Beaulieu Abbey

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For the abbey in France, see Beaulieu-en-Rouergue Abbey.
Beaulieu Abbey
The cloister and refectory of Beaulieu Abbey seen from the west range
Monastery information
Full name The Abbey Church of St Mary, Bellus Locus Regis (Latin: "The beautiful place of the king")
Other names Beaulieu Abbey
Order Cistercian
Established 1203/1204
Disestablished 1538
Mother house CîteauxAbbey, France
Dedicated to Virgin Mary
Diocese Winchester
Controlled churches Shilton, Inglesham, Coxwell, St Keverne,
Founder(s) King John
Important associated figures King John, Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, Abbot Thomas Stevens
Location Beaulieu, Hampshire, England
Visible remains cloister, refectory (now the parish church) and west range, gatehouse, foundations of the church, many other ruins, earthworks
Public access yes
The surviving wall and groundplan of the abbey church.
The cloister at Beaulieu Abbey seen from the door to the church. On the left can be seen the refectory - now the Parish church of Beaulieu - on the right the west range, home of the abbey's lay brothers.
The interior of the chapter house of Beaulieu Abbey.
The Domus, or lay-brothers' living quarters, now a museum
The cloister and the refectory
The post-Dissolution mansion at Beaulieu, known as Palace House, was built around the mediaeval gatehouse of the abbey (the double gabled building in the centre-right of the picture).

Beaulieu Abbey, grid reference SU389026, was a Cistercian abbey located in Hampshire, England. It was founded in 1203–1204 by King John [1] and (uniquely in Britain) [2] peopled by 30 monks sent from the abbey of Cîteaux in France, the mother house of the Cistercian order. The Latin name of the monastery was Bellus Locus Regis ('The beautiful place of the king').

History of the Abbey[edit]

The first Abbot of Beaulieu was Hugh,[1] a man who stood high in the king's favour and who often served him on important diplomatic missions. He was later to become Bishop of Carlisle.[1] The king granted his new abbey a rich endowment, including numerous manors spread across southern England (particularly in Berkshire), land in the New Forest, corn, large amounts of money, building materials, 120 cows, 12 bulls, a golden chalice, and an annual tun of wine.[1] John's son and successor, King Henry III was equally generous to Beaulieu, with the result that the abbey became very wealthy,[1] though it was far from the richest English Cistercian house.

The abbey's buildings were of a scale and magnificence reflecting its status as an important royal foundation.[2] The church was a vast cruciform structure in early gothic style and heavily influenced by French churches of the order, especially those of Cîteaux, Bonport and Clairvaux.[3] The church was 102m long and had a semi-circular apse with 11 radiating chapels. The building took more than four decades to complete and was finally dedicated in 1246,[3] in the presence of King Henry III and his queen, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and many prelates and nobles.

South of the church stood a cloister, ranged around which were the chapter house, refectory, kitchens, storehouse and quarters for the monks, lay brothers and the abbot. A separate infirmary complex lay to the east of the main buildings, connected to them by a passage.[4] The abbey was surrounded by workshops, farm buildings, guesthouses, a mill, and extensive gardens and fishponds. Strongly fortified gatehouses controlled entry to the monastic enclosure, which was defended by a wall. A water gate allowed access to ships in the river.[3]

Pope Innocent III constituted Beaulieu an "exempt abbey", meaning that the abbot had to answer to no bishop save the Pope himself.[1] Beaulieu was also invested by the same Pope with special privileges of sanctuary,[1] much stronger than usual and covering not only the abbey itself but all the 23.5ha precinct around that had been originally granted by King John. As Beaulieu was the only abbey in its region with such large and strongly enforced sanctuary rights it soon became a recourse of fugitives, both ordinary criminals and debtors and also political enemies of the government.[1] Among these latter were Anne Neville,[1] wife of Warwick the King-maker, after the battle of Barnet (1471). Twenty-six years later Perkin Warbeck fled to Beaulieu from the pursuing armies of Henry VII.[1]

Monks from Beaulieu founded four daughter houses, Netley Abbey (1239), Hailes Abbey (1246), Newenham Abbey (1247) and St Mary Graces Abbey (1350).


