Torre Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of Torre Abbey
© Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2019. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.
Use of this data is subject to Terms and Conditions.

The above map is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale map, please see the attached PDF - 1009302 .pdf

The PDF will be generated from our live systems and may take a few minutes to download depending on how busy our servers are. We apologise for this delay.

This copy shows the entry on 22-Sep-2019 at 20:05:25.


The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Torbay (Unitary Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
SX 90826 63634

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. The Premonstratensian order, or "White Canons", were not monks in the strict sense but rather communities of priests living together under a rule. The first Premonstratensian establishments were double houses (for men and women), but later they founded some 45 houses for men in England. The Premonstratensian order modelled itself on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion and founded all its monasteries in rural locations.

Torre Abbey was the wealthiest Premonstratensian abbey in England. The history of the abbey is well documented and excavation has shown that the abbey church had a complex development. Study of the siting of the abbey on the shoreline of Torbay will contribute to a greater understanding of a monastic settlement placed to exploit the resources of both land and sea, and the association with the causeway provides archaeological evidence for the pre-monastic land use. The abbey ruins are the most complete surviving example of a medieval monastic complex in Devon and Cornwall.


Torre Abbey is situated in a wide shallow valley at the sheltered northern end of Tor Bay on land sloping gently down to Torre Abbey Sands. It is set in a small area of parkland surrounded by the modern residential and recreational development of Torquay. The monument includes the known extent of the upstanding and buried remains of an abbey of the Premonstratensian Canons which was in occupation from 1196 until 1539. The visible remains exist in the form of a number of ruined and adapted structures, partly incorporated into a post-medieval country mansion. The ruins are laid out in the traditional monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of two storied buildings were grouped around the central, square, open court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings further from the nucleus. They include the remains of the abbey church, and virtually complete examples of vaulted undercrofts, a tower, inner gatehouse and barn. The walls are constructed of random-rubble utilising local limestone and breccia, with carved details in finer limestone, Purbeck marble and red sandstone. The cloister is laid out in a square with sides of 28m. On its north side, and at a slightly higher level, are the ruins of the church, of cruciform plan, aligned east-west and of 55m overall length. It consists of a nave and north aisle of 14.5m overall width and separated by an arcade of six columns, transepts with eastern aisles each containing two chapels, and a presbytery at the eastern end. A tower originally stood above the crossing and its fallen remains obstruct the centre of the church. The south west corner of the nave abuts the north east corner of the west range. Recent excavations have added considerably to the understanding of the nature and development of the church, demonstrating, for example, that the floor was tiled. They also revealed that the choir at the eastern end of the nave had underfloor acoustic chambers and was divided from the nave by screens and two altars. The tower was found to have had a spiral stair in its north west corner, and in the 15th-16th centuries the northernmost chapel of the north transept was substantially enlarged. Burials were present throughout the church and include two wall tombs; the one in the north transept is of early 15th century date and of exceptional design and craftsmanship. The most substantial remains are on the south and west sides of the cloister where the monastic buildings survive to roof height, having been adapted as part of the later mansion. Both ranges have undercrofts of groined vaults supported on central piers, with windows in their outer walls and floors of beaten earth. The principal traditional monastic use of these rooms was for storage. The west range undercroft is 9.9m wide and has differences in design between its northern and southern halves. The central section has been subdivided by two cross walls to form a through-passage which provides access from outside and from the cloister to both north and south vaults. Traces of decorative paint in a simple linear style can be seen beneath the flaking lime-wash on the ceiling. This passage appears to have functioned as a parlour, the only part of the cloister in which conversation was permitted. The first floor originally consisted of a substantial hall and apartments, traditionally utilised by the abbot. The hall retains the internal part of an early 16th century wagon roof and has a blocked fireplace in its east wall. Abutting the west face of the west range is a square four storied tower which is a later extension of the abbot's apartments. At ground level there is access from outside directly into the undercroft through-passage, and the presence of stone benches along the walls indicates that this area was an extension of the canons' parlour. The first floor room opens into the hall, and all three upper rooms and the roof are connected by a spiral stair partly housed in an external turret. The