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Cistercian Abbeys: STANLEY

Name: STANLEY Location: nr Chippenham County: Wiltshire
Foundation: 1151 Mother house: Quarr
Relocation: 1154 Founder: Empress Matilda
Dissolution: 1536 Prominent members:
Access: Private property – access subject to permission

The abbey was originally founded by the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I (1100-1135), and her chamberlain, Drogo. In 1151 they gave to the monks of Quarr some land at Loxwell, in the hills of Pewsham in Wiltshire, for the foundation of a new abbey.(1) In its early days the abbey was called ‘St. Mary of Downfront’, or just ‘Downfront’, a name derived from Drogo’s fount or spring that was included in the initial endowment. Between 1151 and 1154, the Empress’s son, Henry Duke of Normandy, added some gifts to his mothers’ endowment and when he became king of England in 1154 he gave the monks some important estates.(2) After only three years at Loxwell the community moved a mile and a half to Stanley, situated on the south bank of the River Marden, just within Pewsham forest. This site offered the monks greater scope for the laying out of a monastic precinct on a large scale.(3) Despite this early move, the abbey was known as Downfront for many years and the sheriffs knew the brethren for at least fifty years as ‘the monks of Chippenham in Locheswella’. Things were further complicated by the fact that Stanley Abbey was constantly confused with the abbey of Stoneleigh, in Warwickshire.(4) The move to Stanley brought more practical problems. It was difficult to obtain a supply of fresh drinking water at the new site and it was not until 1214, when Abbot Thomas Calstone completed an aqueduct running down to Stanley from the old source at Loxwell, that the problem was finally resolved.(5)

Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the abbey grew in wealth and status and the buildings erected at this time appear to have been for twenty-four monks and forty lay-brothers.(6) By the early fourteenth century the abbey held land in many parts of Wiltshire, Somerset, Berkshire and Gloucestershire and had established a daughter-house at Graiguenamanagh in Ireland.(7) The monks of Stanley Abbey not only acquired wealth, but attained some social and political prominence. In October 1200 Abbot Nicholas entertained King John and in 1280 King Edward I gave stone to the abbey for a chamber to be built for his own use. According to the abbey chronicle he made use of his chamber in the spring of 1282. Princess Mary, the bishop of Salisbury and Edward II were all reported to have stayed at the abbey during the first years of the fourteenth century. During the Interdict (1208-1214) the abbot, Thomas of Calstone, attended the meeting of King John and the Cistercian abbots at York in 1210. Stanley was chosen to store some of the king’s jewels, which were given back to the king in July 1215. Until the end of the thirteenth century the abbot of Stanley was more or less a regular attendant at the Cistercian General Chapter. The abbot was also summoned to the early English parliaments; in 1311-17 he was called five times to Westminster, York or Lincoln and in 1322 he was summoned to the provincial council in Lincoln.(8)

The abbey suffered some serious economic set backs during the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In 1212 a fire destroyed the twelfth-century church, and may have engulfed large parts of the cloister buildings. It was not until 1266 that repairs were completed.(9) After the fall of the Despensers the abbey was raided by the earl of Hereford and the Mortimers, who took with them £1000 in money and the equivalent in goods. From 1317 until the mid –fifteenth century the abbey was afflicted by poverty: its estates were diminishing in value; wool which it exported was rated comparatively low in quality; and evidence suggests that the abbey was mainly engaged in mixed farming for small profits.(10) Stanley also had the added burden of providing for the maintenance of retired royal servants, who were sent to the abbey in an almost unbroken succession.(11) At the time of the Dissolution the abbey had a net annual income of little more than £177 and a community of nine monks and a novice.(12) The abbey was dissolved with the smaller monasteries in 1536 and the site was bought by Sir Edward Baynton. Sir Edward destroyed much of the abbey to provide materials for the construction of his manor at Bromham. Eventually all the monastic buildings were destroyed and the foundations extensively robbed out, leaving nothing to be seen above ground. The site is still of particular interest because of the remaining earthworks which extend over an area of at least twenty-eight acres and denote the entire monastic precinct. The site is on private property although access may be obtained from its owners at Old Abbey Farm.