I remember visiting Buckfast Abbey as a child. The stone looked clean and smooth. It isn’t a ruin. It’s very much alive and occupied.
The original abbey was built in the reign of King Cnut in 1018 in Saxon times. A Benedictine monastery that continued for a few decades but by 1086 when the Doomesday Book was written, the abbey was in decline. In 1136 King Stephen gave it to Abbot Savigny and Buckfast became part of the Benedictine Congregation of Savigny, which in turn by 1147 conformed to the Cistercian Order by orders of the pope.
(The Abbey of Citeaux in the 12th Century wanted to return the Rule of St Benedict to a more austere form – including the rule of silence. More on Religious Orders in later posts.)
By 15th Century the abbey was at its peak with marble columns, tiled floors and a Lady Chapel. It made lots of money through wool production, which was exported as far as Italy. However, the impact of the Black Death on the population reduced the number of buildings in use.
On 12th February 1539 the King’s commissioners arrived to dissolve the monastery. Imagine these monks and their abbot waiting for the arrival of these commissioners knowing that across the country monasteries and convents had been closed and their clergy dispersed. Their future was gone, their way of life ended. Do they surrender or resist? They surrendered and were pensioned off. The commissioners had the abbey stripped of its wealth and sent 1.5 tonnes of precious metal to London.
Was that the end of Buckfast? It fell into disrepair and ruin, like many abbeys. However, in 1882 a group of Benedictine monks, who were fleeing France, arrived in Buckfast to start a new life. They bought the land off the owner who was keen to see the ruins reconstructed and a new monastery built.
From 1907 to 1938, the monks rebuilt the abbey church and a self-sufficient way of life was re-established. This life continues today. They make their own tonic wine and keep bees. Visitors can use the conference centre, members of the public view the grounds and church. Behind a wall, in the garden, the monks practise their quiet life.