committed sacrilege

Netley Abbey

Netley Abbey is a medieval monastery located near Southampton in Hampshire, England (). The abbey was founded in the early thirteenth century as a house for monks of the austere Cistercian order. Despite being a royal abbey, Netley was never rich, produced no influential scholars or churchmen, and its 300-year monastic history was quiet. The monks were best known to their neighbours for the generous hospitality they offered to travellers on land and sea.

In 1536 Netley was closed by Henry VIII of England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the building was converted into a mansion by William Paulet, a wealthy Tudor politician. The abbey was used as a country house until the beginning of the eighteenth century, at which point it was abandoned and partially demolished for the materials. Subsequently, the ruins became a tourist attraction and provided inspiration to poets and artists of the romantic movement. In the early twentieth century the site was donated to the nation, and it is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, cared for by English Heritage. There are extensive surviving remains, consisting of the church, cloister buildings and abbot's house, as well as fragments of the post-Dissolution mansion. Netley Abbey is among the best preserved medieval Cistercian monasteries in southern England.


Netley was founded in 1239 by Peter des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester from 1205–1238. The abbey was one of a pair, the other being La Clarté-Dieu in Saint-Paterne-Racan, France, which the bishop conceived of as a memorial to himself. Des Roches had begun purchasing the lands for Netley's initial endowment about 1236, but he died before the project was finished and the foundation was completed by his executors. According to the Chronicle of Waverley Abbey, the first monks arrived to settle the site on 25 July 1239 from neighbouring Beaulieu Abbey, a year after the bishop's death. The death of its founder before the vital task of collecting the endowment was complete meant that the abbey started its life in a difficult financial situation. It is thought that little work took place on the permanent stone monastery until the house was taken under the wing of Henry III, who became interested in the abbey in the mid 1240s and eventually assumed the role of patron in 1251.

The abbey buildings


The fruits of royal patronage were shown in the erection of a large church (long) built in the fashionable French-influenced gothic style pioneered by Henry's masons at Westminster Abbey. The high quality and elaborate nature of the church's decoration, particularly the mouldings and tracery, indicate a move away from the deliberate austerity of early Cistercian churches towards the grandeur appropriate to a secular cathedral. Construction of the church proceeded from east to west, the presbytery and transepts being built first to allow the monks to hold services and the nave being filled in over time. It is not known precisely when construction of the church began, however, major gifts of roofing timber and lead from Derbyshire in 1251 and 1252 by King Henry indicate that some of the eastern parts of the church, and probably of the east cloister range too, had reached an advanced stage. The presence of a foundation stone at the base of the south east pier of the crossing inscribed "H. DI. GRA REX ANGE" (Latin: "Henry by the Grace of God King of the English") shows that the foundations of the centre of the church reached ground level after 1251, the year Henry III formally took over the patronage of the abbey. The church took many decades to complete, and was probably finished between 1290 and 1320. The dating of the various parts of the building is predominantly on stylistic grounds.

The church was cruciform in shape with a square presbytery and a low central tower containing bells. It was aisled throughout, with a pair of chapels on the east side of each transept. The entire church was vaulted; there was no triforium, above each bay of the arcade ran a narrow gallery surmounted by a clerestory of triple lancet windows, as can be seen in the surviving section of the superstructure in the south transept. The vaulting sprang directly from the top of the arcade. The east end wall of the presbytery, probably built after 1260, has a large window featuring an upper rose and elaborate tracery; the aisle windows of the presbytery, are simple paired lancets recessed within an arch. In the nave, the south aisle has plain triple lancets set high in the wall to avoid the roof of the cloister. The north aisle windows, by contrast, have richly decorated cusped tracery reflecting the changing tastes over the long years of building and indicating that this was among the last parts of the church to be finished, probably in the very late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries. The west wall of the church also has a large window, the tracery of which has vanished due to an eighteenth century collapse. Surviving fragments show that it was built in a "freer and more advanced style" than other parts of the church and suggest a date around the turn of the fourteenth century.

The entire building was roofed with lead, and there were windows in the gables of the attic.

