Tavistock 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.

West Devon (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 48163 74343

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. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Tavistock Abbey is central to the history and character of the medieval town which developed around it. The Saxon foundation of the abbey places it amongst the earliest of the medieval religious houses founded in Britain, and it was in continuous use by the same Benedictine order for over five and a half centuries. Tavistock Abbey was closely linked with the Benedictine abbey at Buckfast which was founded at the same time, and the pilgrim route across Dartmoor which connected them can still be followed. Although the abbey suffered heavily at the time of the Dissolution, its plan and extent, and the positions of some of its major buildings are well known from previous studies and from its standing remains which are the oldest buildings in Tavistock. These buildings survive in good condition and they include two of the original gateways, and a substantial length of the precinct wall, including a corner tower. The survival of archaeological deposits, including burials which have produced medieval pewter chalices and cloth remnants, have been demonstrated by partial excavation, in the case of the abbey church, to lie just below the surface and below ground building remains are considered to be widespread. These archaeological deposits will provide evidence of the development of the abbey from simple timber-framed Saxon buildings through to the richly carved stone architecture of the late Middle Ages and will provide further evidence about the lives of the religious community within the abbey and their relationship with the town just outside.


The monument includes part of the standing, ruined, and buried remains which together encompass the greater part of Tavistock Abbey. It is sited in the centre of the town of Tavistock on the north side of the River Tavy, on the south west edge of Dartmoor. The abbey, which was of the Benedictine Order, was protected by a precinct wall which separated the religious community from those outside and it was in occupation from AD 974 until 1539. The abbey buildings were built in Hurdwick stone, mainly of random rubble construction, with moulded detail in Roborough stone in the earlier period and Dartmoor granite in the later period. The abbey conformed to a traditional monastic plan in which an abbey church and three ranges of buildings were grouped around a central open cloister. However, at Tavistock the usual Benedictine plan for those buildings outside the claustral range was reversed with the outer court lying to the east rather than to the west as was more common. Significant remains of the abbey church are known from excavation whilst standing remains also exist in the form of a number of ruined or adapted structures many of which are Grade I or II Listed Buildings. The monastic precinct wall survives over much of its southern and western circuit and the positions of two gateways are known. The greatest building within the abbey would have been its church, the buried remains of which have been located to the south of the parish church of St Eustachius and in Bedford Square. Excavations in Bedford Square in 1997 revealed walls of the choir and aisles to the north and south belonging to the east end of the abbey church. Three burials discovered at the same time appear certain to be those of high ranking members of the abbey's religious community; pewter chalices had been placed at the heads of two of the burials. They had been buried within the walls of their abbey church in a privileged position close to the altar. To the west of Bedford Square, an excavation in 1920 in St Eustachius' graveyard established the location of a wall interpreted as the north wall of the nave; a small inscribed stone marks its position. About 11m to its south is a small part of the south wall of the nave and part of the inner wall of the west claustral range which survive as Grade I Listed standing masonry remains. From these fragmentary remains, and from William of Worcestre's measurements of 1478, the abbey church can be estimated to have been about 67m in length although observations in 1999 suggest that the east end of the church was extended at some time during its life prior to the Dissolution of 1539. The nave of the church would have been about 11m wide providing the north range of a claustral suite which would have enclosed a cloister garden perhaps 25m square. Opposite St Eustachius' graveyard, on the south side of Plymouth Street, lies the Bedford Hotel which occupies the position once filled by the south range of the cloisters. Immediately behind it, to its south, is a Grade II Listed Building which is considered to be the monastic infirmary hall or possibly the Abbot's hall (it is now commonly known as the Abbey Chapel). The structure has the character of a large medieval open hall and it was entered from the north by a two-storied porch; the building has been in use as a non-conformist chapel since the 17th century. The porch tower (Abbey Porch) of two stories, which is a Grade I Listed Building, was added to the north facade of Abbey Chapel in the late 15th or early 16th century. The entrance of the porch was on the north side and its outer arch is fitted with a massive granite frame which was infilled with rubble in the 19th century. Elsewhere, studies undertaken in 1998 have demonstrated that the four walls of the rectangular Trowte's House (a Grade II Listed Building lying in a position just inside the suspected location of the east precinct wall) retains extensive medieval walling and external features. Small below ground sections of walling identified with the positions of what appear to have been the Chapter House and the reredorter (latrine block) of the abbey have also been located in 1929 and 1998 respectively, while in 1996 the position of the monastic Great Kitchen was identified in documentary evidence, lying to the south east of the abbey church. Two gateways of the abbey survive. The more easterly gateway, and probably the main entrance into the abbey, is known as Court Gate (also as Higher Gate or Town Gate); it is a Grade I Listed Building. A study of the two storey gatehouse in 1993 identified five structural phases beginning in the late 12th century, although it is