In 1535 the abbey's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's great survey of church finances, at £428 gross, £326 net,[1] which meant that it escaped being confiscated under the terms of the first Suppression Act, Henry's initial move in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The last abbot of Beaulieu was Abbot Thomas Stevens, elected in 1536. Stevens was the former abbot of the recently dissolved abbey of Netley, across Southampton Water.[1] Beaulieu managed to survive until April 1538, at which point it was finally forced to surrender to the government.[1] Many of the monks were granted pensions, the abbot receiving 100 marks per year.[1] Abbot Thomas ended his days as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral.[5] He died in 1550.[5]

At the dissolution of the monastery in 1538, the Commissioners for the Dissolution reported to the government that thirty-two sanctuary-men, who were here for debt, felony, or murder, were living in houses in the monastic precincts with their wives and families.[1] When the abbey was dissolved there was some debate about what to do with them, however, in the end it was decided, after pleading by the former abbot and certain government officials, to allow the debtors to live in their houses on the abbey grounds permanently.[1] Pardons were given to some of the criminals too, including one Thomas Jeynes, a murderer.[1]


After Beaulieu fell there was much competition amongst courtiers to gain ownership of the abbey and its valuable estates, but eventually Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, won the struggle and King Henry granted him the abbey itself and 3,441ha of the Beaulieu lands.[3]

As soon as he took over, Wriothesley set about building himself a house on the site. He demolished the church, as was common practice but, unusually, instead of converting the buildings around the cloister into a home he chose the great gatehouse as the core of his mansion[3] (compare Wriothesley's other converted monastery at Titchfield Abbey or the conversion of neighbouring Netley Abbey). This survives - much extended - as the modern country house at Beaulieu known as Palace House. Lord Southampton preserved the monks' refectory, which he gave to the people of Beaulieu village to be their parish church,[3] a function it still serves today. The west range of the abbey, known as the Domus was also saved. The rest of the abbey was allowed to fall into ruin.

The Abbey Today[edit]

Although a great deal was destroyed at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, there is still much to see. The groundplan of the 102 metre long church can be seen on the lawns. The position of the altar is marked by a cross and flanking trees. The Domus, once the lay brothers' refectory and lodgings and, later, chambers for important guests once the lay brothers had vanished, now houses an exhibition of monastic life prior to Thomas Wriothesley's takeover. Visitors can view a series of modern embroidered wall hangings made by Belinda, Lady Montagu,[6] depicting scenes from medieval monastic life and the history of the abbey since 1204. The abbey refectory survives as the parish church and there are substantial ruins of the other buildings round the cloister. The abbey cloister is a place of tranquillity, planted with fragrant herbs. The Domus is now regularly used for events, dining and corporate hospitality.[6] Beaulieu remains in the hands of the descendants of Wriothesley, who still live there. Both the abbey and Palace House are open to the public. The grounds are home to the National Motor Museum.


Foundation legend[edit]

Beaulieu Abbey was the sole religious foundation of King John, and as historic novelist Edward Rutherfurd points out, the complexity of a good act by a bad man was unsuited to monkish chronicles, so it was agreed that he must have been making recompense for some particularly awful deed.[7]

The legend of this awful deed, first told in a Kirkstall chartulary, is related by the antiquarian William Dugdale:

King John being offended with the Cistercian order in England, and the Abbots of that Order coming to him to reconcile themselves, he caused them to be trod under his Horses Feet, for which Action being terrified in a Dream, he built and bestowed the Abby of Beau-lieu in Newforest for 30 monks of that order.

William Dugdale in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655–1673)[8]

The legend is repeated in a later work by the topographer Thomas Cox:

King John being offended with that Order in England, divers of their Abbots came to him to reconcile themselves, but he caused them to be trodden under his Horses Feet; for which Action, being terrified in a Dream, he resolved to build an Abbey at this Place in New Forest, for thirty Monks of that Order; and for that End gave out of his Treasury one hundred Marks, and wrote his Letters to all the Abbots of that Order, to help towards the Building of it, out of their several Stocks.

Thomas Cox in Magna Britannia (1720–1731)[9]

Modern re-tellings of the king's "babbling dream" state that he dreamed of being scourged with rods and thongs by the abbots he had commanded be trampled and he awoke to find his body still ached from the blows in his dream.[10][11][12] The king is said to have taken great interest in the construction of the abbey and even to have expressed a desire to be entombed beneath the high altar.[13]

Reported hauntings[edit]

Beaulieu, according to the official website, is one of the most haunted places in Britain, with reported sightings going back over a hundred years,[12][14][15][16] and possibly as far as the mid-16th century.[13] Numerous paranormal investigators have conducted research at the abbey, including Arthur Conan Doyle, who it is claimed made contact with a ghost during a séance at Palace House.[12][17][18]

Among the many sightings of white and brown clad monks in the abbey ruins and in the parish church,[11][17] including one by the actress Margaret Rutherford,[11][15] is an often repeated tale involving a group of local boys sheltering from a storm in a disused boathouse who see a rowing boat making for the shore.[11]

The three boys watched as five hooded men stepped out of the boat. The men, dressed in the white habit of monks, filed away up the beach in the direction of Beaulieu Abbey. At dawn when it had faired the boys examined the shore where they had seen the monks land; there was no trace of a boat, nor of any footprints in the sand.

