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The History of Cleeve Abbey in Somerset
by Edward Foord


Cistercians in Somerset

To Washford, six miles from Minehead, on the road to Taunton, are the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Cleeve, situated in a beautiful valley which well deserves its monkish title of Vallis Florida - the Valley of Flowers. Whatever opinions may otherwise be entertained concerning the monks of the rule of Citeaux, it cannot be denied that they had a "genius for selecting beauty spots". Cleeve is no exception to the general rule of Cistercian houses. Its situation is as fine as those of the majority of its fellows, though it cannot compare with that of Tintern or of Fountains.

Cleeve Abbey has been called the ecclesiastical gem of the district - which is perhaps saying very little, for if England be mapped into twenty-mile squares very few of them will be found devoid of a jewel of this description. The true interest of Cleeve is that it has preserved its domestic buildings almost intact, whereas, in the majority of English monasteries, the church is the principal surviving feature and the domestic portions are fragmentary or non-existent. At Cleeve, it is the church which has vanished.

The house was founded between 1186 and 1191 by William de Roumare, grandson of a baron of the same name who played a considerable part in Anglo-Norman history under Henry I and King Stephen. As William III de Roumare died before 1198, the building of the abbey was probably begun some years earlier. It was founded as a prebend of the famous Norman Abbey of Bec but, as the distance made it difficult for the latter effectively to control it, the Somersetshire house was leased to the Cistercians in return for an annual rent of forty marks.

Very little is known of its history, since it claimed exemption from episcopal visitation. The first abbot was a certain Ralph, who brought with him twelve monks from the Cistercian house of Reresby. It was never a large or wealthy house. The largest known number of monks was twenty-eight. At the Dissolution, there were only seventeen and its yearly rental was 155. It may, at one time, have been richer, for its last two abbots were extravagant and seem to have depleted their resources by making presents in order to gain the support of the local gentry. Certainly, this poor little abbey had the good-will of its neighbours, for it is on record that they were very anxious to avert its dissolution, urging, amongst other things, that there were in it, seventeen priests of honest life who kept hospitality. Among these seventeen was John Hooper, afterwards the extreme Protestant Bishop of Gloucester. The abbey was granted to Robert, Earl of Sussex, and by him or his successors the church was destroyed for the value of its materials; but the domestic buildings survived and were used as the outbuildings of a farm. Their roofs, for obvious reasons, were not demolished and the result is that they have been wonderfully well preserved. They are now carefully maintained by English Heritage and furnish an almost unsurpassed example of the domestic portion of a monastery.

Edited from Edward Foord's "Wells, Glastonbury & Cleeve" (1925)

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