Internally, the church was subdivided into several areas. The high altar was against the east wall of the presbytery, flanked by two smaller altars on the side walls. West under the tower were the monks' choir stalls where they sat during services, moving west from here was a pulpitum or rood screen cutting off access to the ritual areas of the church. In the nave the lay brothers had their own choir stalls and altar for services. The monks of Netley kept up a schedule of services and prayer both day and night following the canonical hours, to help in this a staircase in the south transept went up to the monks' dormitory allowing them to conveniently get to night services.The lay brothers had their own entrance to the church at the west end via a covered gallery from their accommodation.

Unlike rival orders such as the Benedictines who allowed the nave to be used by parishioners and visitors, the Cistercians officially reserved their churches solely for the use of the monastic community, others had to worship in a separate chapel in the abbey grounds close to the main gate. Over time this rule was relaxed to allow pilgrims to visit shrines, as at Hailes Abbey with its relic of the Holy Blood, and to allow the construction of tombs and chantries for patrons and wealthy benefactors of the house, as in the churches of other orders.

Cloister and east range

South of the church stands a cloister surrounded by ranges of buildings on three sides, the church forming the fourth. The cloister was the heart of the abbey and it was here that the monks spent most of their time—when not in church—engaged in study, copying of books and the creation of illuminated manuscripts. The monks' carrel desks (a small study with wooden or stone screens to protect their users from the draughts of the cloister, rather akin to a modern office cubicle) were placed in the north walk of the cloister, there was also a cupboard for books in current use carved into the external wall of the south transept.

The east range, which was started at the same time as the church and probably finished within a decade, contained many of the most important rooms of the abbey. On the ground floor adjacent to the church stood the vaulted library and sacristy. South of this was the chapter house where the monks met daily to listen to a reading of a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, transact business and the government of the abbey took place. It was once a magnificent apartment divided into three aisles with vaults springing from four columns; a stone bench ran around the walls for the monks to sit on with the abbot's throne placed in the centre of the east wall. The chapter house is entered from the cloister by an elaborately moulded arched doorway flanked on each side by a window of similar size, the windows had sills and columns of Purbeck Marble, the whole forming an impressive composition appropriate to the second most important space in the abbey after the church. The windows on either side of the door would have been unglazed, so as to allow representatives of the laybrothers (who were not members of chapter) to listen to debates.

The parlour lies south, an austere, barrel vaulted room little more than a passageway through the building. Here the monks could talk without disturbing the silence that Cistercian rules insisted upon in the cloister. South of this runs a long vaulted hall with a central row of pillars supporting the roof. This room was much altered over time and probably served several purposes during the life of the abbey. Initially, it may have served as the monks' day room and accommodation for novices, but as time went on it may have been converted into the misericord where the monks—initially the sick but by the later middle ages the whole convent—could eat meat dishes not normally allowed in the main dining hall.

The top floor of the east range held the monks' dorter, a long room with a high pitched roof (the mark of which can still be seen on the transept wall) running the length of the building. This was entered by two staircases. One was the day stair, going down into the cloister in the south-east corner, the other, known as the night stair, led into the south transept of the church to allow the monks to easily get to from bed to choir at night. When first built, the dorter was an open hall, with the monks' beds placed along the walls, one under each of the small, slit-like windows. During the fourteenth century, when views of the necessity of sleeping together for the common life changed, the dormitory at Netley would, as at other houses, have been divided into panelled chambers to give every monk his own private room, each leading off a central corridor. At the north end of the dorter was the treasury, a tiny vaulted room, probably placed here so the brothers could guard it at night.

Reredorter and infirmary

Crosswise at the south end of the east range lies lies another large building. The lower level consists of a vaulted hall. It is equipped with a grand thirteenth century hooded fireplace and has its own garderobe. It is not clear what this chamber was used for, but it may have been the monastic infirmary—if so it was a most unusual, perhaps unique, arrangement. Normally in a medieval Cistercian monastery an infirmary with its own kitchens, chapel and ancillary buildings would have been located east of the main buildings around a second, smaller cloister, but at Netley these seem to be absent. So far, excavations have not revealed whether Netley had a separate infirmary complex.

The upper floor of this building was the reredorter or latrine. It is large room with a door conveniently placed into the monks' dormitory. The stalls were in the south wall and the effluent dropped into an underground stream which runs in a vaulted passage underneath the building.

