Waverley Abbey, First Cistercian Foundation in England

By Peter Clarke

When one mentions the great Cistercian abbeys in England, one immediately thinks of Tintern, Rievaulx or Fountains. How many of us could immediately put our finger on the name of the first Cistercian foundation in England? It is the rather obscure and little known Waverley Abbey, a few miles south of Farnham, in the peaceful, picturesque valley of the River Wey in West Surrey, conveniently situated almost half way between London and Winchester, the ancient capital of England. It was founded in 1128 by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, who donated 60 acres of arable land and pasture to Abbot John and twelve Cistercian monks who came from L’Aumone in France. Like other Benedictine communities they took vows of poverty, obedience, work, prayer and silence. Their lives were characterised by simplicity and austerity. They were the pioneers of their day, turning forests into arable land. They had considerable impact on the local economy and gradually developed the wool trade into a thriving and prosperous industry in Surrey.

The Cistercian (white) monks deliberately chose wild, secluded and desolate places, but the choice of Waverley brought several problems. Their proximity to the River Wey brought flooding problems and their initial construction work had to be abandoned and started on firmer ground. In 1201 the Great Flood destroyed much of the building and silted mud flowed through the cloisters. Disease and later the Black Death also took its toll. However, sheer determination eventually established the Abbey, built over considerable time by the sweat and toil of the monks who became skilled stone masons. The abbey reflected the plain but impressive austerity of the time, although later abbeys developed a more elaborate, gothic style.

The monks brought hospitality to many pilgrims en route from Winchester and the south west to Canterbury. The North Downs (Pilgrims) Way was only a mile to the north and many travellers and pilgrims stopped at the abbey for rest and recuperation

One early visitor of dubious distinction was King John who came to Waverley in Holy Week, 1208 with a large retinue. He appears to have had little regard for Lenten sacrifice and penance as the royal visitor and his entourage consumed virtually all the wine and food that the abbey possessed.

The dedication of the abbey church in 1278, exactly 150 years after the foundation of the abbey was a time of great rejoicing; bishops, lords, nobles, knights and other guests, a total of 7066 are recorded as attending the banquet.

The end came swiftly at the Dissolution. Its proximity to London meant it was one of the first to be demolished. The abbot wrote an impassioned plea to Thomas Cromwell on 9th June, 1536:-

“We beseech your good mastership, for the love of Christ’s passion, to help to the preservation of this monastery, that we may remain in the service of God. We live as any poor men in the world in the service of Almighty God.”

It was all to no avail. The response was dissolution in the following months. The stones were gradually carried away by the gentry and aristocracy for their manor houses. All that remains now are the massive lumps of stone that mark the corners and boundaries of the church and other abbey buildings. There is still evidence of the beautiful vaulting, beneath which, blackbirds, starlings and wood pigeons have colonized the ivy and creeper that now cover every wall of the once great abbey. The abbey ruins are now protected by English Heritage and open to the public all year round. Today the visitor can sense the atmosphere of peace and solitude that still remains from pre Reformation days.

Sir Walter Scott is reputed to have been so inspired by the atmosphere invoked by the abbey and the beauty of the surrounding environs that it inspired his famous, romantic “Waverley novels”, published in 1814.

No congregation assembled at the abbey until 1928 when Francis Cardinal Bourne led the celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the abbey’s foundation. Two hundred clergy including bishops and abbots and five thousand faithful Catholics assembled in the ruins for Solemn High Mass. The Cardinal’s sermon left no one present in any doubt that they were the spiritual descendants of the holy men who once lived within the ruined abbey walls:-

“We Catholics come here today as to a true spiritual home. We come not as strangers or foreigners, but as fellow citizens with those who once made this sacred spot their home with their unending prayers and by their lives consecrated wholly to the service of God and of their fellow men. We are offering up the same Sacrifice which they offered up in this place and using the same time honoured chant. We do not need to cast about for new ritual or to devise new prayers. We praise God in the same form, wearing the same type of vestments that they wore in bygone days. We are here today as though the Catholic Church has never left this hallowed shrine.”

The Cardinal’s sermon struck a chord with those present. Many regarded it as the most powerful and influential sermon they had heard. The event was the largest public manifestation of Catholicism in Surrey since the Reformation. It was a sign of the times that fifty years later in 1978, the celebration for the 850th anniversary should be an ecumenical event with children from the local schools dramatising scenes from the life of the Cistercian abbey. They walked from their schools on St Swithun’s day, dressed as Cistercian monks and Medieval pilgrims, to re enact the early life of the white monks at Waverley. However on this occasion, sadly, no Cardinal or Bishop was present. One wonders how the 900th anniversary will be remembered (if at all) in 2028.

If you travel along the road from Farnham to Godalming why not stop at the abbey and walk beside the River Wey to ruins and take in the atmosphere of peace and tranquility at this first English Cistercian abbey.