Cleeve Abbey


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


Ordnance survey map of Cleeve Abbey
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

West Somerset (District Authority)
Old Cleeve
National Grid Reference:
ST 04759 40582

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.

The Cistercian abbey and precinct at Cleeve has been described as the best preserved and most complete example in southern England. It is an outstanding example of its class and attracts many visitors. The 15th century oak roof of the refectory is a pre-eminent example of medieval carpentry. The presence of a separate room for a library is unusual as it represents a departure from the normal Cistercian custom of housing the library in the western half of the sacristy. The survival of wall painting in the sacristy, gallery and painted chamber is of importance and interest given the rarity of medieval decorative schemes, and on account of the strictness of the Cistercian statutes towards all forms of decoration.


The monument includes a Cistercian abbey (Grade I Listed) with its inner precinct and outer court on the east side of the River Washford. The precinct and court are separated by a wall and gatehouse, much of which survives. Contained within the precinct are a church, the claustral buildings, fishponds, the base of a cross, earthworks representing internal boundaries and water management features, and the site of Abbey Mill. The outer court forms a rectangular enclave bounded on the north, south and west by walls which still survive. Doorways in these walls led to orchards, meadows and garths. The cloister, at the centre of the abbey buildings, has a grassed rectangle at its centre. The cloister was roofed over where it abutted the other abbey buildings to provide a sheltered walkway. The remains of the roof of this walkway or alley can be recognised on the walls of the ranges around the cloister. Both the 13th century roofing and the 15th century rebuilding can be seen. An important survival from the 13th century cloister is the shallow recess, set midway along the south face of the wall of the south aisle of the nave. This recess was intended as an architectural frame for the chair of the abbot during the ceremonial reading known as the Collation. The greater part of the lower storey of the west cloister alley remains intact, apart from the southern part which was obscured during later rebuilding. The church stands on the north side of the cloister, with the west end of the nave facing the outer court. Its position can be seen in its lower courses only. It had a square ended presbytery, transepts, each with two eastern chapels, and an aisled nave of seven bays. In the centre of the nave is the stone coffin of an abbot. The easternmost bay of the south aisle wall contained the processional doorway to the cloister. The first floor doorway and the blocked ground floor doorway in the westernmost bay of the aisle contain reused material and both are insertions belonging to a cottage that was built here after the Dissolution. The lower doorway occupies the site of a western processional doorway to the cloister. The high floor level of the cottage explains the survival of a patch of floor tiles in the westernmost bay of the aisle. The monks' quire occupied the crossing and the easternmost bay of the nave, and the L-shaped foundations for the quire stalls can be seen. The south wall of the south transept still stands to the height of the adjoining dorter or dormitory, and originally stood much higher. In its centre is a doorway leading to the sacristy at ground floor level, and to the west of this at first floor level is another doorway through which the night stairs from the church communicated with the dorter. In the southernmost chapel there are fragments of the base of an altar set against the east wall. The sacristy, adjoining the south transept of the southernmost chapel, has a barrel roof. Some original features here include twin lockers, slots for shelves and rebates for doors. At the east end of the south wall is a piscina or stone basin for washing the chalice. Some of the 13th century hand painted decoration in this room can still be seen. The library lies next to the sacristy on its south side. The 13th century entrance to the library from the cloister was a large archway, later blocked, and a smaller doorway preserved in the blocking. Internally, the room is barrel vaulted, and the east wall has a single lancet window rebated for a frame. The next room to the south is the chapter house, which projects eastward from the eastern side of the cloister. It is entered from the cloister by a large doorway, on each side of which is a two-light window. The upper parts of the walls and parts of the vault have the remains of plaster with some 13th century painted decoration. The eastern bay of the chapter house is marked only by its foundations, and just within this bay is a large stone slab with a leaded socket to take the stem of the lectern. To the south of the chapter house are the day stairs to the dorter and the parlour. The parlour, entered via a 15th century doorway, has a barrel vaulted roof and rectangular lockers on its south and west walls. The first floor of the east range of buildings comprises the dorter or dormitory. Between