A room standing west of the reredorter block was the buttery, where the monks' wine (some of it direct from the king's cellars at Southampton) and beer were stored. Excavations in this area have revealed fragmentary remains that may be part of a separate kitchen for the richer meat diet allowed to the residents of the infirmary, if it was indeed in the vault under the reredorter.


The south range was heavily altered during the Tudor rebuilding of the abbey and only the north wall remains, making the tracing of the medieval arrangements difficult. Going east to west, first came the day stair, then the warming house where the communal fire burned constantly to allow the monks to warm themselves after long hours of study in the unheated cloister. The room was probably vaulted and had its great fireplace on the west wall to allow heat to go to the refectory or dining hall next door as well. It is likely that, as at Netley's great sister house of Fountains Abbey, the chamber above the warming house was the muniment room, where the abbey's charters, records and title deeds, as well as those of local lords, were kept. This would have been the driest place in the abbey and such a plan was common.

The refectory projected south from the centre of the range, as was usual in Cistercian monasteries. It has been almost completely demolished save for the north wall, though the foundations survive underground and have been excavated. It was a long hall with a dais for the abbot and important guests at the south end. There was a pulpit in the west wall to allow a monk to read to the brothers while they ate. The kitchen lies west; it had a central fireplace, as was Cistercian custom, and was placed to allow food to be served through hatches both to the monks' frater and the separate dining hall of the lay brothers on the west side.

West range

The west range at Netley is small and does not run the full length of the west side of the cloister. It is divided in two by the original main entrance to the abbey, with the outer parlour where the monks could meet visitors. North of this on the ground floor were cellars for food storage, while to the south was the refectory of the lay brothers. The upper floor, reached by a stair from the cloister, was the dormitory for the lay brothers. Netley was a late foundation, built at a time when the lay brothers were a declining part of the monastic economy and it is likely that they were always few in number, hence the small size of the accommodation needed for them. When the west range was completed in the fourteenth century they were rapidly disappearing and had all but vanished by the end of the century. During the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries most Cistercian houses took advantage of the large area of the monastery now left empty and converted the lay brothers' quarters to new uses. At some houses, such as Sawley Abbey a series of comfortable chambers for the use of monastic officials or guests were built, whereas elsewhere, such as Hailes Abbey the west range was turned into a luxurious new home for the abbot. It is likely that similar moves were made at Netley, but the ruins of the west range are too fragmentary to be sure of the details of the later arrangements.

All the buildings around the cloister were finished in the fourteenth century. There were subsequently few major structural changes during the monastic period aside from the re-vaulting of the south transept of the church at the end of the fifteenth century. It is likely, however, that there were many internal changes to match the rising standards of living during the later Middle Ages (as seen for instance at Cleeve Abbey) that have left no evidence on the surviving remains.


East of the main complex stands a stone building thought to have been the abbot's house. It contains two levels of vaulted apartments comprising two halls, bedchambers, a private chapel and service rooms. The upper floor was reached by an external staircase allowing the floors to be used independently if needed.

The central core of the monastery was surrounded by a precinct containing an outer (public) courtyard and inner (private) courtyard, gardens, barns, guesthouses for travellers, stables, the home farm and industrial buildings. The site was defended by a high bank and moat, part of which remains east of the abbey. Entrance was strictly controlled by an outer and inner gatehouse. A chapel, known as the capella ante portas (Latin: "chapel outside the gates") was placed by the outer gatehouse for the use of travellers and the local community. Aside from the abbot's house and the moat, none of the precinct buildings have left visible remains.

Netley's fresh water supply was brought by two aqueducts running for several miles east and west of the abbey up into the area of modern Southampton and Eastleigh. The remains of the eastern one, now known as Tickleford Gully, can be seen in Wentworth Gardens, Southampton.

