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!  

23 thoughts on “On this day: a ship of salvation and the birth of an abbey

  1. I’m glad that your move is coming to fruition at last Alli, not just for your sake, but for us followers as well who have been starved of gems like this while you’ve been negotiating the house-moving minefield.

    This wonderful account of Hailes Abbey brings back memories from a visit I made here many moons ago, and as you always do, you’ve written it in your own inimitable way that brings
    everything to life.

    Good luck with the move, and even though you’re looking forward to your new venture, I’m sure there’ll be some things that will make you sad when you leave. Good luck, and I can’t wait to read about your escapades in North Wales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such kind comments to take away to Wales with me, Malc. Thanks so much, and I’m sorry to have been so absent from the blogsphere during what – as you know – has been a very long slog indeed. You’re quite right though, we’re all feeling a bit of a lump in the throat as we pack the last of our things. Sixteen years is a lot of time and life experience to invest in one house and area, and tomorrow certainly won’t end without a tear or two, I’m certain.

      So you’ve been to Hailes before? It really is a great place to go, and I’m glad we managed to take it in before we move. I’m sure we’ll return there one day when we’re back visiting family, as it’s a bit too special a place to only do once. Thanks again for the lovely feedback, and no doubt we’ll be in touch again very soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks, Bobby. Glad you enjoyed the introduction to this, as you rightly say, not so well known site. It should be though, as it had a big part to play in history. All the best and I’ll look forward to catching up with your blog from North Wales! 🙂


  2. You really bring the stories of Hailes Abbey to life with your descriptions of the different rooms and buildings, tales of grumbling monks and the flocks of pilgrims. I think the turf on the ruins serves to make them more photogenic, and the medieval wall paintings in the church are amazing!

    Good luck with the move and we’ll look forward to seeing you ‘on the other side’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Sarah. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Hailes. Interesting what you say about the turf making the ruins more photogenic. I hadn’t thought of that! I guess if the lighting is right it would probably add to the feel of the place.

      The wall paintings in the church are amazing, and there’s loads of them, so if you’re ever in the area do drop in and see them. You’ll probably take much better photos of them than I ever could! 🙂

      And thanks for the good wishes for the move. It’s been a journey and a half, but the end is finally in sight now. See you soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another wonderful post my love. I really liked Hailes, it was a very peaceful place and those wall paintings WOW! Here’s to a successful move!!! Looking forward to having a bit of Welshcake and a glass or two of sticky Rodgers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely want to return there when we’re back in the area. It’s a very special place, even if the remains are fragmented and much of it under turf. Apparently, according to Sarah, this can make it more photogenic, so it’ll be a good place to experiment with photographing medieval sites! In the meantime, Wales, here we come… 🙂


    • Thank you, Martha, glad you enjoyed reading about Hailes and it’s history. I know exactly what you mean about the Reformation. I think it was originally well meant, as Martin Luther only wanted to reform the Catholic church and rid it of corruption, but the cause swiftly snowballed and became so much more than that, dragging in politics, power and prejudice – the lot! If he’d been able to see the centuries of war and devastation he’d inadvertently triggered in 1517 by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, he’d probably have turned in his grave. But then, they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, don’t they? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There’s a Scottish Country Dance we sometimes do called ‘Ship of Grace’ – I never gave any thought as to what it meant before reading this. That looks a stunning place to visit. As Richard wants to visit the Cotswolds sometime, we need to put that on our list – won’t be for a few years though…

    Astounding that one of our kings was also a ‘King of Romans’!

    Covering everything with turf to preserve it sounds quite a good idea – did they actually cover it or did it end up covering itself?

    And you have to laugh at the monks whingeing all the time about their circumstances when they were so good. Sounds a bit like the Monty Python sketch where they were all competing to say they had the worst living conditions and upbringing – you know, the “You were lucky” sketch…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, I know that sketch! I wonder if it’s got anything to do with Terry Jones being an historian as well as a bonkers comedian. I suppose those moaning monks had to look suitably frugal somehow… 😉

      The turf covering seems to be a deliberate method of preservation, but I’m not sure exactly how it works. But whenever you do get to the Cotswolds I’m sure you’d enjoy the abbey and it’s in a lovely picturesque location.

      Never heard of that Scottish country dance by the way, but it sounds good! Glad you enjoyed reading about Hailes though, and hopefully it’ll enhance your visit if you do go there in the future. I always find I enjoy a historical place much more when I know something about it and it’s stories. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As usual, reading your posts are almost like visiting there myself. North Wales is an interesting location choice. Do you have family up there or work in the area? I spent a few weeks wandering around Wales in 1980. It was already very different from the movies and books I’d read about it so I imagine it has changed a whole lot since then. Good luck with your move. I hope it goes smoothly or at least as smoothly as moves can go. And you can begin a whole new set of explorations 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Marilyn, that’s a lovely thing to say. ❤ 🙂 Glad you enjoyed reading about Hailes.
      Thanks also for the good wishes. I'm currently surrounded by boxes and dust, the cats are in a cattery and chaos rules! North Wales is primarily a choice for our son, Nathan, who is autistic, and they were going to move him from his current special school but we weren't happy with any other placing around here. Looked into it and it turns out the Welsh method of special needs teaching is much better than the English model, as over there they tailor the curriculum to the individual child. They don't do that here, they just try to shoehorn them all into the same curriculum. Also, my daughter is desperate to do coastal sailing and wants to live nearer the sea. As for me – well, that's the exact territory I did my castle quest through, so I'm not going to complain about living in the middle of all Edward 1st's iron ring of castles! 🙂 And when you throw in the Snowdonian mountains, the beautiful coastline and the wonderful scenery it's not a bad place to be going to live. 🙂


      • Great reasons! My reasons were simple. It was beautiful and I had just done a lot of reading about the early tin mines … and of course castles and earthworks were always on my agenda. Anywhere you can get better education for a child who needs it. We had a lot of issues around here, but of course if wasn’t our child so it was up to the kids to decide what to do. They like the small towniness here to anywhere else they could consider.

        Sailing on that coastline sounds pretty good too!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Marilyn, yes sometimes you’ve got to do something big to help your kids and prioritise their needs, but luckily for us it’s a place we know and love anyway! I thought you’d appreciate the sailing aspect too as I know you’ve enjoyed the odd jaunt out on the sea in a lovely-looking yacht. We’ll let Nathan do his senior education there and then see where we go from there. 🙂


      • It’s fortunate you are able to make the move and that the place you are going is a place you like. If there is one single thing I miss about living here is that the coast is further away. It’s still within driving distance, but we aren’t, as we used to be, right near the coast. I love the smell of salt in the wind!


    • Thanks so much, John. It’s a great place with a peaceful and evocative atmosphere, being still out in the middle of nowhere, and the church is full of wall paintings. I love them as they’re like looking through a portal straight to the Middle Ages, and they show us so much about how they viewed the world back then. Glad you enjoyed Hailes, and I’ll look forward to catching up more with you soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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