New Abbey: Sweetheart Abbey

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The ingenious wheel window in the south transept

Located on the eastern edge of the village of New Abbey stands an impressive shrine to human and divine love. The ruin of Sweetheart Abbey sits between the grey granite bulk of Criffel and the waters of the Solway Firth. Lord John Balliol of Barnard Castle died in 1268 and his grieving widow, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, had his heart embalmed and put into an ivory casket. Dervorgilla undertook many charitable acts which included establishing the Cistercian abbey of Sweetheart, not far from her home at Buittle Castle. When she died in 1289 her body and her husband’s heart were buried there.

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View from the west front towards the presbytery

Established in 1273, the abbey was a daughter house of Dundrennan Abbey near kirkcudbright and was devoted to the worship of God. While builders were still working on the abbey church, the Wars of Independence erupted and after 50 years of bloodshed, the monastery was in a poor state of repair. The new lord of Galloway, Archibald Douglas ‘the Grim’, had the abbey repaired but thereafter little is heard of the abbey until its demise following the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Despite the prolonged wars with England, much of the abbey survives almost entire providing a lasting testament to the monastic ideal that was of such pivotal importance in the medieval age.

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The crossing tower

The site of the abbey was perfect for the Cistercian way of life with shelter provided by rising ground to the west with fertile land drained into a slow winding burn, Abbey Pow, and a neighbouring loch provided water for drinking, flushing toilets and powering corn mills. A little over a mile from the abbey was a safe natural harbour for ships bringing in building materials and other provisions and carrying away the produce of the monastery’s granges (estate centres).

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View along the nave to the west front

The abbey church at Sweetheart, in common with all Cistercian churches, was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. It was planned in the shape of a cross and divided up into different areas including the presbytery, monks’ choir, transepts and nave. A pulpitum (timber screen) to the west of the central crossing divided the long church into two with the presbytery and monks’ choir to the east and the nave to the west. The west front and upper part of the nave were only built in the later 14th century as a result of the Wars of Independence interrupting the building schedule.

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The wheel window in the west front

The abbey would have been designed by a master mason appointed by the abbot. The builders lived in temporary wooden huts as did the monks themselves until their new home was ready. The land was cleared of granite boulders which were used to build the precinct wall, the domestic buildings and the cores of the church walls. The red sandstone for the church and for the window and door surrounds in the cloister buildings was brought from nearby quarries. Oak for the roof and fir trees for scaffolding may have been imported by sea. Although the building has beautiful stone tracery in the windows, Cistercian austerity is evident in the planning of the building. There is no triforium and the tower over the crossing was deliberately kept low in deference to a ban in 1157 on bell towers. The battlements and gables above the tower were added much later.

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Stone boss bearing the Douglas arms in the vaulting of the south transept chapel

The stone tracery in the presbytery windows demonstrates the influence of the style of Gothic architecture which developed in France in the 1230’s. The presbytery, in the east end, was the most sacred part of the church where the high altar was situated. In the vaulted ceiling of the south transept chapel (above) is a stone boss bearing two croziers in saltire together with a heart and three stars (the Douglas arms). This is evidence that the abbey church was repaired by the Douglas family after the Wars of Independence. The nave is six bays long and aisled down both sides. The phased construction of the abbey church is visible not only in the clerestory, where the two eastern windows are of a different design from the other ‘eyebrow’ windows (below), but also in the arcade where the moulded capitals on top of the two eastern pillars have simple mouldings while the four western ones have carved foliage.

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‘Eyebrow’ windows along the top of the nave

The monks who built Sweetheart Abbey were Cistercians. The order was founded in 1098 at Citeaux, near Dijon in France, by monks desiring to return to a purer observance of the monastic rule compiled by Benedict of Nursia for his monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy in around 540. The Cistercians, or ‘white monks’ as they were known from the colour of their habit, first arrived in Scotland from Rievaulx settling in Melrose in the eastern borders in 1136. Sweetheart Abbey was the last of 12 Cistercian monasteries set up in Scotland.

 

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Egglestone Abbey

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East range with Chapter House

On the southern bank of the River Tees stand the ruins of Egglestone Premonstratensian Abbey. The church and cloister was a small narrow building and was first constructed in 1195-1225. In circa 1250, the presbytery was rebuilt and the nave enlarged. The north and west walls of the nave are the only surviving parts of the original church.

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The Abbey was founded between 1195 – 1198, by the de Multon family, for Premonstratensian canons and was constructed of squared stone and rubble. The cruciform plan church almost lost its Abbey status as a result of the poverty suffered by the canons throughout their history. Known as ‘white monks’, the Canons undertook preaching and pastoral work in the region but followed the Cistercian rule of austerity.

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East end of the 13th century church

The five light east window (above) consists of four tall straight moulded mullions with no tracery.

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After the Dissolution in 1538, the north and east ranges were converted to a manorial hall by Robert Strelley. Dating to the mid 16th century, the east range of the cloister (above) was of three storeys and features a first floor fireplace with a flat pointed head with the remains of a warming house fireplace on the ground floor.

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East range groin-vaulted rere-dorter undercroft

The Abbey was sold in 1770 to John Morritt of Rokeby Hall with his descendant placing the ruins in state guardianship in 1925.

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The ruins of Egglestone Abbey are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed.

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Barrow in Furness: Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey was founded in 1127 by monks belonging to the Savigniac Order. The Savigniac Order was part of the great monastic reform movement which spread throughout Europe during the 12th century. Savigniac abbeys followed the Benedictine layout and were self contained complexes for self sufficient communities. The church at Furness had an open plan with side chapels accessed through arches within the presbytery walls. Excavations at Furness have revealed the 900 year old foundations of the Savigniac presbytery and confirm that the east end was apsidal, which was normal for Savigniac church architecture.

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Constructed of red sandstone, the abbey became part of the Cistercian Order in 1147. The Cistercian Order was the monastic powerhouse of the Middle Ages and while both orders shared similar spiritual ideals, the Cistercians were more austere which led to major architectural differences. The Cistercians demolished most of the east end of the church including the transepts and presbytery rebuilding it in a much plainer style.

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The church was rebuilt with Early Gothic style pointed arches and each of the transepts having three chapels. The church decoration was sparse in comparison with the richly decorative Savigniac architecture. The remains of the abbey include the east end and west tower of the church, cloister buildings and ornately decorated chapter house. Furness Abbey is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Bury St Edmunds: Abbey of St Edmund West Front

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The medieval ruins of the Abbey of St Edmund date to the 11th and 12th centuries. Constructed of flint rubble, the houses inserted into the west front during the 18th century lay derelict requiring a major intervention to make them habitable once again.

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Designated as a Building at Risk, English Heritage and St Edmundsbury Borough Council deliberated to sensitively achieve the conservation and conversion of the structure into five new high-quality dwellings.

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Retaining as much of the fabric as possible, the building is once again fully inhabited.

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Rear of west front

New rear extensions were built into the remaining fabric of the Abbey structure (above)

Bury St Edmunds: Abbey Gate & Gatehouse

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The great gate of the Abbey of St Edmund was rebuilt between 1327 – 1353. Constructed of Barnack stone, the gate is richly decorated with a segmental entrance arch. The west facade (above) features many niches which once would have contained statues. The battlemented exterior is of two storeys and details six pointed stars in the circular stone niches.

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The gate consists of two chambers with 17th century timber gates which separate them. The great gate is Grade I Listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.