardianship of the State in 1971. Limited antiquarian excavations in 1798 and again in 1813 located a number of skeletons beneath the floor of the presbytery and parts of the gravestone of William Lindley, a 14th century abbot. In the 1930s limited excavation again took place when the site, which was partly used as a garden and partly left as rough ground, was cleared and the foundations of the church were traced and outlined in stone. A skeleton found below the de Lacy tomb in the north ambulatory is thought to have been one of the founder's family. All the buildings on the site, including the remains of the abbey and all its buildings, the north west gateway, the cloister west range and Assheton's manor house and its associated buildings, are all Listed Grade I. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling: these comprise all the buildings in present day use including the conference house; the porter's lodge which now functions as a ticket office, the range of 17th century buildings adjacent to the porter's lodge which now house the abbey's historical display and gift shop, and the portion of English Martyrs' Church building overlying the western end of the church nave. This church is a Listed Building Grade II and known locally as the Abbey Presbytery. The west range of the cloister, although roofed and in use as a church hall in the past, is included in the scheduling as it is a substantial medieval building now abandoned and in disrepair. The surface of the area of the ground lying between the English Martyrs' Church building and the west range of the cloister, which overlies the western end of the abbey church nave, is also excluded as is a greenhouse and building in the garden south of the cloister, all modern walls and fences, the surface of all access drives and paths, and the surface of the road way beneath the north west gateway, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Ashmore, O, A Guide to Whalley Abbey, (1981), 1-20
Dixon, G D, Dixon, J L, The Whalley Earthworks - a field study, (1985), 1-9
Dixon, G D, Dixon, J L, The Whalley Earthworks - a field study, (1985), 3
Farrer, J, Brownbill, W (eds), The Victoria History of the County of Lancashire: Volume II, (1908), 552
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
Pers Comm to SMR, Dixon, J, Whalley Abbey,
Title: Ordnance Survey sheet SD 73 NW Source Date: Author: Publisher: Surveyor: 1:10000


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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