Buckfast Abbey, Devon: Late Nineteenth-Century Archaeology and the Recreation of the Monastic Past
Ordinary Meeting of Fellows (Fellows and Guests Only)
Lecture by Dr Roderick O’Donnell FSA and Dr David Robinson FSA
Buckfast Abbey celebrates its millennial year in 2018. The full history of this Devon monastic site is nothing short of remarkable, and yet the details are perhaps not widely appreciated. Originally a late Anglo-Saxon foundation, it was established for the Benedictines in 1018. King Stephen gifted it to the fledgling Savigniac congregation in 1136. Together with all other Savigniac houses, it was absorbed into the Cistercian order in 1147. After the suppression in 1539 the site was all but abandoned, with only minor elements of the monastery pressed into secular use.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the abbey site was acquired by Samuel Berry, a mill owner. He seems to have levelled all remaining traces of the abbey church and much of the monastery, building a compact Gothic mansion over the site of the former west range. In 1872 it was sold to Dr James Gale, who in turn chose to offer it for sale with the stipulation that the site should ‘again come into the hands of the Catholic Church’. In 1882, the property was purchased by Benedictines who had been exiled from France two years earlier.
The refoundation and rebuilding of Buckfast is one of the most moving stories of the nineteenth-century Catholic Revival, not just in Great Britain but across Europe as a whole. It is an heroic tale, fully in keeping with the twists, turns, hardships and achievements found in some of the more colourful medieval foundation narratives. Of particular interest to Fellows may be the discovery and excavation of the medieval foundations by the monks themselves. No less significant was the subsequent decision by the community and its appointed architect, F. A. Walters FSA (1849−1931), to build directly over the Cistercian footprint.
Nine of our Fellows have contributed to Buckfast Abbey: History, Art and Architecture, edited by Peter Beacham FSA, (London 2017). This lecture is given by two of them. David Robinson will look in detail at the early archaeological work and the insights it provides into the nature of Cistercian Buckfast. Roderick O’Donnell will then consider Walters’s new abbey church and cloister buildings. For the Catholic architect, this was the opportunity to achieve what A. W. Pugin had failed to do: namely to produce a resurrection of the Benedictine monastic past.
Image Credit: "Buckfast Abbey: Abbey Church and East Cloister Range from South East", © and courtesy of David Robinson FSA.