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