Monastic history

Henry III added generously to the endowment left by Peter des Roches both in terms of farmland, urban property in Southampton and elsewhere, and various spiritual revenues from churches, with the result that by 1291 taxation returns show that the abbey had a clear revenue of £81, a comfortable income. However, shortly after this, a period of bad management meant that the abbey accrued substantial debts and soon was in a position of near bankruptcy. In 1328 the government was forced to appoint an administrator, John of Mere, to solve the crisis. Despite forcing the abbot to apply the revenues to debt repayment and selling off many of the estates, he was only partly successful, as is shown by the fact that 10 years later the abbey was again appealing to the king for help with a disastrous financial situation. The monks blamed their problems on the cost of providing hospitality to the many travellers by sea and the king's sailors who landed at the abbey. The king provided some small grants and the abbey managed to ride through its difficulties, but the sale of much of the property meant that income levels never recovered and it settled into what might be best described as genteel poverty.

Despite this, Netley remained a much respected institution by its neighbours until the end of its life as a monastery. It was known neither for scholarship, wealth or particular fervour, but was highly regarded for generosity to travellers and sailors, and for the devout lives ("by Raporte of good Religious conversation") led by its monks. The abbot was summoned on many occasions to sit in Parliament, with fellow prelates in the House of Lords as one of the Lords Spiritual, and surviving reports evidence a peaceful and scandal-free domestic life.


In 1535 the abbey's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's great survey of church finances, at £160 gross, £100 net, which meant the following year that it came under the terms of the First Suppression Act, Henry's initial move in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. At the beginning of the following year the king's commissioners, led by Sir James Worsley, delivered a report to the government on the monasteries of Hampshire which gives us a snapshot of Netley on the eve of the Dissolution. The commissioners noted that Netley was inhabited by seven monks, all of them priests, and the abbey was

In addition to the monks Netley was also home to 29 servants and officials of the abbey plus two Franciscan friars of the strict Observant part of that order who had been put into the abbot's custody by the king, presumably for opposing his religious policies. The royal officers also found plate and jewels in the treasury worth £43, "ornaments" worth £39 and agricultural produce and animals worth £103. The abbey's debts were moderate at £42.

Abbot Thomas Stevens and his monks were forced to surrender their house to the king in the summer of 1536. Of the monks themselves, Abbot Thomas and six of his monks (the other desired to resign and take a job as a secular priest) crossed Southampton Water to join their mother house of Beaulieu. Abbot Thomas was appointed abbot of Beaulieu in 1536 and administered it for two years until it in turn was forced to surrender to the king in 1538. The monks received pensions after the fall of Beaulieu, while Abbot Thomas ended his days as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. He died in 1550.

Country house

Following the dissolution of Netley, on 3 August 1536, King Henry granted the abbey buildings and some of its estates to Sir William Paulet, his Lord Treasurer and subsequently Marquess of Winchester. As soon as he took over, Sir William started the process of turning the abbey into a palace suitable for one of the most important politicians in England. He converted the nave of the church into his great hall, kitchens and service buildings, the transepts and crossing became a series of luxurious apartments for his personal use. The presbytery remained in use as the chapel of the mansion. The monks' dormitory became the long gallery of the mansion and the latrine block became several grand chambers. He demolished the south range and refectory and built a new one with a central turreted gatehouse to provide the appropriate seigneurial emphasis needed for a classic Tudor courtyard house. He likewise demolished the cloister walks to make a central courtyard for his house and placed a large fountain in the centre. The buildings of the precinct were swept away to create formal gardens and terraces.

Paulet's successors, who included both his own family and others such as William Seymour, 1st Marquess of Hertford, who lived there during the Commonwealth, and the Earl of Huntingdon, inhabited the abbey until the close of the seventeenth century.


Around 1700, Netley Abbey came into the hands of Sir Berkeley Lucy (also spelled Sir 'Bartlet') who decided in 1704 to realise the by now unfashionable house for cash from the materials. Sir Berkeley made an agreement with a Southampton builder, Mr Walter Taylor,(grandfather of Walter Taylor the local sawmill pioneer) to demolish the former church. However, during the course of the demolition, the contractor was killed by the fall of tracery from the west window of the church and the scheme was halted.