the parlour and the warming room to its south is the slype, a passage which joins the cloister range of buildings to the infirmary range. On the north wall of the slype are two sets of twin lockers, with a further set on the south wall where there is also a doorway to the warming room. The warming room or common room is three bays long and has had a modern groin vault inserted. The north bay has a window in its east wall which was cut down to floor level after the Dissolution to act as a doorway. On the corresponding west wall is a blind recess. The central bay has the remains of a communal fireplace on its east wall and the remains of an original window opposite it on the west wall. The southernmost bay has three blocked doorways and three windows. Adjoining the warming room on its south east side is the basement plan of the reredorter or latrine. It consists of a room measuring 17.25m east-west and 3.6m north-south, with a drain 1.3m wide on its south side above which the garderobes would have been situated. The drain was diverted on this path after the 15th century rebuilding of the south range. The warming room and the reredorter formed the west and south sides of the infirmary cloister. When first built during the second half of the 13th century the south range conformed to the normal Cistercian plan. At its east end the day stairs ascended to the dorter; next to them was the warming room; next to this the refectory on a north-south axis in the centre of the range and extending beyond it to the south; and at the west end was the kitchen. In the third quarter of the 15th century the range was drastically remodelled to a new plan. The only 13th century features surviving are the northern doorway to the day stairs still serving the passage that replaced them, a small doorway within this passage serving the warming room, the lavatory near the refectory doorway, the doorway itself, and the tiled pavement of the southern part of the refectory with a doorway to the former kitchen. The 15th century southern refectory range is of two storeys in its eastern part and three storeys in its western part. The east end of the ground floor is occupied by the passage with a 15th century doorway at its south end. The remainder of the ground floor of the range is divided into two sets of two chambers. The eastern set has a study or living room measuring 6.7m by 4.6m with two windows in its south wall and between them a fireplace. At the south end of the east wall of this room a doorway leads to a narrow bedchamber 6.7m by 2.4m. It has a window in the south wall similar to those in the adjacent study, but with splayed embrasure and window seat. Beside this is a doorway to a garderobe. The western set of chambers has its own doorway from the cloister, similar in appearance to the eastern set. It leads into a small triangular lobby from which a doorway leads into the eastern set of chambers, and an arch leads into the study of the western set. The western study is 0.3m wider than the eastern one, but in all respects is similar. As originally built, the bedchamber of the western set could only be reached by a doorway at the south end of the west wall of the study, but is now accessible through openings forced through the walls of the refectory staircase at the north end. The original doorway leads into a lobby with a barrel-vaulted cellar beneath the stairs at its north end. In the south wall of the lobby are a rectangular window and a doorway to a garderobe. The 15th century refectory which replaced the 13th century one was on the first floor of the south range with its long axis east-west, contrary to earlier Cistercian custom. The 13th century doorway was retained at ground level and gives access to a flight of steps which end in a lobby at first floor level. The purpose of the lobby was to accommodate people waiting for admission to either the refectory or to the painted chamber on the west. The painted chamber lies above the western bed chamber and has a window in its south wall and a fireplace in its west wall. Some decorative painting can be seen on the west wall, but the east wall is entirely covered by a late 15th century wall painting. It is suggested that this room was a `checker' or office serving the abbot's secretariat. The refectory itself is a hall 15.5m by 6.7m. Its north wall has a row of five three-light windows and there are four windows on the south wall. The second bay from the east on the south wall has no window and housed a frater pulpit which has been largely destroyed by a larger fireplace which was inserted in the 16th or 17th century. The outstanding feature of the hall is its roof which is an excellent example of medieval carpentry. At the north end of the west wall of the refectory a doorway leads to a wooden gallery over the entrance to the refectory staircase which continued along the north end of the painted chamber and into the west range. There are the remains of a painting within the gallery depicting a floral pattern and the head of a monk. Above the painted chamber there is another chamber now reached by a new staircase in the room beyond the gallery. Originally this upper chamber was accessed by stairs in a turret on the north wall of the refectory range, but this is now destroyed. The upper chamber has a window