Vale Royal Abbey


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


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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.

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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

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