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Waverley Abbey

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Subject: List of monastic houses in England, River Wey, Surrey, Douglas Strutt Galton, 1128 establishments
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Waverley Abbey

Waverley Abbey
The ruins of Waverley Abbey
Waverley Abbey is located in Surrey
Location within Surrey
Monastery information
Full name The Abbey of the Blessed Mary of Waverley
Order Cistercian
Established 1123
Disestablished 1536
Mother house L'Aumône Abbey, Normandy, France
Dedicated to St Mary
Founder(s) William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester
Location Borough of Waverley, Surrey, England
Visible remains Ruins
Public access Yes: Free of Charge
Managed by English Heritage

Waverley Abbey was the first Cistercian abbey in England. It was founded in 1128 by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester. Located in Farnham, Surrey, about 2 miles (3.2 km) southeast of the town centre, the abbey is situated on a floodplain, surrounded by current and previous channels of the River Wey. It was damaged on more than one occasion by severe flooding, resulting in rebuilding in the 13th century. Despite being the first Cistercian abbey in England, and being motherhouse to several other abbeys, Waverley was "slenderly endowed" and its monks are recorded as having endured poverty and famine.

The abbey was closed in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. Subsequently largely demolished, its stone was reused in local buildings, including "Waverley Abbey House", which was built in 1723 in the northern portion of the former abbey precinct.

Waverley Abbey House, the ruins of the abbey and the surrounding land are all part of a conservation area. The house is a Grade II* Listed building and the ruins a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The ruins of the abbey are currently managed by English Heritage and open to the public.


  • History 1
    • 13th century 1.1
    • Dissolution 1.2
    • Abbots of Waverley 1.3
  • History after Dissolution 2
    • World Wars 2.1
    • Today 2.2
  • Architectural description and remains 3
    • The ruins 3.1
  • Use as a film set 4
  • In popular culture 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Waverley Abbey was founded by Bishop William Giffard on 24 November 1128. The first abbot and 12 monks were brought from L'Aumône Abbey in Normandy, France.[1]

Giffard endowed the new abbey with all the land within the parish of Waverley, two acres of meadow at Elstead, and gave the monks permission to cut wood from his woodland at Farnham. Giffard's successor as Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (younger brother of King Stephen) donated a virgate (30 acres) of land at Wandford and gave further rights at Farnham, with permission to "dig turf, heath, stone and sand". Henry's brother King Stephen granted the abbey land at Neatham, and ("at the request of his brother") freed the abbey from the military obligations usually required of feudal landlords (Frankalmoin), and excused the abbey from the payment of certain taxes including the Danegeld. The abbey was freed from further taxes (tithes) by a papal bull issued by Pope Eugenius III in 1147.[1]

Remains of the 13th-century monks' dormitory

The abbey's endowment was added to by Queen Adeliza (wife of King Henry I), who donated the grange at Northolt. Faramus (Pharamus) de Bologne sold the manor to Wanborough to the abbey for 125 marks of silver. The abbey's endowment and privileges were confirmed by charters issued by King Richard I and King John.[1]

Despite the donations, the abbey was described as "slenderly endowed", and was recorded as having an income of only £98 1s. 8d. in the 1291 Taxation Roll. 'A History of the County of Surrey' states: "Contrasted with the vast estates of a foundation like Bermondsey [Abbey], such a modest rent roll sinks into insignificance". Despite the small income, the abbey seems to have been home to a large number of monks, with 120 lay brothers and 70 religious brothers recorded in 1187.[1]

Within the abbey's first 200 years, seven of the abbey's monks were chosen to become abbots at other monasteries. As the first Cistercian Abbey in England, it became motherhouse of several other Cistercian houses: including Garendon Abbey, founded in Leicestershire by Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester; Forde Abbey, founded in Dorset by Richard de Brioniis; Coombe Abbey, founded in Warwickshire by Richard de Camville; and Thame Abbey, founded in Oxfordshire by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Many of these became mother-houses themselves, to other Cistercian monasteries. For a time, the Abbot of Waverley Abbey claimed precedence over all the other Cistercian Abbots in England; however, this was disputed by the Abbot of Furness Abbey.[1]

