It was founded ca. 820 by Charlemagne's cousins Wala and Adelard with monks from Corbie Abbey in Picardy, under the patronage of the Emperor Louis the Pious and the abbot of the older foundation, whence the new one derived its name. It became "one of the most privileged Carolingian monastic sanctuaries in ninth-century Saxony A mint was authorized as early as 833 though surviving coins date from the early eleventh century. The site of the abbey, where the east-west route called the Hellweg crossed the Weser, accounted for some strategic importance and assured its economic and cultural importance. The abbey's historian H.H. Kaminsky estimates that the royal entourage visited Corvey at least 110 times before 1073, occasions for the issuance of charters.
A diploma granted by Otto I in 940, the first of its kind, established the abbot, Folcmar, on a new kind of setting. The abbot was granted bannus— powers of enforcement— over the population of peasants that were to seek refuge in the fortress built in the monastery's lands; in return they were expected to maintain its structure, under the abbot's supervision. The workforce under monastic protection was drawn from three pagi, under the jurisdiction of four counts, who, however, were to have no rights to demand castlework from them. "Here then a profitable sanction, which cut across the ordinary competence of counts, was entrusted to the monastery", Karl Leyser notes.
Under the guidance of abbots drawn from the Imperial family, Corvey was granted the first rights of minting coins east of the Rhine (with the exception of Frisia). It soon became famous for its school, which produced many celebrated scholars, among them the tenth century Saxon historian Widukind of Corvey. In its library were preserved the first five books of the Annales of Tacitus. From its cloisters went forth a stream of missionaries who evangelised Northern Europe, chief amongst them being Saint Ansgar, the "Apostle of Scandinavia". The Annales Corbenjenses, which issued from the same scriptorium, is a major source of medieval history— spuriously supplemented by the forged Chronicon Corbejense which appeared in the nineteenth century. Unsuspected, in the library lurked books I to V of Tacitus' Annales. Ninth-century wall-paintings remain on the west end inner wall.
In the Investiture Controversy, the abbot of Corvey took a stand with the Saxon nobles against Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Its abbot Markward (served 1081-1107), "without doubt one of the most important abbots of the thousand-year history of the abbey" (Kaminsky), and his successor Erkenbert (1107-28) saw the abbey through the critical period.
The school of Corvey declined after the fifteenth century, but the abbey itself, most of its feudal lands separated from it, continued until 1803, when it was secularized under Napoleonic administration and passed briefly to William of the family of Oranje-Nassau, then to Jérôme Bonaparte's Kingdom of Westphalia (1807), then to Prussia (1815); the Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg rebuilt the abbey buildings as a Schloss (palace) which has descended to the duke of Ratibor.
The famous abbey library has long since been dispersed, but the "princely library" (Fürstliche Bibliothek), an aristocratic family library, containing about 67,000 volumes, mainly in German, French, and English, with a tailing off circa 1834, survives in the Schloss. One striking feature of the collection is the large number of English Romantic novels, some in unique copies, for in Britain fiction was more often borrowed than bought, and was read extensively in the lending libraries.