We visited Hailes Abbey last summer. This former Cistercian abbey near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, elected King of the Romans and brother to King Henry III. The abbey soon acquired a relic of the (supposed) Holy Blood of Christ, ensuring that it became a popular place of pilgrimage.
Of course, Hailes Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539. All that remains today, in a peaceful country location, is romantic grassy ruins – very pleasant to stroll around and admire the Cistercian architecture, and much enjoyed by the dog.
We come across Cistercian ruins all over England. The massive extent of Henry VIII’s Dissolution is really brought home by this Wikipedia entry listing all the English Cistercian Abbeys.
Hailes Abbey is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the National Trust.
I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.
In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.
So I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?
The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.
Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.
St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.
I was quite struck by one particular quote:
And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?
Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.
So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.
I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.
Orval chapter house
For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.
And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.
Whilst in Yorkshire recently, we visited Easby and Jervaulx Abbeys, reminders of the time when Cistercian monks and abbots were at the heart of medieval life, dominating much of the local economy and providing sustenance and refuge for the poorest.
Jervaulx is particularly attractive, as its privately-owned, extensive ruins are not set out quite as clinically as the National Trust norm. They have been designed to be incorporated into a semi-natural garden setting, evoking the romanticism of ruins of the Victorian era. The result is magnificently different in this calm and peaceful setting.
Jervaulx (corruption of ‘Ure Valley’) was one of the great Cistercian Abbeys of the north. Sadly, the last abbot of Jervaulx, Adam Sedbar, was implicated in the ill-fated rebellion of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ against Henry VIII in 1536. Having seen off the rebels, Henry took his revenge, executed Sedbar and ordered the Abbey buildings to be destroyed. All those great gothic arches were undermined and brought down.
When we see such acts of vandalism performed today in the Middle East, we should perhaps remain aware that our own history included similar acts when we were dominated by the despotic mindset of an all-powerful king. Most of today’s humanity has fortunately grown beyond what we regard as a primitive ‘medieval’ mindset.
Whilst in Lincolnshire recently, we visited Kirkstead Abbey, near the village of Woodhall Spa. All that remains of the former Cistercian abbey is a great crag of masonry, standing forlornly in the middle of a farmer’s field.
England was once dotted with many such monasteries, the result of 1000 years of the monastic tradition, and they played an important part in the life of the surrounding communities. It was of course King Henry VIII who, assisted by Thomas Cromwell, dissolved the lot in the 1530s, pensioning off the monks, killing the awkward ones (including some from Kirkstead), taking the riches and the tithes that had gone to the pope, effectively vandalising the buildings and giving the land to his mates. It was of course all about money and power – removing the influence of the Pope and monks, and transferring it to Henry and his cronies.
Follow the unmade road across the field past the lonely crag, and you come to the little church of St Leonard’s Without, nestling among trees, now well and truly ‘out in the sticks’. This was once part of the Abbey building complex, but lay outside the walls, being used for services with the surrounding lay community – hence the ‘Without’. Presumably that is why the little church survived, as the local parish church.
Being isolated, the church is usually kept locked, a sign of the times, but happenstance sometimes comes along at just the right moment – more satisfyingly viewed as synchronicity. As we walked up to the church gate, a car drew up. It was the local vicar returning books. He was delighted to give us an impromptu tour of the interior. It really is one of those special little churches with a feeling of great reverence and peace.
Although built slightly later (13C) than the abbey (12C), its architecture gives a very good idea of what parts of the abbey would have looked like, and parts of the wooden rood screen are said to be original 13C.
Overall, a good and extremely compact example of Cistercian simplicity, which for me resulted in some of the supreme achievements of European architecture.
If you’re interested in visiting, go to the sharp bend in Abbey Road in Woodhall Spa. A sign offering loan of a key from a nearby dwelling suggests that you may not have to rely on synchronicity to gain entrance to the church.