Buckfast Abbey, Devon
For November’s post we are grateful once again to Dr Jennifer Freeman.
Buckfast Abbey stands in wooded countryside close to the River Dart on the southern edge of Dartmoor. It is the only mediaeval monastery in England to have been restored to its original use following centuries of abandonment after Henry VIII’s Dissolutions. The monks followed the Benedictine Rule, laid down by St Benedict in the fifth century, committing them to a regimen of hard work and prayer with the goal of self-sufficiency.
The monastery is probably of Saxon origin, re-founded in 1018 as a Cistercian Abbey but returning to the Benedictines in 1147. This change coincided with a major programme of rebuilding lasting over a century. Agriculture and sheep farming were the basis of the monastic economy, funding the works programme. Buckfast was at its peak in the 13th century, before declining in the 14th and 15th centuries while at the same time remaining a large-scale owner of land.
In 1539 came the Dissolution of Buckfast, where there remained but 10 monks. The decline in numbers of monks was mirrored throughout England, in part due to universities and hospitals taking over tasks previously undertaken by monks. Some monasteries had already given up voluntarily. Monasteries were ransacked for building materials and valuables. Events at Buckfast followed the pattern. Buildings were unroofed, useful lead melted, furniture auctioned. Smaller buildings were converted for habitation or agriculture and the land was sold though five of the monks found alternative local employment.
For several centuries the heart of the monastery lay in ruins though some new buildings arrived on site, including a substantial house. Eventually the whole site went on the market in 1882 with religious purpose in view. Ideal purchasers emerged. These were monks from a largely German-speaking monastery in France, who had been evicted for belonging to an ‘unauthorised’ establishment, and thence fled to Ireland. They made their lasting home at Buckfast.
Frederick Walters FSA was appointed architect for the rebuilding of the monastery. He researched the foundations of the mediaeval monastery, rediscovered the gardens and became greatly involved in designs for the new Abbey. Some of the remaining buildings were recreated, others re-instated often incorporating earlier structure. The precinct was tacked in a similar spirit.
Monastic labour, virtually self-trained and utilising basic tools, was harnessed. Works commenced in 1884 with Abbey status being accorded in 1904. At any one time only 4-6 monks were on site, working piecemeal. The church was completed in 1922, the Abbey being consecrated ten years later. A great spur to the pace of building programme was Abbot Ansvar Vonier, Buckfast’s second Abbot, in the wake of the tragic death of its first Abbot, Boniface Natter.
The uniqueness of the huge project made the Abbey something of a visitor attraction. As in mediaeval times the monks sold their produce, including the famous ‘tonic wine’. Bee-keeping and the sale of honey proved popular. Over time the precinct has expanded its facilities with a teashop, restaurant, bookshop, conference and guest suites. Today’s precinct throbs with life, leaving the monks in seclusion to the south side of the monastic enclave. The ruined Abbot’s Tower, the mediaeval Guest Hall and South Gate have been gradually restored.
Architecturally, the newly created Abbey Church is built along Cistercian lines, combining both Romanesque and Gothic detailing in a carefully modulated, restrained, evocative manner. The unifying of different styles is not only a reminder of the Abbey’s history but also reflects a preoccupation of many contemporary church designers such as Dom Paul Bellot, Sir Ninian Comper and W. D. Caroe. The peaceful, contemplative atmosphere at Buckfast is re-inforced by its low-key sensory gardens and seemly precinctual buildings.
The Church is constructed of local blue limestone and golden Ham Hill stone that takes sunlight gloriously. In shape it is cruciform with a tower, transepts and long nave on the footprint of its mediaeval predecessor. Inside, the confident, elegant modelling of the stonework and the finessing of its carving set off ravishing mosaic paving, exquisite enamel work and gilding – much of it the work of Dom Charles Morris. Yet visitors are never led away from the prayerful purpose of the building into pure admiration of adornment. The meaning behind its distinctive chapels and varied spaces is always felt.
It was this English monk, Dom Charles Norris, who after a training at the Royal College of Art began to create Buckfast’s amazing stained glass in 1932. He, too, was responsible for painting the Lantern Tower in egg tempera in 1939, for the mosaic flooring in the Sanctuary and Crossing in 1943/47 and the pavement in the Choir and Lady Chapel of 1958. Bernhard Witte of the Aachen Studio designed the extraordinarily delicate enamelling of the Corona Lucis and the Stations of the Cross.
In 1968 the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was constructed in a distinctive, vibrant, Modern / Byzantine manner north of the tower and transepts. The huge stained glass walls make a powerful statement, comprising thick tiles of glass, chipped to shape and set in concrete or epoxy resin. Buckfast had moved into a new era.
The Buckfast complex is self-evidently successful. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is one of Devon’s most visited sites. The monastery flourishes from the monks’ personal endeavours. An astonishing success story in an era of faith failures.
- Robin Clutterbuck, Buckfast Abbey – A History, Buckfast Abbey Trustees, 1994
- Visitor Guide to Buckfast Abbey, Scala, 2005