On this day: a ship of salvation and the birth of an abbey

On this day, 18th October in 1242, a ship sailing from France landed on the Scilly Isles carrying Richard, earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III. The intended destination had been England, but a violent storm had whipped around the vessel threatening the lives of all on board. Staring out over the cruel sea straight into the face of death, Richard vowed that if God would deliver him safely from shipwreck he would found a monastery in return. So when his ship made landfall at Scilly and his grateful feet stepped onto dry land, Richard resolved to keep to his side of the divine bargain. Three years later work duly began in a suitably remote location within the lands of a Gloucestershire manor he had just been granted by Henry III, and the result was the imposing Hailes Abbey. But what started as a quiet place of monastic prayer, toil and austerity was to become one of the busiest hubs of religious tourism in medieval England.

Hailes Abbey, an oasis of calm in rural Gloucestershire

Huddled peacefully in a valley surrounded by rolling Cotswold Hills, the ruins of Hailes Abbey and its neighbouring Norman church made a very pleasant destination on our recent medieval tour around the region of England we’re about to leave. Today, the abbey’s fragmented state, like so many others, is down to the ravages of Henry VIII. After it was closed on Christmas Eve in 1539 and its treasures confiscated by the Crown, the buildings were plundered for materials by opportunistic locals, leaving little more than a decaying shell. But thanks to a comprehensive on-site museum and a rich array of archaeological finds, modern visitors can gain a good insight into life at Hailes in its heyday and the splendour Richard lavished on his key spiritual project.  

The neighbouring Hailes Church predates the abbey by over a century, and is well worth exploring alongside Richard’s monastery, which later took it under its wing

the church contains some stunning medieval wall paintings, including depictions of saints and these wonderful 12th-century images of a basilisk and a griffin

Born in 1209, Richard was the younger son of King John and the little brother of King Henry III, yet he often exercised better judgement than either ruler, both of whom managed to upset most of their barons to the point of armed conflict. A cultured man, skilled negotiator and respected politician, Richard had received extensive lands and many noble titles at an early age, including the earldom of Cornwall. Then, in 1256 he was elected King of the Romans, effectively putting him in line as heir to the Holy Roman Empire. Although he never actually made it to Emperor, he was crowned in Aachen Cathedral in 1257 sporting full kingly regalia. So with one of the richest men in Europe as their patron, the new monastic community at Hailes was to do very well thank you very much.

A much appreciated place of sanctuary

Much of Hailes is now covered by turf to protect the fragile remains

By the summer of 1246 the new build was deemed advanced enough to house a small monastic community, so Richard and his second wife, Sanchia of Provence, journeyed to his father’s foundation, the Cistercian abbey at Beaulieu in Hampshire, to escort a quota of monks to their new Gloucestershire home. Prior Jordan was in charge, and with him came twenty monks and ten lay brothers to help manage the land and look after the animals. But despite Richard’s royal status and deep pockets, the abbey’s chronicle notes that the newcomers had nothing but scorn for Hailes. It seems, however, that whingeing about their circumstances was quite the done thing in monastic colonies, as it made them look more resilient, playing up the poverty and austerity they were supposed to be enduring. But in fact, as the build progressed Richard poured money into the abbey’s construction and its lands, persuading other monasteries to donate books to the library and even securing substantial gifts from his big brother, King Henry. On 5th November 1251, in an elaborate event attended by the king and queen, hundreds of knights and thirteen bishops, Hailes Abbey was formally consecrated, and Richard’s holy bond with God was complete. The monks would just have to put up with their finely crafted buildings in the unspoilt Cotswold countryside, and live with the splendour, like it or not…

Finely carved ceiling bosses, like this one on display in the museum, give a taste of the expense and quality of craftsmanship that went into the construction of Hailes

The interior of the warming room, the only part of the monastery where a fire was permitted and the monks could enjoy some welcome warmth during the colder months. To the left of the arched entrance, the walls are fitted with cupboards, indicating that practicality was considered in the design of Hailes as well as splendid architectural design.

The laver, situated on the south side of the cloister between the door to the warming room (left) and the entrance to the refectory (right). This was where the monks washed their hands before taking their meals.

Despite such an auspicious start, by 1261 the abbey had fallen into debt and was relying on the ongoing support of Richard and Sanchia. But it was a gift from their son, Edmund, that was to transform the abbey’s fortunes and establish it as a major pilgrimage destination.

