This weekend (18 – 19 August 2012) is the Bosworth Anniversary Weekend. If you can, go and visit our friends at the marquee of the Richard III Society, who are selling books and merchandise – and if you are not yet a member, why not join now?
For me, this is the perfect occasion to reminiscence more about our travels during July.
After our visit to the Bosworth Battelfield Centre, we went on to Atherstone. We had booked accommodation at a B&B, Abbey Farm, which had come highly recommended by a Society member from Canada – and we were not disappointed! The owner, Jenny, made us feel more than welcome and showed us to our cosy rooms.
Abbey Farm (© Dorothea Preis)
I knew that the B&B had got its name from its proximity to Merevale Abbey (the address – Merevale Lane – was a certain give-away), but had not realized that some of the ruins of this former abbey would be in its garden and the only remaining buildings, the gate and gate chapel, would be right next door.
Merevale Abbey is of interest to a Ricardian, because this is where Henry Tudor stayed on his way to the battle of Bosworth. Of course there is much more to the history of this abbey than a visit by someone on his way to overthrow a king.
The Cistercian abbey of Merevale was founded on 2 October 1148, thus sharing a birthday with Richard III. For Cistercian houses the day of foundation was the day when:
(a) the conventus – the coetus apostolic – the abbot and twelve brethren took possession of a house ready prepared for them, that is to say, with the regular offices such as dormitory, refectory, choir, and so on, completed, and, above all, books provided; (b) the convent having taken possession of a site destined for a monastery, settled down in temporary huts ready erected, and began to build a solid structure and a church; (c) the convent entered a house which had been surrendered by another order. This day of entry, of introduction, or of solemn inauguration, when the normal number of the monks being complete, the regular monastic life was begun, is the true and legitimate birthday of a Cistercian abbey. [Cooke, p.641]
The location was chosen because of its comparative isolation, which was in keeping with the Cistercian way of life emphasising labour and self-sufficiency. The order was known for its technological inventions and as highly organised and industrious farmers.
Merevale Abbey was founded by Robert, Earl Ferrers, the son of his more prominent father, another Robert, who had been granted an earldom by Stephen during the civil war. Our Robert inherited the title after his father’s death in 1139, but managed to keep himself out of the changing fortunes of the war, until supporting Henry II later.
The reign of Stephen was a time when many religious houses were founded. The Cistercians expanded by a system of filiation, Merevale was derived from Bordersley, which in turn was derived from Garendon, which was a daughter-house of Waverley. De Ferrers was a well-known Cistercian patron, who had also been involved in the founding of the houses higher up the chain from Merevale. He endowed the abbey with several properties, with reference to the salvation of his own soul and those of his wife and father. As time went on other endowments were made to Merevale.
As to the prosperity of the abbey I found conflicting evidence. BHO indicates that the abbey experienced financial hardship through most of its existence. However, a local website, based on the research by the local historian, John Austin, who wrote several books on the abbey, informs us that not only was it one of the largest religious houses in Warwickshire, but that “it was their success and huge wealth that led to their eventual downfall when Henry VIII needed to finance his wars in France.” [‘Merevale Abbey’, Baxterley Village]
This view is supported by Watkins, who emphasizes the abbey’s achievements in cattle farming, with a herd that indicates commercial grazing, as well as growing grain. The monks probably also had a coal pit and a highly productive tile kiln. He also shows that they kept their buildings, including barns, dovecots and a rabbit warren in a good state of repair. One of their biggest achievements was an extensive complex of fish-ponds, covering 17 acres of ground, divided into seven pools.
Another indication for the wealth of the abbey was the size of the great abbey church, the nave of which is said to have been as long as the one of Tintern Abbey, another Cistercian house (according to Wikipedia 72m). Unfortunately nothing remains of this church building at Merevale.
A website on Cistercian Abbeys states that at the time of the dissolution Merevale Abbey had a net annual income of £254, while that of Tintern Abbey was “valued at £192, which made Tintern the wealthiest abbey in Wales at this time”. [‘Cistercian Abbeys: Tintern’]
Mervale Abbey had a gate chapel, which was accessible to the public. It is still standing and serves today as the parish church. Unfortunately we could not go inside, when we visited, but I read that it has a somewhat awkward shape with an unusually large chancel. This was to accommodate the great number of pilgrims who came to see the statue of the Virgin Mary, especially at the time of the Black Death. Apparently there was sometimes such a crush that “many were brought to the point of death”. [BHO ‘Abbey of Merevale’]
Gate chapel of Merevale Abbey, today’s parish church (© Dorothea Preis)
Today’s parish church is famous for its medieval stained glass, which is rated as “amongst the most important Cistercian glass in the country”. [‘The Church of Our Lady, Merevale’] The Jesse Window is dated at 1330-1340 and might have been originally in the great abbey church. Another example are ten panels of kings and prophets, which are linked by the branches of the vine tree. The medieval rood screen was probably also originally in the abbey church, as were three monuments of the Ferrers family.
On the website of the Kingsbury & Baxterley Group of Parish Churches you can see photographs of some of the stained glass as well as a painting of what the abbey would have looked like in its prime. The gate chapel is at the bottom left-hand corner.
