Merevale Abbey – for a good night’s rest while travelling to and from Bosworth
One year, while travelling in Richard III’s footsteps, we went on to Atherstone, after spending a fascinating day at the Bosworth Battlefield Centre. We had booked accommodation at a B&B, Abbey Farm , which had come highly recommended by a friend from Canada – and we were not disappointed!
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 are actually in its garden and the only remaining complete buildings, the gate and gate chapel, are right next door.
Merevale Abbey 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.[i]
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 for being 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. Robert junior 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.
The evidence to the prosperity of Merevale Abbey is conflicting. The VCH 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.”[ii]
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 Merevale 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 (228 feet = apprx. 70 m).[iii] 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”.[iv]
Merevale Abbey had a gate chapel, which was accessible to the public. It is still standing and serves as the parish church today, the Church of Our Lady, Merevale. Unfortunately, it was locked when we visited but is said to have 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”.[v]
Today’s parish church is famous for its medieval stained glass, which is rated as “amongst the most important Cistercian glass in the country”.[vi] The Jesse Window is dated to 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 a vine tree. The medieval rood screen was probably also originally in the abbey church, as were three monuments of the Ferrers family.
The website of the Kingsbury & Baxterley Group of Parish Churches includes 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 intentions 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”.[vii]
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, maybe its 15th century equivalent was just right for the cash strapped Henry. However, it seems more likely that he did not explore the night life of Atherstone, but remained at the abbey and conferred there with his step-father and step-uncle – certainly a more private location than a pub!
After winning the battle, Henry recompensed the abbey fairly quickly for the extensive damage his troops caused during the two days they were camped 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 have disproved this theory.
Henry returned for a visit in September 1503. In the gate chapel (i.e. today’s parish church), 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 ).
However, any sentimental feelings Henry might have had towards Merevale did not help the abbey during the Dissolution in his son’s reign and it surrendered on 13 October 1538. It was bought by lord Ferrers of Chartley on behalf of his younger son William Devereux. Parts of the abbey were converted into a house.
Except for the gate chapel, 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.
I can wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Abbey Farm. You will receive a warm welcome and find lovely rooms, and the next morning a delicious breakfast awaits you. However, for anyone interested in medieval history, 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 wish for in a country pub: friendly staff, good food – and as we din’t bring the car, we could also enjoy a beer or two. No wonder that it was extremely busy, and this on a mid-week evening.
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 travelling in Richard III’s footsteps.
Hammond, P., Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign. Pen & Sword Military, 2010. IBN 9781844152599 (HB)
Jones, M.K., Bosworth 1485 – Psychology of a Battle. Tempus Publishing, 2002. ISNB 0 7524 2594 3 (PB)
Cooke, A.M., ‘The Settlement of the Cistercians in England’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 32 (October 1893), pp. 625-676
Jones, M., ‘Ferrers, Robert de, first Earl Ferrers (d. 1139)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 6 Dec. 2015]
Kelly, C., ‘The Noble Steward and Late-Feudal Lordship’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 133-148
Watkins, A., ‘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/vch/warks/vol2/pp75-78 [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘Parishes: Merevale’, A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 4: Hemlingford Hundred (1947), pp. 142-147. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol4/pp142-147 [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘Cistercian Abbeys: Merevale’, The Cistercian in Yorkshire. URL: http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/merevale.php [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘Cistercian Abbeys: Tintern’, The Cistercians in Yorkshire. URL: http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/tintern.php [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘Merevale Abbey’, Baxterley Village. URL: http://www.baxterley.com/?page_id=763 [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘The Church of Our Lady, Merevale’, Kingsbury & Baxterley Group of Parish Churches. URL: http://www.kingbaxgroup.org.uk/html/merevale.html [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
‘Remains of Merevale Abbey, Merevale’, British Listed Buildings. URL: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-309215-remains-of-merevale-abbey-merevale-warwi#.VmOVWvl97IU [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
[i] Cooke, A.M., ‘The Settlement of the Cistercians in England’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 32 (October 1893), pp. 625-676, p.641
[iii] Brakspear, H., Tintern Abbey Monmouthshire. Read Books Ltd, 2013
[v] ‘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/vch/warks/vol2/pp75-78 [last accessed 6 Dec. 2015]
[vii] Kelly, C., ‘The Noble Steward and Late-Feudal Lordship’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), p.142