— Raymond Lamont-Brown[19]

Parish priest Reverend Robert Frazer Powles, vicar of Beaulieu (1886-1939), known as Daddy Powles, claimed to have conversed with the ghostly monks, who he knew by name, and even held candlelit midnight mass every Christmas Eve for them.[11][12][14][17][18]

He always appeared perfectly sane but he seemed to be on good terms with the ghosts whom he saw and spoke to regularly.

— Mrs Elizabeth Varley on Daddy Powles[13]

The sound of Gregorian chant, considered an omen by local tradition, have been reported by Mrs Elizabeth Varley, daughter of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, and Michael C. Sedgwick, former curator of the National Motor Museum, amongst others.[11][12][16][17][20]

I was sitting by the window of my room quite late at night when I heard it. It was very clear and quite loud enough for me to pick up the notes of the chant. I thought perhaps it was the gipsies living in the forest, but when I sang the tune the next day to someone staying in the house they recognised it as a Gregorian chant.

— Mrs Elizabeth Varley[21]

A lady in blue or gray, reportedly sighted walking through walls and making a lot of noise in the private apartments, is believed to be the ghost of Countess of Beaulieu, Lady Isabella, who died in 1786.[11][14][17][18] The smell of incense, which allegedly signals tragedy for the people of the abbey or the village, has also been reported by Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu amognst others in a room of the Palace House used as a chapel in the Middle Ages.[12][14]

Beaulieu in Culture[edit]

F.T. Prince's poem 'At Beaulieu', from his 1963 collection, The Doors of Stone, describes the double heart-coffin on display in the Abbey. Prince, who was Professor of English at the University of Southampton from 1957 to 1974, probably visited the site sometime in the late 1950s/early '60s.

John Betjeman's 'Youth and Age on Beaulieu River' is based on a visit he made to the New Forest.

Media appearances[edit]

The abbey's status as one of the most haunted places in Britain has drawn a number TV productions there.

Beaulieu Attraction[edit]

Today the Abbey is part of the visitor attraction known simply as "Beaulieu". Admission includes the following attractions:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Page, William; H. Arthur Doubleday (1973). Houses of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Netley, A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume II. The Victoria County History. pp. 140–146. ISBN 0-7129-0592-8. 
  2. ^ a b Robinson, David; Janet Burton, Nicola Coldstream, Glyn Coppack & Richard Fawcett (1998). The Cistercian Abbeys of Britain. Batsford Ltd. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-7134-8392-5. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Robinson, David; Janet Burton, Nicola Coldstream, Glyn Coppack & Richard Fawcett (1998). The Cistercian Abbeys of Britain. Batsford Ltd. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-7134-8392-5. 
  4. ^ Platt, Professor Colin (1984). The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Secker & Warburg. p. 169. ISBN 0-436-37557-5. 
  5. ^ a b Horn, Joyce (1973). Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: Volume VI: Salisbury Diocese. The Victoria County History. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0-901179-91-4. 
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ Rutherfurd, Edward (2000). The Forrest. Century. 
  8. ^ Dugdale, William (1655–1673). Monasticon Anglicanum. 
  9. ^ Cox, Thomas (1720–1731). Magna Britannia. 
  10. ^ Klitz, Thomas (2003). Tales of the New Forest. Ann Perrett. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Scanlan, David (2013). Paranormal Hampshire. Amberley Publishing. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Underwood, Peter (2013). Where the Ghosts Walk. Souvenir Press. 
  13. ^ a b c Parr, Donald A. (1996). Web of Fear. Breedon Books. 
  14. ^ a b c d Pearse, Bowen (2011). The Ghost-Hunter's Casebook. The History Press. 
  15. ^ a b Brode, Anthony (1981). Haunted Hampshire. Countryside Books. 
  16. ^ a b "Beaulieu Attractions". Retrieved 2014-12-22. 
  17. ^ a b c d e "Beaulieu Fun Facts". Retrieved 2014-12-22. 
  18. ^ a b c Yandell, Chris (2013-10-31). "Hannah Broughton claims she has photographed Beaulieu's ghostly Lady in Blue". Southern Daily Echo. Retrieved 2015-01-02. 
  19. ^ Lamont-Brown, Raymond (1972). Phantoms, Legends, Customs and Superstitions of the Sea. Patrick Stephens. 
  20. ^ Bord, Janet & Colin (1990). Atlas of Magical Britain. Sidgwick & Jackson. 
  21. ^ Brooks, John (1990). Britain's Haunted Heritage. Jarrold Publishing. 
  22. ^ "Ghostwatch Live". Retrieved 2015-01-02. 
  23. ^ "Most Haunted Live at Halloween: Beaulieu Abbey". Retrieved 2015-01-02. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°49′18″N 1°26′57″W / 50.82164°N 1.44913°W / 50.82164; -1.44913