Henry Tudor was not the first prominent visitor, both Edward I (16 and 17 August and 17 September 1275) and Edward III (March 1322) had visited as well, with more peaceful intention it is to be hoped. There is some connection to William, Lord Hastings. His son Edward “was granted … the steward-ship of the abbey of Merevale in 1482”. [Kelly, p.142]
Prior to the Battle of Bosworth, the Stanleys were camped in Atherstone, while Henry Tudor’s army camped on the land of Merevale Abbey. According to tradition he met with the Stanleys at the Three Tuns pub in Atherstone, where he is also supposed to have lodged. The present day Three Tuns declares on its website that it is the cheapest bar in town with budget accommodation, so its 15th century equivalent might have appealed to Henry. However, it seems more likely that he stayed at the abbey and also conferred there with his step-father and step-uncle there – certainly a more private location than a pub!
After winning the battle, Henry recompensed the abbey very quickly for the extensive damage his troops caused during the two days they were there: In late 1485, the abbey was paid 100 marks in cash, with an additional 10 marks a short while later. The town of Atherstone received £24 13s 4d to make up for the losses in corn and grain caused by the army trampling through their fields, some other villages nearby also received compensation. These payments led Michael Jones to suggest in 2002 that the battle was fought close to Merevale Abbey, but subsequent findings published in late 2009 have contradicted his theory.
Henry returned for a visit in September 1503. In the – still existing – gate chapel there is an early 16th century stained glass window depicting St Armel, the only one in England, which might very well have been a result of Henry’s later visit. St Armel was said to be the founder of a Breton monastery, who also killed a dragon. Here he is depicted in full armour carrying the dragon on a bag (you can find a picture of this window here.
Henry VII might have had sentimental feelings towards Merevale, and also his son, Henry VIII, visited the abbey with his wife, Catherine of Aragon, on 30 August 1511. However, this did not help the abbey during the Dissolution and it surrendered on 13 October 1538. It was bought by Lord Ferrers of Chartley on behalf of his younger son William Devereux and parts converted into a house.
Except for the gate chapel, ie. today’s parish church, only some ruins are left of the once great abbey. However, I was thrilled to find these in the garden of Abbey Farm. These are ruins of the refectory or frater of the abbey, quite apt for the garden of a welcoming B&B.
Some of the ruins (© Dorothea Preis)
I can wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Abbey Farm. You will receive a warm welcome by its owner, Jenny, and find lovely rooms, and the next morning a delicious breakfast awaits you. However, for any Ricardian (or friend of Henry Tudor, should there be any!), this B&B is a special treat due to its historical significance and connection to the events at Bosworth.
And no, we did not finish our day at the Three Tuns. On a recommendation from Jenny we walked, past the gate chapel, to the Rose Inn at Baxterley, which turned out to be everything you could wish for in a country pub: friendly staff, good food – and as we were going to walk back again, we could also enjoy a beer or two. No wonder that it was extremely busy, and this on a mid-week evening.
The Rose Inn, Baxterley (© Dorothea Preis)
To us, our “pilgrimage” to Bosworth, including the visit to the Battlefield Centre, the accommodation and the dinner, will always remain one of the highlights of our trip.
Peter Hammond, Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign. Pen & Sword Military, 2010. IBN 9781844152599 (HB)
Michael K. Jones, Bosworth 1485 – Psychology of a Battle. Tempus Publishing, 2002. ISNB 0 7524 2594 3 (PB)
Alice M. Cooke, ‘The Settlement of the Cistercians in England’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 32 (October 1893), pp. 625-676
Michael Jones, ‘Ferrers, Robert de, first Earl Ferrers (d. 1139)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Date accessed: 12 Aug. 2012
Catherine Kelly, ‘The Noble Steward and Late-Feudal Lordship’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 133-148
Andrew Watkins, ‘Landowners and their Estates in the Forest of Arden in the Fifteenth Century’, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (1997), pp. 18-33
‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Merevale’, A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2 (1908), pp. 75-78. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36495 Date accessed: 3 August 2012
‘Parishes: Merevale’, A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4: Hemlingford Hundred (1947), pp. 142-147. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42670 Date accessed: 3 August 2012
‘Cistercian Abbeys: Merevale’, The Cistercians in Yorkshire. URL: http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/merevale.php Date accessed: 4 Aug. 2012
‘Cistercian Abbeys: Tintern’, The Cistercians in Yorkshire. URL: http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/tintern.php Date accessed: 14 August 2012
‘Merevale Abbey’, Baxterley Village. URL: http://www.baxterley.com/?page_id=763 Date accessed: 3 Aug. 2012
‘The Church of Our Lady, Merevale’, Kingsbury & Baxterley Group of Parish Churches. URL: http://www.kingbaxgroup.org.uk/html/merevale.html Date accessed: 4 Aug. 2012
‘Remains of Merevale Abbey, Merevale’, British Listed Buildings. URL: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-309215-remains-of-merevale-abbey-merevale Date accessed: 3 Aug. 2012
Abbey Farm http://www.abbeyfarmbandb.co.uk/
Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre http://www.bosworthbattlefield.com/
The Rose Inn http://www.roseinnbaxterley.com/Default.aspx
Tags: Bosworth, Church, Henry Tudor, Richard III