Romantic ruin

After this disaster the abbey was abandoned and allowed to decay. In the 1760s Thomas Drummer, who owned a lot of land in the area, moved the north transept to his estate at Cranbury Park near Winchester where it can be still be seen as a folly in the gardens of the house. William Chamberlayne inherited Thomas Dummer's estates, including Netley Abbey, in 1781. The abbey would remain in the hands of the Chamberlayne family until the twentieth century.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the abbey, by now partially roofless and overgrown with trees and ivy, had become a famous ruin that attracted the attention of artists, dramatists and poets. In the nineteenth century, Netley became a popular tourist attraction (the novelist Jane Austen was among those who visited) and steps were taken to conserve the ruins. Archaeological excavations directed by Charles Pink took place in 1860. Unfortunately, at the same period the Chamberlayne family decided to remove many of the Tudor additions to the building in order to provide a more medieval feel to the site, resulting in the loss of much evidence of the post-Dissolution story of the abbey. In 1922 the abbey was passed into state care by the then owner, Tankerville Chamberlayne MP. Conservation and archaeological work on the abbey has continued.

Netley in literature and art

It was not long after the abbey had been allowed to fall to ruin that it began to attract the attention of artists and writers. In 1755, the antiquarian Horace Walpole praised the ruins in his letters following a visit with the poet Thomas Gray, claiming they were "In short, not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise". In 1764, George Keate wrote The Ruins of Netley Abbey, A poem, which showed a romantic appreciation of the ruins and evoked sympathy for the life formerly led there by the monks. He prefaced his poem with a heartfelt plea for the preservation of the remains.

Keate was followed by other romantic poets including William Sotheby (Ode, Netley Abbey, Midnight, 1790). Sotheby’s view of the abbey was gothic: he peoples the ruins with spectral processions and ghostly Cistercians. Nor was he the only one; in 1795 Richard Warner wrote a potboiler entitled Netley Abbey, a Gothic Story in two volumes, featuring skullduggery at the abbey during the middle ages. Dark deeds before the Dissolution also appeared in the section of Richard Harris Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends (1847) covering Netley. This complex satire pokes fun at the medieval church and the monks (whom he accuses of having walled up an erring nun in one of the vaults and thereby ensuring God’s revenge upon them) and the tourists that crowded contemporary Netley, while at the same time showing appreciation of the beauty of the ruins.

Netley also has its own opera, Netley Abbey, an Operatic Farce, by William Pearce, which was first shown in 1794 at Covent Garden.

The abbey ruins attracted the attention of artists. The first surviving depiction of the abbey is by the engravers Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, who specialised in landmarks and great ruins. Their engraving (1733) shows the church of the abbey very much as it is today with the exception of the high vault of the south transept still being present (the picture must be taken with caution, however, as it shows some notable errors, it was clearly done from memory and rough sketches). The abbey was a popular subject for engravers and painters throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most famous artist to paint the ruins was John Constable, whose 1833 painting of the west end of the church shows it lurking sinisterly among trees.

Present day

The visitor today will find the shell of the church and monastic buildings around the cloister plus the abbot's house. Little of the post-Dissolution mansion remains aside from the south range, foundations, alterations to the medieval structure in red Tudor brick and traces of the formal gardens. In most places the abbey stands to close to its original height. The sacristy/library, the south transept chapels, the treasury, the reredorter undercroft and the lower floor of the abbot's house still have their vaults intact. Medieval heraldic polychrome tiles found on the site can be seen in the sacristy, and Henry III's foundation stone remains in the church. The abbey ruins are set in wooded parkland to the west of the village of Netley and constitute the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England. The site is cared for by English Heritage, and is open to the public. Netley is an Ancient Monument protected by law.

Folklore and ghosts

Over the years a number of different legends have grown up around Netley Abbey. Best attested is the tale of the fate of the unfortunate Walter Taylor, the builder contracted to pull down the church. Legend has it that before starting work he was warned in a dream that he would be punished if he committed sacrilege by damaging the building. The story is recounted by the eighteenth century antiquary Browne Walters:

The abbey is alleged to be home to two ghosts. The first is that of a monk who is seen as a white figure, the second is said to be a former abbot who appears as a dark figure.

The story of the nun walled up in a small room recounted in Barham's Ingoldsby Legends was a creation of the author and has no basis in fact or genuine folklore, as the author himself admits with a smile in his notes to the poem, attributing his story to one James Harrison:

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