considered that the 12th century gatehouse is encased in a later structure and the first floor of the building is considered to belong to the later medieval and later phases. The building was restored in 1824 when additions were made to its east and west walls. The West Gate, a Grade I Listed Building (known more commonly as Betsy Grimbal's Tower), was the west gate of the Abbey precinct. It comprises an entrance archway flanked by projecting demi-octagonal stair turrets; there is a first floor room over the gate passage, and a two-storied structure of continuous construction to the north. A significant section of the monastic precinct wall survives whilst elsewhere its course can be predicted with reasonable confidence. North of Betsy Grimbal's Tower it lies beneath Plymouth Road whilst a long stretch to its south, where it borders The Vicarage, appears to have been replaced by a post-medieval wall on a slightly different alignment. However, an approximate 26m length of precinct wall on its lower western side survives up to wall walk level, and over 85m of the southern precinct wall which flanks the River Tavy is considered to be largely medieval although rebuilt in places; the southern stretch of wall is Listed Grade II. Where it survives, the precinct wall is 1m thick, of Hurdwick stone, and has the pseudo-defensive character of a late medieval monastic boundary wall with a string course and a crenellated parapet (partly rebuilt in the 19th century) fronting a wall walk 3.2m above ground level. At the junction of the south and west precinct walls in the extreme south west corner is a small, square, two-storied tower known as the Still Tower or Still House which is a Grade II Listed Building. It is about 6m high and 4.8m square, built of Hurdwick stone, shillet, and some granite, with a crenellated parapet. Although it may be pre-15th century, the use of granite in an original doorway suggests the probability of a later date. The tower was converted into a summerhouse or gazebo in the late 19th century and some of its features are of this date. Tavistock Abbey has a well known and recorded history. It was founded in AD 974, probably at the instigation of the Saxon King Edgar (959-75), by Ordulf, Earl of Devon, who granted the manor of Tavistock to the Benedictine Order. The abbey was dedicated to St Mary and St Rumon, and in 981 received its foundation charter from King Ethelred (979-1016). In 997 the abbey was destroyed by the Danes but was subsequently rebuilt and at the time of the Domesday survey of 1086 it was the richest religious house in Devon. The foundation of the abbey provided the impetus for the development of the town which grew around it and around 1105 a market was granted to the abbey, followed in 1116 by the granting of the annual three-day Goose Fair. However, the abbey fell victim to Henry the VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 and it was granted to Lord John Russell. In about 1725 many of the buildings of the abbey were demolished to facilitate the construction of Bedford Square, a large house (later the Bedford Hotel), Bedford Place and Abbey Place. Between 1803-17 a canal was constructed to link Tavistock with the port and mines at Morwellham in the Tamar Valley and a canal feeder was cut through the area of the former abbey precinct in a course more or less parallel to the River Tavy. Further development in the 19th century led to the construction of Plymouth Road which provided a main thoroughfare from the west of the town through to Bedford Square, the Abbey Church having all but disappeared by this stage. Various commentators have produced plans and drawings of the abbey's appearance before it was demolished, the best known being Lady Radford's plan and Finberg's reconstruction drawing which forms part of a detailed history; the latest attempt at a plan using all the information gathered until 1998 was produced by Blaylock, building upon the earlier work, and it is considered that the extent of the abbey and the location of many of its buildings in the medieval period is now particularly well researched and known. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are Abbey Chapel, the Bedford Hotel and all of its outbuildings, the West Devon Club and its steward's house, the National Rivers Authority hut in the garden of the West Devon Club, the Post Office, Bedford Chambers, the Guildhall/Magistrates Court, the Police Station (also known as Trowte's House), the Sergeant's House, the building immediately east of Court Gate, and any other buildings constructed after the Dissolution, although the ground beneath all of these buildings is, however, included. Also excluded from the scheduling are; the war memorial, the Duke of Bedford's statue, the canal footbridge, all telephone boxes, lamposts, bollards, and fixed traffic signs, all fixed information boards, all modern paving and surfacings, all fencing, fixed benches and street furniture, the perimeter walls of St Eustachius' graveyard, and all burial monuments within St Eustachius' graveyard and the Abbey Chapel graveyard, and all other walling wholly of the post-Dissolution period, where this can be demonstrated. The ground beneath all of these features is, however, included. The canal, where it runs through the southern part of the monument behind the Bedford Hotel and West Devon Social Club, is totally excluded from the scheduling. The standing building of Court Gate (but not the 19th century buildings on either side of it) and the standing remains of the corner of the abbey church and cloister in St Eustachius' graveyard are included in the scheduling.

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
Blaylock, S, Tavistock Abbey, Devon: Assessment and Recording of the Fabric, (1998)
Finberg, H P R, Tavistock Abbey: A Study in the Social and Economic History, (1969)
Freeman M, , Wans J, , 'Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in Tavistock Abbey: alternative interpretations, , Vol. 128, (1996)
Radford, Lady, 'Transactions of the Exeter Architectural Society' in Tavistock Abbey, , Vol. 4 part 2, (1929)
Stead, P, 'Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society' in Archaeological excavations in Bedford Square, Tavistock, 1997, ()
Rodwell, KA, A Survey of Tavistock Abbey Precinct Wall, 1995, Typescript report and drawings


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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