Greater Abbeys of England, Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast AbbeySaint Mary’s Abbey of Buckfast is beautifully situated in Devonshire, high up on Dartmoor, a few hundred yards from the confluence of the Dart and the Holy Brook. The church measured some 250 feet, but the ravages of the time after the dissolution have left but little trace of the entire mass of buildings, with the exception of a barn and a tower. On the site of the old house quite recently a new monastery of Benedictine monks has risen up, and at the present time another church is being built upon the foundations of that which was swept away in the sixteenth century.

Tradition, which would appear to be well founded, places the establishment of the abbey in the. eighth century; and according to some there was here a Christian British settlement dedicated to Saint Petrock at a very much earlier period. When the light of written records, however, breaks in upon the story of the monastery, we are, indeed, in a very much later period, but with the abbey already in existence.

Until comparatively recent times little was known of Buckfast beyond a charter or two and a somewhat meagre list of abbots. A few years ago, however, among a mass of waste paper and parchment bought by an Exeter merchant from various sources was a fragment of a parchment book, which proved to be part of the Cartulary of Buckfast Abbey. It is, indeed, only a fragment, but it gives much information as to the possessions of the abbey, the names of certain of the abbots not recorded elsewhere, the record of early benefactors and land-owners, and incidentally some brief details in the general history of the monastery. The document is to be found printed in the third volume of Bishop Grandisson’s Register and edited by Prebendary Hingeston-Randolph.

The earliest written record, apparently, states that the monastery was in the possession of “the monks of the order of Savigny,” that is, of those who followed the rule of the house founded by Blessed Vitalis of Savigny in 1112, which house, the mother of many daughter monasteries, became identified with the Cistercian movement. The Baron of Totnes Castle, a few miles away down the Dart from Buckfast, appears as one of the early benefactors of that monastery. He came to the Chapter and, with his two sons, “assenting with entire hearts,” he gave lands to the Norman monks from Savigny that they might sing daily the “Mary Mass” for the welfare of his own soul and for the soul of Alice his wife, of his ancestors and his posterity. He reserves to himself and his people a right of way to a ford over the Dart, when they should wish to go to market to Ashburton. “The ford,” says a modern writer, “has long been disused, but the house above it on the Ashburton side, still bears the name of ‘Priestaford.'”

A charter of Henry II, witnessed by Archbishop Theobald and Saint Thomas Becket, when Chancellor, and confirming all the privileges and grants of land, etc., held by the monastery in the time of Henry I, his grandfather, is the next piece of the written history of Buckfast that has come down to us. Then about the year 1240 a certain Sir Robert de Hellion of Ashton, owning a mansion and lands called Hosefenne, about a mile and a half from the abbey, moved possibly by the austerity of life led by the Cistercian monks of Buckfast, resolved to give them some wine on the great festivals. For this purpose he bestowed this manor of Hosefenne upon “Saint Mary of Buckfast, and the monks serving God there.” In acknowledgment, the religious are to present him and his heirs forever with a pound of wax on the feast of the Assumption. Out of the revenues of the manor the abbot was to provide his monks yearly with sixty-four gallons of wine, to be drunk on the festivals of Christmas, Candlemas, Whit-Sunday and the Assumption; that is, sixteen gallons on each feast day.

No doubt, had we more documentary history for Buckfast, we should see that the life of the Cistercian monks in their seclusion in Dartmoor was one devoted to the service of God and of His poor in the neighbouring country. The very absence of history may be taken almost as a proof of this. It is the difficulty, the quarrel, the scandal that finds its way into the public record, whilst days and years of patient service and regular observance are obviously recorded only in the Book of Ages.

The admission of Philip as abbot, on 21 May 1349, in the year of the great pestilence and at a time when it was most rife in Devon, and when all round about the clergy were falling victims to the scourge, suggests that Saint Mary’s, Buckfast, was not spared, and that Abbot William Gifford died of the mysterious and prevailing sickness. If so, we may be sure that he was not the only one of his house who was carried off by it; how many victims there were here we shall never know, but probably there were many. At the Cistercian house of Newenham in the same county, for instance, the Register records that “in the time of this mortality or pestilence there died in this house twenty monks and three lay brothers, and Walter the abbot and two monks only were left alive there after the sickness.” And over and besides these, “no fewer than eighty persons living within the gates” died there.

The last abbot, Gabriel Dunne or Donne, was appointed only a very short time before the suppression of the abbey and not improbably in view of the surrender. At any rate the act was ratified in the Chapter House on February 25, 1538, and Dunne received an annuity of £120 for his consent to the surrender. At the time the number of the monks was much reduced, and only nine appear upon the pension list. William Petre, one of the royal commissioners of the dissolution of the monasteries, received several manors of the suppressed monastery as his share of the plunder, and the site of the abbey itself became the property of Sir Thomas Dennys, a large sharer in the spoils of the religious houses. To prevent the bells of the abbey church being broken in pieces and sold for the price of the metal, the inhabitants of Buckfastleigh, by Sir Thomas Arundel, the King’s official, paid £33 15s. for them.