The ruins of Waverley Abbey

13th century

The 13th-century was a difficult time for the abbey. In July 1201 the abbey was flooded "and all but carried away" by a storm which caused the abbey's crops to fail.[1] The abbey was rebuilt during the 13th-century, and much of the remains visible today date from this period.[2] Construction on the new abbey church began in March 1203-04, financed by William, Rector of Broadwater, however the abbey's monks were struck by famine and forced to beg food from other monastic houses. Following a dispute with the pope, in 1208 King John confiscated all ecclesiastical property; however, the same year he spent "the last days of Holy Week" at Waverley Abbey, and allowed the return of its possessions to allow them to continue the reconstruction of the church. 2 years later, after the Cistercian order refused to give in to John's demands for money, John withdrew all of the abbey's privileges. Many of the monks fled the abbey and, in fear, the abbot "fled away by night". King John then issued a decree forbidding any Cistercians to enter or leave the country. In 1212 John confiscated all of the Cistercian Order's property using "false letters" which "reigned their property to him". The situation improved when John's dispute with the pope ended. The persecution of Waverley appears to have ended as in October 1214, the abbot was sent on official business on behalf of the King. The church building appears to have carried on throughout the difficult period as on 10 July 1214, fiver altars were consecrated by Albin, Bishop of Ferns. In 1225 the abbey was visited by King Henry III; he took communion at the abbey on 16 December 1225. Construction of the church was not completed, however, until 1278 (74/5 years after it began), when Nicholas de Ely, Bishop of Winchester blessed the church in honor of the Virgin Mary. The blessing was followed by a feast supposedly attended by 7,066 people; including six abbots and many knights and ladies.[1]

The abbey diffucult century continued with further floods in 1233; up to 8 ft in height, the flood destroyed several of the abbey's bridges and property. Another flood on 28 November 1265 flooded the abbey's lower buildings forcing the monks "to take refuge in the church". In 1291 the abbey was described as in "grievous poverty" after their crops had failed.[1]

The abbey produced the "Annals of Waverley", an important source for the period, but by the end of the thirteenth century the abbey was becoming less important.


The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 records the abbey as having a clear annual income of £174 8s. 3½d. As such it was dissolved with the lesser (poorer) monasteries in 1536, as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.[1] There were only thirteen monks in the community at the time.

Abbots of Waverley

The following is a list of the abbots of Waverley Abbey.[1]

  • John, died 1128
  • Gilbert, 1128-9
  • Henry, died 1182
  • Henry of Chichester, 1182, resigned 1187
  • Christopher (abbot of Bruerne, Oxfordshire), 1187, removed from office 1196
  • John II. (hospitaller), 1196, died 1201
  • John III. (cellarer), 1201, died 1216
  • Adam (sub-prior), 1216, resigned 1219
  • Adam II. (abbot of Garendon Abbey, Leicestershire), 1219, resigned 1236
  • Walter Giffard (abbot of Bittlesden, Bucks), 1236, died 1252
  • Ralph (abbot of Dunkewell, Devon), 1252, resigned 1266
  • William de London, 1266
  • William de Hungerford, resigned 1276
  • Hugh de Leukenor, 1276, died 1285
  • Philip de Bedwinde, 1285
  • William, occurs 1316
  • Robert, occurs 1335
  • John III., 1344
  • John IV., 1349, died 1361
  • John de Enford, occurs 1385-6
  • William Hakeleston, 1386, died 1399
  • John Brid, 1399–1400
  • Henry, occurs 1433
  • William, occurs 1452
  • William Martyn, 1456
  • Thomas, occurs 1478 and 1500
  • William, occurs 1509
  • John, occurs 1529
  • William Alyng, occurs 1535

History after Dissolution

Waverley Abbey House: built in 1723

Following dissolution the former abbey was granted to Sir William Fitzherbert, who was the treasurer of the king's household.[3] The abbey itself was mostly demolished, with stone reused in local building work[4] including at Loseley Park.[3] The abbey's stone was also used in the construction of Waverley Abbey House which was built within the former abbey precinct, just north of the core abbey ruins. The house was built in 1723 by Sir John Aislabie, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.[5] It is now separated from the ruins by an artificial lake.

In the 19th-century the house was owned by George Nicholson, the uncle of Florence Nightingale. Under his ownership the house was frequently visited by Sir Walter Scott, who remembered it in the name of his ‘Waverley Novels'.[6]

Pillbox near Waverley Abbey

World Wars

During the First World War the house was the first country house to be converted into a military hospital. It treated over 5,000 soldiers.[6]

It is claimed that part of the former abbey site formed part of the defenses called the "GHQ Line", set up to protect London during the Second World War . The abbey precinct contains numerous WWII relics including anti-tank gun emplacements,[7][8] possible auxiliary unit bases,[9] "hideouts",[10] pillboxes,[11][12][13] "anti-tank pimples" and "cylinders"[14][15][16] and anti-tank roadblocks and ditches.[17][18]


Following the wars Waverley Abbey House became a nursing home. In 1983 it was purchased (and subsequently restored) by the Christian not-for-profit organisation, CWR.[5] The house is currently used by CWR as a training and conference centre.

