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History of Tavistock Abbey in Devon
Edited by David Nash Ford


Ancient Devon Foundation

Abbey Ruins and Parish Church at Tavistock

Ordgar, Earl of Devon, is the reputed founder of this Abbey, about AD 960, and is so described by the medieval historian, William of Malmesbury. However, an extract from an old chartulary printed in the Monasticon, has a much longer tale to tell of his son, Ordulph. Going out of doors, one night, to pray, as was his custom, Ordulph saw a brilliant column of light in the sky. It moved him to great fear. Later, when he returned to bed and slept, he saw a vision of an angel, in white, who bade him search out the place where the pillar of light had stood - he would find it marked out in a square by four rods - and there build a chapel to the four Evangelists. Ordulph told his wife of the vision; but (as so often), it had to be repeated a second, and a third, time before he took any action. When he did, however, he founded, not only a chapel, but a large monastery.

In AD 981, its liberties were confirmed by Ordulph's uncle, King Aethelred, and the names of Dunstan, Oswald and Aethelwold appear on its charter. Ordulph and his wife bestowed numerous manors on their foundation, that of Tavistock included. He was a man of enormous strength and stature. Great bones, traditionally his, are still shown in the parish church of Tavistock and William of Malmesbury has a story of Ordulph breaking down a heavily barred gate with part of the adjacent wall, apparently without effort. He is also said to have been able to and stride across a river of ten feet wide. William also tells us that the saint translated to Tavistock at this time, was a Bishop Rumon, whose written life was lost until quite recent years. Leland saw it at Tavistock and records that he came to Britain from Ireland and his bones were translated to Tavistock by Ordgar. Baring-Gould & Fisher have little doubt that he is to be identified with St. Ronan of Locronan in Brittany. He rested in a beautiful shrine in the abbey and wrought many a miracle until removed at the Reformation. 

Amongst other benefactors, King Aethelred was a considerable one to his nephew's establishment and the institution became very wealthy and flourishing. However, in AD 997, the Danes, sailing round Land's End, entered the mouth of the Tamar, and, proceeding a considerable distance up that river, marched to Tavistock; where, after having spoiled the monastery, they burnt it to the ground and carried off the plunder to their ships.

The Abbey was, shortly after this devastation, rebuilt and soon became more flourishing than ever, additional grants and immunities having been given by various persons. Lefing, or Living, Bishop of Worcester, is mentioned by Speed as "a special benefactor." King Henry I granted, to the Abbot, the jurisdiction and whole hundred of Tavistock, together with the privilege of a weekly market and a fair, once a year for three days. In the succession of Abbots, several were learned men and, soon after the introduction of the art of printing into England, there was established, in the Abbey, a press from which many books were issued - only the second set up in the whole country. The best-known production is perhaps Walton's English version of Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy," printed in 1525 by Dan Thomas Rychard, a monk of the house. Such works are now extremely rare. Richard Barham, the thirty-fifth Abbot, obtained from Henry VIII, in 1513, the privilege of sitting in the House of Lords; or, in other words, became a mitred abbot. This, he probably gained by purchase, in order to be revenged upon Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter, with whom he had great disputes and finally caused to be excommunicated. In 1539, John Peryn, the thirty-sixth and last Abbot, surrendered his monastery on being allowed the sum of 100 per annum for life. The abbey lands were granted, by Henry VIII, to John, Lord Russell, whose descendant, the Duke of Bedford, is now owner of its site and ruins. The revenues of the Abbey were valued at the Suppression at the yearly rent of 902 5s 7d; but it must be observed that the Abbots and Priors, foreseeing the impending storm, set the yearly rents very low and the fines very high, so that they might have sufficient support if expelled from their houses.

Of the church, William of Worcester tells us that it measured 126 of his steps and the eastern Lady Chapel 36 more. Reckoning the step at 19 inches, this works out at 2,561 feet. There were aisles, but nothing is said of transepts. It stood in the present churchyard, just south of the parish church, and the last substantial remains are said to have been pulled down about 1670. 

Of the Abbey buildings Browne Willis, in the early eighteenth century, tells us something. After saying that the church has gone, he continues, "The kitchen, which was left standing of late years, though now raised to the foundation, was a large square room, open to the roof, which was composed of elegant workmanship. The chapter-house is likewise ruined. It was a pile of great beauty, built as round as can possibly be worked with a compass; and yet the dimensions thereof were large, there being thirty-six seats in the inside, wrought out in the walls, all arched overhead with curious carved stones. The Refectory with several of the offices is still standing, being of great length, breadth and height. The 'Saxon School' .. is a large building, as is the area where the cloisters stood, which were 45 paces or yards in length, the east side of which opened into the chapter-house. . . . In two arches on the north side of the cloisters are one or two broken monuments, one of which, tradition says, belonged to the founder."

Archbishop Parker, about 1574, apparently originated the myth that there was, before the Reformation, a school of Anglo-Saxons at the Abbey (he calls it a nunnery, coenobium monialium). The statement was seized upon by writer after writer and came to be a commonplace of historians. There is no foundation for it at all. The building generally, and erroneously, referred to as the 'Saxon School' and the Chapter House, nearby, were demolished in 1736 and a house for the Duke of Bedford's steward built on the site. 

The standing remains consist of the north-east angle of the cloister in the churchyard (sometimes said to be a part of the north wall of the church and called 'Ordulph's Tomb'); two gate houses, west and east, the western one called Betty Grimbal's tower; a fine pinnacled porch and the frater, in a much restored condition and converted into a unitarian chapel. Further south, running along the river, is a portion of the precinct walls and a tower called the Still-tower. At the northern extremity of the precinct, behind a row of houses on the east side of Market Street, is a building, in private hands, which was inside the precinct and is reputed to have been one of the monastic buildings.

Edited from John Timbs & Alexander Gunn's "Abbeys, Castles & Ancient Halls of England & Wales" (1872) and MR James' "Abbeys" (1925)  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2001, LLC