Canonsleigh Abbey in Burlescombe parish, Devon, was founded in about 1161 by William de Claville, lord of the manor of Burlescombe for the Augustinian Canons Regular as the Priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. The original Anglo-Saxon name of the site, perhaps a sub-manor of Burlescombe was "Leigh" (or variant spellings), which after the foundation of the Abbey became known as "Canons' Leigh",". Latinised by mediaeval scribes to Leigh Canonicorum (i.e. "Leigh of the canons"), now "Canonsleigh".
Walter Claville does not appear in the Battle Abbey Roll. Following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he seems to have acquired holdings as an under-tenant in Suffolk under Robert Malet, and holdings in Devon. His home domain in Normandy was at Claville de Caux in the Seine-Inferieure near Rouen. He was lord of the following manors:
- Burlescombe, Canonsleigh, Appledore, Ayshford, Boehill Leigh (Churchstow). (All close to or within the present Burlescombe parish)
- Leonard Shobrooke (Morchard Bishop), Withycombe Raleigh, Wolfin, Bywood, Buckland Tout Saints, Craze Loman, Dowland, Drayford, Loosedon, Murley, Instow Coombe (Uplowman), Sydeham.
By 1284 the number of canons had declined to seven, and these were evicted in 1285 when the widow Maud de Lacy, Countess of Gloucester(d.1289), formerly the wife of Richard de Clare, 6th Earl of Gloucester(d.1262), refounded the establishment as a nunnery as the Abbey Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Etheldreda. In 1286 the abbess was granted license to hold weekly markets. It was not especially wealthy. Few of the historical records of this establishment have survived and consequently little is known about its history. It was suppressed in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In September 1546 Sir Richard Grenville (c.1495-1550), of Stowe, Cornwall and Bideford, MP for Cornwall in 1529, together with Roger Blewett of Holcombe Rogus paid nearly £1,170 for the manors of Canonsleigh in Burlescombe and Tynyell in Landulph. The site soon afterwards became a residence of the Culme family until the 17th century, which family also held the manor of Molland-Champson in Molland parish, North Devon.
Canons Leigh Barton (or "Canonsleigh") was in the 16th and 17th centuries a residence of the family of Culme (or "Columb", "Culem" etc.), which may have derived its name from some ancient landholding in the area of the River Culm, perhaps at Uffculme or Collumpton. The family was also of Great Champson (or "Chamston"), the manor house of Molland-Champson manor, a subdivision of the manor of Molland, Devon. The family is generally said to have died out in the male line on the death of Richard II Culme in 1658, although the Rev. John Culme, vicar of Knowstone-cum-Molland, to which the Culme family held the presentation, died later in 1691, and to whom a mural monument exists in Knowstone church and whose funeral sermon exists in transcript. Hugh Culme was admitted for his legal education to the Inner Temple in London in 1621 and married Amy Ayshford, a daughter of Henry Ayshford Esq. of Ayshford, Burlescombe Parish. Hugh Culme was the eldest son and heir of Richard Culme (c. 1571-1649), who himself had been admitted to the Inner Temple in 1591. He served as Sheriff of Devon and married Lydia Courtenay, a daughter of Philip Courtenay(1547–1611) of Molland by Joane Boyes. Richard's younger brother was Benjamin Culme(d.1657), BA(1602) St Alban's Hall, Oxford, Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland, who died at Lydiard St John's, Wiltshire in 1657 aged 76, having escaped from political disturbances in Ireland. Their father was Hugh Culme (c. 1543-1618) of Canons-Leigh, who married at Exeter in 1568 Mary Fortescue, a daughter of Richard Fortescue Esq. of Filleigh, Devon. He received a grant of letters patent from King James I. His father Hugh Culme of Weycroft, Axminster had been granted armorials in 1564 by William Hervy, Clarenceux King of Arms as follows: Azure, a chevron ermine between 3 pelicans vulning their breast or, with a crest: On a wreath a lion leaning to a pillar argent (given alternatively as: A lion sejant proper supporting a corinthian column). Hugh Culme had exercised his power of presentation to Knowstone-cum-Molland in 1548 when he had appointed a new vicar. He was the son of John Culme by Alice Walter, daughter and heiress of John Walter of Combe and Collacot, in the parish of Winkleigh, Devon. John was the son of Hugh Culme(d.pre-1544) of "Chamston", Molland, by Alice Tracy, daughter of William Tracy of Gloucestershire, who appeared on the Pardon Roll of Henry VIII between 1509–1514, and who presented to Molland Church in 1532. Hugh's father may have been John Culme, living in 1469, possibly the son of John Culme of Winkleigh.
The remains today consist of a substantial 15th-century gatehouse, now within the yard of Canonsleigh Barton farm, and to the east lie fragments of a wall possibly once part of a mill. As no parts of machinery or workings are left inside the structure it is also speculated that it may have been an ablutions block as much of the stonework is akin to the area used for a similar function inside the gatekeeper's quarters in the Gatehouse, also known as the Almonry. There also remains part of the outer walls of the grounds, the leat and the stable block.
- Thorn, Caroline & Frank, (eds.) Domesday Book, (Morris, John, gen.ed.) Vol. 9, Devon, Parts 1 & 2, Phillimore Press, Chichester, 1985, part 2, chap.24,15
- Principal Holders of Devonshire Manors in the Domesday Book
- History of Parliament biography , quoting Letters & Papers of Henry VIII, x, xii, xiv, xvi, xxi
- Wolffe, Mary: Gentry leaders in peace and war: the gentry governors of Devon, 1997
- Athenae Oxonienses
- Mason, William Monck, History and Antiquities of the Collegiate and Cathedral Church of St Patrick
- Throckmorton Archives, (re Molland) Warwickshire Archives
- Westcote, Thomas, A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX (1630) with a Pedigree of Most of its Gentry, pp.515-6, Culme
- Lysons, Daniel and Samuel, Magna Britannia, Vol.6, 1822, pp.173-225, "Families removed since 1620"
- Throckmorton Archives, (re Molland) Warwickshire Archives
- Anthony New, A Guide to the Abbeys of England And Wales, p104. Constable.
- Henry Thorold, The Collins Guide to the Ruined Abbeys of England, Wales and Scotland, Harper Collins, 1985
- Ordnance Survey, Monastic Britain, South Sheet, 2nd Edition.
- The Cartulary of Canonsleigh Abbey (British Library Harleian MS 3660), London, Vera C.M. (Ed.), published in Devon & Cornwall Record Society Publications, new series, vol.8, London, 1965
- Perceval, Charles Spencer, Remarks on some Early Charters and Documents relating to the Priory of Austin Canons and Abbey of Austin Canonesses at Canonsleigh, in the County of Devon, In a letter from CHARLES SPENCER PERCEVAL, Esq. LL.D. F.S.A. to AUGUSTUS WOLLASTON FRANKS, Esq. M.A. Director. Published in: Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity, Society of Antiquaries of London, Vol.40, read 10 May 1866, Chapter 29, pp. 416–450.
- Elworthy, Frederick Thomas, "Canonsleigh", published in: Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Sciences etc., 1892, pp. 359–376