in its north and south walls and there is a fireplace on the west wall; this wall also bears the traces of wall-painting. The chamber has a fine late 15th century open timber roof. The northern part of the west range of the claustral buildings was devoted to the cellarer and the lay brethren. It is known from excavation to have been 6.7m wide and was built towards the end of the 13th century. Its north wall partly survives, and part of the east wall survives to first floor height. The full length of the range is not yet known, but it was at least 15.2m long since it was curtailed here by the insertion of a cross wall in the later Middle Ages. The south end of the west range consists of a group of rooms which were part of the 18th century farmhouse accommodation. On the north side of this group of rooms is the present day ticket office and shop. To the south of this are two rooms, the western one of which was the 18th century farmhouse kitchen; the eastern room has a late medieval fireplace. From this room four steps lead down to the room at the south west corner of the claustral range. Originally this room is thought to have been a monastic kitchen. It has a 13th century arch in its north east corner and an altered fireplace on its west wall. The room to the north of this, which was part of the monastic range, is of irregular plan because of many post-Dissolution alterations. Above the room thought to have been a monastic kitchen is a room which is a continuation of the gallery joining the refectory to the west range. It is thought that by the late Middle Ages the upper floor of the west range had become the abbot's private apartments. The long room of the upper floor of the west range is largely of post-Dissolution character. The gatehouse stands in the south east corner of the courtyard and faces north. It has two storeys and was built in the 13th century but altered in the 14th and remodelled in the 16th century. The ground floor forms the gate passage, with a broad arch at either end. Above the outer, northern, arch is the inscription in Latin `Gate be open, shut to no honest person'. Over the inscription the first floor chamber has a window with four lights, and above this the figure of the Virgin and Child. The passage was originally divided by a cross-wall which had a large archway for wheeled vehicles and a doorway for pedestrians. There are traces of the jambs of these arches, and the main gates were hung at this point. The northern half of the passage served as a lobby outside the gates for those waiting for access to the precinct. To the west of the lobby was the almonry, and to the east the porter's lodge. Despite earlier attempts to strengthen the gatehouse, early in the 16th century Abbot Dovell found it necessary to add buttresses to all except the west wall and to rebuild the upper storey completely. The upper storey has lost its floor, but in addition to the four light window in each gable, it had a two light window in its east wall, a doorway at the north end of the west wall, and a fireplace near the centre. On the east side at the north end is evidence of a garderobe. This upper storey of the gatehouse is thought to have been used for administrative purposes, and to have been the abbey's court room. Most of the existing walls on the site of the almonry, the blocked doorways in the east and west walls of the upper chamber of the gatehouse and the traces of gabled roofs abutting on its outside walls belong to its post-Dissolution use as a farm building. The southern archway of the gate passage bears the inscription `Dovell'. This end of the first floor chamber again has a four light window, above which is a canopied Crucifixion. Between the gatehouse and the abbey, c.7m to the west of the west range of the conventual buildings, is a mound c.4m in diameter and c.0.5m high, marked by a circle of stones. This protects the former octagonal foundation for the base of a cross. It was traditionally known as the Barter Cross and possibly related to the secular activity of the cellarer's range. In the fields to the south east, east and north east of the abbey are indications of water management features seen as earthworks. A channel c.10m wide and 0.3m deep leads south from the north end of the moat. This bifurcates after c.200m. One arm ends in a pond, seen as a slight depression, c.50m north-south by c.20m east-west, and the other continues c.20m to the east of the pond as a continuation of the original channel. It is thought that these features represent a fishpond and overspill leat. The line of the western wall of the inner court follows the eastern boundary of the Long Orchard, and terminates at the gatehouse at the north. Earth banks to the north east and south east of the abbey, partly visible running up to the east arm of the moat, may indicate north and south boundaries of the inner court. The outer court boundary wall on the west side was formed by the high stone wall of the precinct standing on the river bank on the west side of Long Orchard. This wall, of which stretches remain standing to c.2m high, runs north to meet the gatehouse and then beyond it to enclose a small walled courtyard outside the gates. Where the main wall ends, the northern and eastern boundaries of the precinct were continued in the form of broad