The ruins of the original abbey are managed by English Heritage and open to the public.[19]

Architectural description and remains

Remains of the undercroft of the lay brothers' refectory

Waverley Abbey followed the typical arrangement of English Monasteries. The Abbey church, which was around 91 meters long, sat to the north of the monastic complex. To the south of the church was the cloister, the eastern range of which contained the chapter house and monk's dormitory. The southern range of the cloister contained the refectory and latrines. The eastern range contained the lay brothers' refectory and dormitory.[3] The cemetery was located to the east and north of the abbey church.[2]

The abbey's immediate precinct occupied around 50 acres, with the River Wey forming the southern and eastern boundaries. In addition to the core abbey complex, the precinct contained buildings such as the brewhouse and features such as fishponds to supply food.[3]

The ruins

Only part of the abbey remains standing, with the ruins dating from the abbey's 13th-century reconstruction.[2] The most substantial remains are that of the vaulted undercroft, or cellar, of the lay brother's refectory, and the walls of the monk's dormitory, which largely survive to roof height. There also survives the remains of the chapter house and traces of the north and south transepts of the abbey church.[3]

Earthworks in the eastern portion of the abbey's precinct reveal the remains of several fishponds and a "water supply system".[3]

The site was excavated by the Surrey Archaeological society between 1890 and 1903, and the ruins restored in 1966 when the site was under the care of the Ministry of Works.[2]

The ruins, Waverley Abbey House and the surrounding land were all designated a conservation area in 1989.[20] Waverley Abbey House is protected as a Grade II* Listed Building,[21] while the abbey ruins are also a Scheduled Ancient Monument.[2]

Painting of the ruins of Waverley Abbey, painted by Harry Sutton Palmer, 1906.

Use as a film set

The abbey ruins have been used as a location in the filming of a number of films and television dramas:

In popular culture

Sir Walter Scott chose the name "Waverley" for the hero of his novel Waverley, but he did not suggest that this name was in any way inspired by Waverley Abbey.[28] Waverley Abbey was, however, featured in Arthur Conan Doyle's classical romance, Sir Nigel. It was the scene of his winning of his war horse, Pommers, and his youthful embarrassment of the avaricious abbey authorities.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j H.E. Malden, ed. (1967). 'House of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Waverley', A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 2. Victoria County History. pp. 77–89. 
  2. ^ a b c d e WAVERLEY ABBEY, English Heritage: PastScape
  3. ^ a b c d e f Ware, G (1976). The White Monks of Waverley. Farnham: Farnham and District Museum Society. 
  4. ^ Waverley Abbey, Farnham Town Council
  5. ^ a b "History". Waverley Abbey House. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  6. ^ a b The Life and Times of Florence Nightingale
  7. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1421623, English Heritage: PastScape
  8. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424254, English Heritage: PastScape
  9. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424217, English Heritage: PastScape
  10. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424216, English Heritage: PastScape
  11. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424246, English Heritage: PastScape
  12. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424255, English Heritage: PastScape
  13. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424258, English Heritage: PastScape
  14. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424247, English Heritage: PastScape
  15. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424253, English Heritage: PastScape
  16. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424256, English Heritage: PastScape
  17. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1424257, English Heritage: PastScape
  18. ^ MONUMENT NO. 1425848, English Heritage: PastScape
  19. ^ Waverley Abbey, English Heritage
  20. ^ Waverley Abbey Conservation Area, Waverley Borough Council
  21. ^ Waverley Abbey House, Farnham, British Listed Buildings
  22. ^ "Invasion".  
  23. ^ "28 Days Later...".  
  24. ^ a b c d e "Surrey Film Locations". SurreyLife. 22 April 2015. Retrieved 28 June 2015. 
  25. ^ "Elizabeth: The Golden Age". 
  26. ^ "British Film Locations : Hot Fuzz (2007)". Retrieved 2013-08-31. 
  27. ^ "Animal Soup".  
  28. ^ Rigney, Ann (2012). The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move. Oxford University Press. p. 4.  

External links

  • Visitor information and audio tour: English Heritage
  • 19th century account of the abbey
  • Map showing Waverley Abbey
  • Detailed historical record for Waverley Abbey
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