Once a destination for pilgrims, Hailes Abbey now lies in ruins. Lucia Marchini takes a look at a newly refurbished museum on the site that explores the abbey’s history.
In the late 1530s, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries saw many religious establishments across the country put out of use, looted, and left in ruins. The Cistercian abbey at Hailes near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, was no exception. Secluded in the pleasant surroundings of typically green Cotswold countryside, its standing remains today are modest, the most striking aspect being the cloister, which in its day was one of the largest in southern England, with an area of approximately 40m2.
Though the surviving parts of the abbey may appear unassuming and the area has not been fully excavated, there are still plenty of interesting features to see out on site today. Cistercian monks were well known for their skill in water engineering, and Hailes was home to a sophisticated network of fish ponds, while a mid 13th-century drain still cuts through the site. Elsewhere, small mounds mark where the bases of once tall pillars now lie buried, while exposed elements of structure – crafted from local Cotswold stone – have been crowned with turf. Hailes is a trial site for this ‘soft-capping’ technique, which reduces the damage to low-level masonry caused when water within the stone expands with frost.
Hailes Abbey was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the second son of King John and younger brother of Henry III, who was the only Englishman to be crowned ‘King of the Romans’. Having survived a perilous storm at sea, the rich royal is said to have vowed to found a monastery as thanks to God. These early days of the abbey are marked by a single-room museum, established in the 1920s by the physician Sir James Kingston Fowler and now renovated by English Heritage (which runs the site) with impressive new displays. Floor tiles from the 13th century are adorned with the arms of Richard of Cornwall, and this iconography can still be seen on tiles 200 years later in date. There are many more tiles in situ, reburied after excavation in the 1970s as they were either too fragile or too damaged to be recovered. Others have found their way into the collections of different institutions, such as the British Museum. Some of the examples on display at Hailes, thought to have been removed from the church or from a stockpile at the abbey, had even been relaid as the flooring of a manor house near Cheltenham, reflecting the frequent reuse of monastic material after the Dissolution. Richard and his branch of the Plantagenet family were buried in the abbey’s church, a privilege afforded only to a very select few according to Cistercian rules. The exact sites of the burials are not known, but are most likely near the altar. Among the excellent examples of medieval masonry in the museum are fragments of funerary sculpture, including an arm that probably came from a royal tomb effigy, although we do not know who was being commemorated.
It was Richard’s son Edmund who introduced the medieval abbey’s star attraction: the Holy Blood of Hailes. This relic, said to be a portion of the blood shed by Christ on the Cross, was acquired by Edmund in Germany in 1268; he gave some of the blood to the abbey in 1270. A reputation for miracles associated with the relic brought many pilgrims to Hailes, establishing the abbey’s renown and earning it an appearance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the 1530s, though, the Holy Blood was denounced and the shrine that once housed it stripped and dismantled. Traces of the relic and its pilgrims have survived in the
archaeological record, however. In the 15th century, donations from these pious visitors funded the rebuilding of the cloister in stone, while a pilgrims’ souvenir – an ampulla, in the shape of a scallop shell, designed to be filled with holy water or oil from the site – is on show inside the museum, as is the early 16th-century copper-alloy seal matrix of the confraternity of Hailes, which depicts a monk holding a spherical phial containing the Holy Blood.
One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is the stonework. Pieces were being produced by talented craftsmen from the 13th century until just before the abbey was suppressed on Christmas Eve 1539. Ceiling bosses – normally intended to be seen from far below – are brought near to eye level, offering an opportunity to examine their details. One of these, a fine 13th-century depiction of Samson battling with a lion (representing Christ’s victory over evil), comes from the chapter house. Close attention has been paid in particular to Samson’s expression and the lion’s mane. Some of the boss’ red paint has survived, and there are even traces of gilding. One other carving with a floral motif has been left unfinished, showing the workings behind 13th-century decoration. In contrast to the larger sculptural fragments, the displays also feature smaller and more easily overlooked artefacts that give an insight into the lives of the monastic community. A pair of eyeglasses made from bone were found on the site of the monks’ choir stalls, centuries after they were presumably lost on the same spot. Spectacles were invented in Italy in the late 13th century, and this relatively rare medieval find, dating from the late 14th/early 15th century, provides a close link to a long-lost individual with poor eyesight – a tangible connection with the past that helps add colour to, and populate, the abbey ruins outside.
Hailes Abbey is operated by English Heritage and is open daily April to October. Entry is £5.60 (concessions available). For further details, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/hailes.
This review was published in CA 331.