south range undercroft is 9.5m wide and has also been subdivided by two cross walls. The eastern vault has a fireplace in its east wall, indicating that it functioned as the warming room. The central vault has a stair, now blocked, opening out of its north wall. All of the openings in the southern wall have been blocked by the terrace of the later mansion. The first floor originally consisted of the frater (dining hall). In the south west corner of the cloister part of the medieval cobble floor is exposed, and the adjacent wall contains a recessed lavatoria (washing place). In the angle between the south and west ranges are the remains of the kitchens, much altered by the later mansion, but including three small vaulted rooms and the remains of two fireplaces. The kitchens were connected to the abbot's apartments by a spiral stair. The range of buildings on the east side of the cloister, abutting the south transept, has for the most part not been incorporated into the later mansion. It includes the ruins of the sacristy or vestry with a spiral stair to the first floor, and the chapter house, which would have originally been vaulted, and which has a fine 12th century Norman doorway, symmetrically flanked by two windows. To the south are the remains of a through-passage leading from the cloister and a further room of uncertain size connecting the east and south ranges. The ruins in this area have been obscured by the east wing of the mansion which in part consists of a folly of late 18th century or early 19th century date, and which utilises architectural details from the abbey. The area between the south and east ranges was the traditional location of the rere-dorter (toilets) which would have been supplied with running water. The first floor of the east range would have been the dorter (dormitory). A short distance to the east of the eastern range are the ruins of the infirmary, the visible part of which consists of a rectangular structure of some 20.3m by 9.7m. Traditionally, infirmaries had their own kitchens, and the presence of a well, together with the remains of a hearth that were revealed in excavation, indicates that Torre followed this pattern. Adjoining the south west corner of the kitchens is the early 14th century inner gatehouse, the Mohun Gate, a three storied crenellated structure, complete but with a modern roof. It is asymmetric in plan, having multi- angular towers on three of the corners, and two arched and vaulted passageways, separated by an arcade. The main northern passage was for mounted travellers and wheeled vehicles, the smaller passage for pedestrians. Both have ribbed vaults with decorated bosses and are divided centrally by arches and jambs on which the doors were hung. The pedestrian passage has a cobbled floor. All of the external architectural detail is in sandstone. The ground floor accommodation consists of a room for the gatekeeper, with a fireplace, and a door opening into the pedestrian passage. A spiral stair within the south east turret provides access from the outside to the upper apartments and the roof walks. On the first floor there is a rectangular room above the pedestrian passage and gatekeeper's room which has a vaulted ceiling and a fireplace. The second floor consists of one large room with a fireplace, and a passage in its north east corner giving access to a garderobe (toilet) closet and evidently to a wall-walk above the first floor over the kitchen. One narrow window on the ground floor of the north west tower has been modified as a gun loop for a small matchlock weapon. The site of the gatehouse indicates that the area to which it gave access to the south of the southern cloister-range was the inner court of the abbey. Traditionally, inner courts were areas specifically set aside for buildings to which there was limited lay access, and they often included guest accommodation. At Torre, a two storied stable block abutted the southern wall of the gatehouse, there being direct access at first floor level between the two buildings. The wall footings and cobbled floor of this building were revealed in 1984 in a service trench. An engraving of 1661 illustrates this building together with a more substantial ruined structure to the east, set parallel with the cloister-range. Parchmarks have been observed in the lawns to the south of the mansion which indicate the location of the buried remains of this building, which was probably the guest house. Some 23m to the south west of the gatehouse stands the monastic (Spanish) barn, a complete free standing structure of 13th century date, 38m by 11.6m overall, with external porches in the centres of its longest sides, and buttressed all round. The roof is of late 15th or early 16th century date. The windows have been enlarged and in about 1930 it was refloored. Excavations to the west of the barn located the foundations of a substantial building adjacent to the road. An essential part of the design of all abbeys was the provision of a supply of fresh running water. Excavations have located sections of a chapel to the west of the cloister that supplied water from a source to the north west of the abbey to the kitchens, with a side channel to remove waste from the gatehouse garderobe. Part of a culvert follows the alignment of the north wall of the church. These features clearly represent only a fragment of the abbey's water management scheme. A spring is located some 50m to the south east of the cloister ranges, but is no longer visible. The extent of the land originally granted to the abbey is known from its foundation charter. It amounted to a roughly rectangular area of some 800m by 300m enclosing approximately 24ha, with the abbey sited in the south west quadrant. The land forming the precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a wall and contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and cloister, all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the abbey was capable of sustaining. Many of these structures would have been of timber or cob construction. The previously mentioned engraving of 1661 shows some stone structures not now existing, including a further gatehouse to the west of the abbey. In the mid- 16th century the antiquarian Leland reported that the remains of three gatehouses were visible at Torre. When the ornamental gates of the mansion, near Abbey Lodge, were moved a short distance to the south in 1972, the foundations of a substantial building were located which appear to be those of an outer gatehouse. The ground surface in the vicinity of the abbey appears to have been landscaped with the construction of the mansion. In general the ground has been raised by about 1m. The western side of the abbey precinct is defined by the road called King's Drive which, between the promenade and Spanish barn, is raised on an embankment above the level of the adjacent land. To the north of the barn it continues as a terrace with lower land and a revetted stream to the west and the higher ground of the abbey precinct to the east. The grounds of the abbey, however, have been raised and landscaped in the post-monastic use of the site. The description of the land granted by William Brewer to the canons is defined in part by reference to a causeway that connected the shore with the road between the neighbouring manors of Torre and Cockington. The causeway has been identified as the King's Drive between the promenade and the abbey gates from four documentary sources. The abbey was founded in 1196 by William Brewer, an influential figure in the Plantagenet court, on land granted from his manor of Torre to the Premonstratensian order. It was colonised by canons from the English mother house of Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, and dedicated to St Saviour and the Holy Trinity. By the end of the 13th century the abbey had been granted land throughout Devon, and it benefited from the growth of Newton Abbot following the establishment of a weekly market. At this time there were 26 canons in residence, and the acquired wealth of the abbey made it the richest Premonstratensian abbey in the country. A licence to crenellate (erect fortified defences) was granted by Edward III in 1348. In 1370 the manor of Torre came into the ownership of the abbey. In 1539 there was an abbot and 16 canons in residence. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 following an Act of Parliament of 1538 in which the largest and wealthiest religious houses were surrendered to Henry VIII. A condition of the subsequent sale of the buildings was that they were to be rendered unfit for monastic use, and this was greatly assisted by the Crown's sequestration of all the roofing lead. Following their disposal by the Crown, parts of the buildings were often converted to domestic use, usually the apartments occupied by the abbot which were of a more domestic nature, and this pattern was followed at Torre. In 1543 the abbey was granted by the Crown to John St Leger, and after twice changing ownership was purchased by Thomas Ridgeway, who remodelled the west range as a dwelling. In 1662 it was purchased by Sir George Cary, and the Cary family converted the buildings into the present mansion during the 18th century. In 1930 the house and its grounds were purchased by Torbay Borough Council. Between 1986 and 1989 a large area of the church was excavated and consolidated for display. The abbey and house are together Listed Grade I, with the barn separately Listed Grade I. The scheduling comprises what is currently recognised as the main focus of monastic activity, and extends to the south to include the parkland and shoreline, thereby affording protection to an undeveloped area that contains buried evidence of the abbey's utilisation of its coastal environment. Within the designated area the following are excluded: the mansion and the Spanish barn; the dwellings named The Lodge and The Cottage; the ornamental gates; the palm house, pond and other garden structures; the sea defences, promenade and made-up roads and footpaths; all fence and gate posts, 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.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Seymour, D, Torre Abbey, (1977)
Watkin, H, A Short Description of Torre Abbey, (1912)
Pye, A, 'Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit Report' in Torre Abbey Excavations 1986-9 Preliminary Results, , Vol. 89.14, (1989)
Walker, H, 'The Devonshire Association' in The Causeway Near Torre Abbey In South Devon, (1968), 125-142
Walker, H, 'The Devonshire Association' in The Causeway Near Torre Abbey In South Devon, (1968)
Weddell, P, 'Devon Religious Houses Survey' in Torre Abbey, , Vol. 15, (1987)
Westcott, K, 'Exeter Archaeology 1984/85' in Watching Brief at Torre Abbey 1984, (1985), 75


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.

End of official listing

Your Contributions

Do you know more about this entry?

The following information has been contributed by users volunteering for our Enriching The List project. For small corrections to the List Entry please see our Minor Amendments procedure.

The information and images below are the opinion of the contributor, are not part of the official entry and do not represent the official position of Historic England. We have not checked that the contributions below are factually accurate. Please see our terms and conditions. If you wish to report an issue with a contribution or have a question please email [email protected].