wet moats up to c.15m wide. Beyond the present extent of the moat to the south, an earth bank is recorded on the line of the field boundary c.370m south of the abbey. It is thought that this marks the southern boundary of the precinct. Some 200m to the south of the abbey is Abbey Mill, through which runs a leat which returns water to the River Washford north of the wall of the outer court. It is considered that the mill is on the site of an earlier mill contemporary with the abbey. The fields surrounding the abbey and Abbey Mill have earthwork features associated with the monastic site. The church was the earliest stone building on the site, begun c.AD 1200 and completed by the middle of the 13th century. Most of the church was destroyed down to its lowest courses after the Dissolution, but the main elements of its plan were traced by excavation in 1875-76 and in 1931. At some time between 1186 and 1191 William de Roumare issued a charter giving the whole of his lands at Cleeve into the hands of Abbot Hugh of Revesby for the purpose of founding a daughter house to the Abbey of Revesby in Lincolnshire. The grant took effect on 25 June 1198, when the new site was colonised by its first abbot, Ralph, and twelve monks from Revesby. The new abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in accordance with Cistercian custom, and was named Vallis Florida. The abbey gradually gained extensive lands as far as the Parrett valley in the east, Bideford Bay to the west and extending into Cornwall to the south. The abbey also had interests in a number of churches, including the rectory of Lundy Island. The number of monks increased during the 13th century until by 1297 there were 26, and two more were added to serve a chantry founded in the abbey church. This appears to represent the period of greatest expansion of the house, but the 14th century appears to have been one of decline. In the 15th century the house ceased to work much of its own land and leased estates and granges out to seculars, while the alterations made to the abbey buildings in the same century show that little or no accommodation was then needed for lay brethren. The general picture from 1310 to 1450 is one of regression in internal discipline, recruitment and financial stability. Matters improved in the second half of the 15th century, and major rebuilding projects were initiated by Abbot David Juyner and continued later by Abbot William Dovell. Early in the 16th century Abbot John Paynter appears to have adopted a policy of granting favourable leases of abbey property to local laymen, which was continued by his successor Abbot William Dovell. During Abbot Dovell's rule the abbey's two corn mills, near the outer gates to the precinct, were on lease to Barnard Dovell of Old Cleeve. At the time of the Dissolution in 1536 the community numbered 17 monks and two corrodians, (pensioners who received board and lodging in return for a downpayment) and there were 23 people, probably servants, in receipt of wages. Despite a plea from local gentlemen that the abbey might be spared, the final surrender was made on 6 September 1536. One of the monks who received a pension at the Dissolution was John Hooper, who in 1551 was consecrated Bishop of Gloucester. He was burned at the stake in 1555 as a heretic. The farm range, including the exhibition room, is included in the scheduling; throughout the farmhouse range and abbey buildings only the modern fixtures and fittings including wooden staircases, railings, signs, doors and ticket office counter are excluded; the concrete vault of the warming room and the upper parts of the supporting piers which are modern reconstructions are excluded from the scheduling, as is the corresponding southern half of the floor of the dorter above it; fences, modern outbuildings and farm buildings are excluded from the scheduling, as is Abbey Mill House which is listed Grade II, but 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
Elrington, C R, The Victoria History of the County of Somerset, (1985), 41
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 38
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 20
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 16-17
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 15
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 25-31
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 20-21
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 10
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 13
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 13-15
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 40-43
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 21
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 32-37
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 15-16
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 23
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 11
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 7-9
Gilyard-Beer, R , Cleeve Abbey, (1960), 22
Pooley, C, Old Stone Crosses of Somerset, (1877), 107
'West Somerset Free Press' in West Somerset Free Press, (1893)
NMR entry St 04 SW 27,
Record No. 33918, Somerset County Council SMR,


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

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