During the Middle Ages, if a religious community was strapped for cash, the best way to fill the holy coffers was to get hold of a relic, a significant religious object from the past kept for veneration purposes and believed to possess supernatural powers. Usually consisting of a body part or some personal belonging of a saint, a religious relic usually meant big business. The precious items attracted pilgrims from far and wide seeking absolution, protection or a miraculous cure, and with the pilgrims came money. In return for an audience with the relic, visitors contributed financially to the upkeep of the abbey by purchasing pardons for their sins and investing in mementos such as ‘pilgrim badges’ that proved they had completed their journey of piety. The most prized relics were those associated with the suffering of Christ, and in this respect Edmund had struck the gold that Hailes Abbey needed.

Souvenirs from Hailes: pilgrims would purchase items to take home to prove they had completed their pious journeys, such as this tiny flask shaped like a scallop shell. Similar to pilgrim’s badges, these had the added attraction of containing a small amount of holy water or oil from the abbey.

Looking out into the cloister from the interior of the chapter house. This important room was where the monks would gather each morning to listen to a Chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, the set of precepts by which the Cistercians lived, and to discuss secular business, greet distinguished visitors, confess their sins and receive punishments. The archway on the far left was the entrance to the parlour, where the monks could talk among themselves, and no doubt have a sneaky good old natter…

Whilst in Germany in 1268, Edmund had acquired a portion of blood shed by Christ on the cross, a relic believed to have been taken from the coronation regalia of Charlemagne (r.800 – 814), the first Holy Roman Emperor. In 1270 Edmund presented his gift to Hailes in a great ceremony on 14th September, the Feast of the Holy Cross, and in doing so he played a blinder. Not only had he secured such a priceless relic for his father’s foundation, he had highlighted Richard’s title of King of the Romans and his prominent link to the Holy Roman Empire itself.

Kept in a crystal container, the Holy Blood quickly worked its magic, and pilgrims flocked to Hailes from across England as stories spread of miraculous healing and protection from peril. Soon work began to replace the temporary shrine in which the relic was housed with a more appropriate setting, and by 1277 the entire east end of the abbey’s church had been rebuilt to a magnificent design featuring five polygonal chapels arranged in a semi-circle. The Blood was enshrined on a raised platform behind the high altar surrounded by another semi-circular passage for the pilgrims and processions.

Beneath the turf is the footings of the rebuilt east end of the church. The mound in the foreground was the location of the High Altar, and the platform for the Holy Blood is just behind. At the rear it is just possible to make out the arrangement of the elaborate semi-circular end of the church with it’s five polygonal chapels.

The abbey’s tranquil setting in a verdant valley must have been a picturesque destination for the pilgrims who flocked to see the Holy Blood.

Richard’s abbey had hit the spiritual big time, but sadly he wasn’t to see the full glory of the new shrine for himself. Ironically, the year after the Holy Blood’s arrival at Hailes tragedy was to strike at the heart of the earl’s family. On 13th March 1271 his eldest son, Henry of Almain, was brutally murdered by two of his cousins while attending mass in the Italian city of Viterbo. Acting in revenge for the execution of their father and brother at the battle of Evesham six years earlier, the assailants slaughtered Henry as he clung to the church’s altar, begging for mercy. Nine months later Richard suffered a devastating stroke that left him paralysed down his right side and unable to speak, and the following spring, on 2nd April 1272, he died at his castle in Berkhamsted, his passing having been hastened by grief at the murder of his son. His body was interred at Hailes, the abbey that had been designated as his family’s burial place from the outset, and here it was that he joined Sanchia, who had died in 1260, and Henry, his beloved son and heir.

A 13th-century floor tile depicting the arms of Richard, earl of Cornwall features in the museum, along with several others showing the arms of royalty, the abbey’s supporters and Richard’s three wives.

Today, no trace remains of the family burials, nor of the abbey’s former treasures. Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries saw its gold and silver spirited away to the Tower of London and the lead stripped from the roofs before the local community piled in to pillage everything else. As for the precious relic of the Holy Blood, that had also been removed and denounced as a fake in 1538. But one thing that cannot be taken away from Hailes is the profound sense of tranquility that pervades this still remote place and it’s crumbled but evocative ruins. And as we wandered around the turf-covered walls and the stone arches leading to long-gone rooms, I found myself musing on how this place of medieval pilgrimage, nestling here in one of the furthest inland points in England, came into being because of a ship spared from peril on that tempestuous sea so far away, on this very day exactly 780 years ago.

…and this trip, in fact, brings to a close our time in Buckinghamshire, as tomorrow we move out of the Tingewick house we have lived in for the past sixteen years. After a brief stay with my mum near Banbury we’ll finally arrive in North Wales on 1st November, from which time we’ll be able to call this stunning part of the UK home. Until the dust settles on this hectic time I’ll need to take a break from blogging, but will look forward to seeing everyone again some time before the end of the year. So, in the meantime, keep warm and safe and, in the best tradition of Richard, earl of Cornwall, please say a little prayer for us for our safe deliverance to North Wales!