Rufford Abbey Cistercian monastery: monastic precinct, water-management works, pre-monastic open-field system and post-medieval building


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1011013

Date first listed: 12-Apr-1961

Date of most recent amendment: 09-Sep-1992


Ordnance survey map of Rufford Abbey Cistercian monastery: monastic precinct, water-management works, pre-monastic open-field system and post-medieval building
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Nottinghamshire

District: Newark and Sherwood (District Authority)

Parish: Rufford

National Grid Reference: SK6453264879


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

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 the standing remains at Rufford Abbey are limited, the surviving west range containing the lay-brothers' frater is the most impressive and best-preserved in the country. In addition to water-management earthworks and the foundations of the claustral complex, the remains of ancillary buildings will survive undisturbed in the outer precinct. Archaeological deposits and architectural features relating to the pre-monastic and post-Dissolution use of the site also survive.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


Rufford Abbey is situated on the eastern boundary of Sherwood Forest in present day Rufford Country Park. The monument includes the precinct and associated features of the twelfth century Cistercian abbey of St.Mary the Virgin, part of the ruins of a post-medieval manor house built after the monastery's dissolution and a remnant of the open-field system associated with the medieval villages of Rufford and Cratley, deserted prior to the monastery's foundation. The monastic remains consist primarily of the buried foundations of the buildings to the north, east and south of the cloister and the extant cellar, outer parlour and lay-brothers' frater (refectory) which formed the west cloister range. Partial excavations carried out by the then Ministry of Works between 1956 and 1957 revealed the typical ground plan of a Cistercian abbey, with the church forming the northern range of the cloister, the kitchen, monks' frater and warming house forming the southern range, and the sacristy, chapter house, inner parlour and monks' dorter (sleeping quarters) the eastern range. A drain running east-west to the south of the cloister indicates the most likely location of the reredorter or latrine. The surviving west range is an extremely well-preserved example of Cistercian architecture, being of typically plain construction with round and octagonal columns, a rib-vaulted ceiling and, in the frater, traces of the day-stair and cupboards for spoons and linen. The lay-brothers' dorter, with the night-stair leading out on the north side, lay above the cellar. A small late-fourteenth century window looks east over the cloister and indicates the conversion of the dorter to some other use at this time. The foundations of ancillary buildings such as barns, bakehouses, infirmary and gate-house, along with the remains of stock-pens and enclosures, will be located in the unexcavated areas of the monastic precinct beyond the claustral complex. Although the exact boundaries of the precinct are not at this stage known, a reasonable assumption can be made by analogy with other Cistercian sites. Of particular interest within the precinct at Rufford Abbey are the faint surviving traces of ridge and furrow cultivation, running north- south to the east of the claustral buildings, alongside Rainworth Water, and east-west to the west, where the formal gardens of the later manor house lay. This evidence of an open-field system is believed to pre-date the abbey's foundation and to relate to the two medieval villages which were abandoned to make way for it. North of the abbey complex, in a wooded area known as the Wilderness, a dry watercourse or leat can be traced north for c.200m before curving eastwards towards what is now Rufford Lake. For much of its length through the woods, the leat is at least 2m deep and a similar distance wide. Two sub-rectangular depressions, located on the northern edge of the precinct and fed by the leat, were either late medieval fishponds dating from the time when fish was permitted in the Cistercian diet, or, alternatively, were wheel pits associated with one of the mills known to have belonged to the abbey. A shallower channel, flanking the path to the east of the ruins, is a later garden feature and not associated with the monastery although it lies within the precinct bounds. In addition to converting the outer precinct to gardens, the post-Dissolution occupiers of the abbey utilised the stone for new buildings and added living accommodation over the lay-brothers' quarters while the refectory was converted to a servants' hall and a fireplace added. A projecting wing was added to the north end in c.1610, to balance the new building work being carried out to the south. In 1679, a new north wing containing reception rooms and a long gallery was built on the site of the abbey church but has since been demolished. A Tudor-style entrance, with steps and balustraded causeway, were added to the west-front in the late 1830s. Further buildings were constructed to the south but do not form part of this scheduling. The manor at Rufford was granted to the monks of Rievaulx Abbey in 1146 by Gilbert de Gaunt, Earl of Lincoln. The construction of the stone buildings of the abbey appears to have been completed by c.1170, and few alterations seem to have been carried out between that date and the monastery's suppression in 1536. Never a prosperous abbey, Rufford was one of the first to be affected by the Dissolution and, in 1537, the entire estate was granted to George Talbot, fourth Earl of Shrewsbury. The transformation of the abbey into a country house was begun between 1560 and 1590 by George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury and husband of Bess of Hardwick. In 1626, the estate passed to Sir George Savile, husband of Mary Talbot, the sister of the seventh and eighth earls. Rufford became the family home of the Saviles when William Savile, George's brother and successor and an ardent supporter of Charles I during the Civil War, burnt down the family's original seat at Thornhill to prevent it becoming a Parliamentarian garrison. Most of the alterations and construction work carried out at the abbey date to the period immediately after the Restoration, with the now demolished north wing being added in 1679. The house was demolished in 1956 and the site of the abbey and the converted west range has been in state care since 1959. The west range is a Grade I Listed Building. Features excluded from the scheduling are the surfaces of paths and drives, fencing, all English Heritage and Nottinghamshire County Council fittings such as notices, benches, grilles and railings, the sheds etc. within the works compound and the outbuildings in the paddocks to the east of the ruins. The ground underneath these features is, however, 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: 13271

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
'Country Life' in Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire, , Vol. 14, (1903), 650-656
Gilyard-Beer, R, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire, (1965), 161-3
Gilyard-Beer, R, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire, (1965), 161-63
Phillips, A P, 'Transactions of the Thoroton Society' in The Diet of the Savile Household in the Seventeenth Century, , Vol. 63, (1959), 57-71
Savile, Lord, 'The Ludgate Monthly' in Rufford Abbey, , Vol. 2, (), 435-443
Notts. County Council guidebook, Rufford, Past and Present, (1980)
Notts. County Council guidebook, Rufford, Past and Present, (1980)

End of official listing