Vale Royal Abbey
- 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 19-Jan-2021 at 00:50:29.
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Cheshire West and Chester (Unitary Authority)
- Whitegate and Marton
- National Grid Reference:
- SJ 63859 69883
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.
Vale Royal Abbey was planned to be one of the greatest and most lavishly appointed abbeys in England. The nave of the abbey church was certainly the longest in the country and the chapels surrounding the eastern end of the chancel were more akin to the Spanish cathedral of Toledo than the austerer designs for great churches in England. Although the destruction of the abbey church and the chapter house and cloister buildings on the eastern side was complete above ground, there is evidence from excavations and surveys to show that considerable remains are still present below the ground surface. On the western side of the cloister the present country house has incorporated the western and southern range of the original medieval buildings and there are features of these original buildings visible in the fabric.
The monument includes the below ground remains of part of a Cistercian abbey,
together with its ancillary buildings and a cross set up on the site of the
chancel of the abbey church and called the Nun's Grave. The present buildings
on the site, which are excluded from the scheduling, are part of the west
range of the abbey cloister modified and incorporated into a country house
which is now substantially 19th century in date. Some of the original masonry
from the abbey can be found within the buildings.
The Cistercian abbey of St Mary was founded on the banks of the River Weaver
in 1277 under the patronage of Edward I. The first monks originally came from
Abbey Dore in Herefordshire. The community was set up at Darnhall on the lands
of a royal estate and Edward moved the foundation to the present site in 1281.
At this time there were 100 monks and lay brothers, making it a large
community. Building work was halted in about 1290 when royal patronage was
withdrawn, but was resumed in 1353 under the Black Prince and continued, with
various setbacks including the collapse and rebuilding of the nave, until
about 1380. The abbey was suppressed in 1539, at which time the income from
the abbey was assessed at five hundred and eighteen pounds, making it one of
the most wealthy houses in the country. The buildings and estate were sold to
Thomas Holcroft who demolished most of the abbey buildings and sold or re-used
the materials to build his country house on the site. He remodelled the west
range of the claustral buildings of the abbey to create the core of the house
which now stands in the middle of the area of protection. Further remodellings
have created what now appears as a major 19th century house.
When the building work on the abbey was completed the abbey church was the
longest built by the Cistercian order in England. It stood on the north side
of the monastic complex. The design was cruciform in plan with a massive
central tower and probably two other towers on the western end of the nave.
The Black Prince commissioned a new east end for the chancel in 1359 with 13
chapels arranged in an elaborate chevet or fan shape, echoing the east end of
the cathedral at Toledo in Spain.
Work on the claustral buildings has been shown by excavation to have been less
grand and some of the work may never have been completed to the original plan.
As was usual in the plans of Cistercian monasteries, the claustral buildings
formed a quadrangle around the cloister garth. The church formed the northern
side of the cloister. The refectory and kitchen on the south side of the
cloister were later remodelled as a south wing of Holcroft's house. On the
east side was a large chapter house whose foundations and tiled floor have
been located by ground survey and trial excavations. There is now no trace of
the chapter house above ground. The size of the cloister garth (the area
within the claustral buildings) was one of the largest in England, measuring
39m by 35m. The interior of the cloister, together with the large chapter
house, have never been fully excavated but there are indications that
considerable remains lie immediately below the ground surface. Further
remains of ancillary buildings have been located in a trial excavation in the
garden of Bell Cottage to the south of the southern claustral buildings.
Survey work around the site of the present house has also established that
there were more remains of monastic buildings and related drainage works to
the west of the present house frontage extending beneath and to the south
western side of the present access road.
Originally these buildings were located within a much larger precinct which
would have been enclosed by a boundary wall. This would have been approached
through the White Gates which gave their name to the hamlet with a church at
the entrance to the present country house grounds. There is now no trace of
the wall nor of the original gates which must have formed an impressive
feature at the entrance to this large precinct. However, it is clear from the
distance of Whitegates from the claustral buildings that the area of this
precinct was large and probably bounded on the northern side by the River
Weaver. The river would have supplied the monastic complex with water and
there would have been an elaborate system of drainage and water management
connected to the buildings. There was also a system of fishponds recorded at
NGR 63107030 which are no longer identifiable but are thought to have been
monastic in origin.
In the centre of the site of the abbey church, on the presumed site of the
original high altar, there is now a cross known as the Nun's Grave, which has
been rescued and re-erected. This is a later reconstruction of a medieval
cross found on the site and is set up on a pedestal formed from fragments of
the church masonry. This cross has been damaged and the head and part of the
shaft are now held in adjacent offices pending restoration.
The country house, the garden walls to the west and north of the front of the
house, all flagged and tarmac path surfaces, and the lighting bollards which
line the paths and the northern garden wall of Bell Cottage are excluded from
the scheduling, although the ground beneath 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
De Figueiredo, P, Treuherz, J, Cheshire Country Houses, (1988), 189-196
Jones, A, Vale Royal Cheshire an Archaeological Evaluation, (1989)
McNiell, , Turner, , An Architectural and Topographical Survey of Vale Royal Abbey, (1989)
Morant, R W, Monastic and Collegiate Cheshire, (1996), 86-97
Morant, R W, Monastic and Collegiate Cheshire, (1996), 86-97
LUAU, Vale Royal Archaeological Evaluation Report, 1997,
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