Figure 1: Ruins of the north wall of west range at Dunkeswell Abbey, East Devon. Church of 1842 behind.

Nestling in a valley of the Blackdown Hills, on the banks of the River Madford, are the enigmatic remains of Dunkeswell Abbey. Only fragments are left of the abbey complex. On the site of the northern end of where the cloisters stood is a mid-19th C church. At first glance one could be mistaken for thinking this abbey was just a small house established by the Cistercians in the early 13th C. However, this was not the case. The complex of buildings that comprised the religious house covered 6 acres.

The monastic settlement was surrounded by the River Madford (a tributary of the River Culm) and 2 streams. The entranceway was safeguarded by 2 gatehouses – and outer and inner one. Nearby what would have been the outer gatehouse (now gone) are the remains of fishponds, which provided protein for the mainly meat-free diet of the community.


Figure 2: Ruins of late 15th C/early 16th C inner Abbey gatehouse (west facing). Abbey Cottage to the right incorporates the southern side of the gatehouse. The bush in the picture is where the opening to the gate-passage would have stood. The gatehouse interior would have been entered through doorways either side of the gate passage. Although, there are remains of a blocked-in doorway on the north wall. Scar remains of the monastic precinct wall are visible on the north-west corner.

Figure 3: The remains of a moulded jam and springing of the gateway arch – possibly Ham stone?

Figure 4: Blocked 2-light window with cinquefoil tracery and sunken spandrels on the east side of the gatehouse.

Figure 5: Doorways on the ground and first floors. Behind can be seen a rising wall, which is the remains of a newel stair turret.

Figure 6: Fireplace in the northern wall of the gatehouse. The gatehouse is built of local chert and flint with Beer ashlar detail.


























The monastic buildings compromised of the modular elements favoured by the Cistercians of a large cruciform church, cloisters, chapter house, sacristy, library, refectory, etc. There are existing remains of the west range (see Figure 1). The west range ran along the western side of the cloister. This range starts in what is now the church grounds. In the field lying much further to the south can be seen further wall remains of the same range. The overall length of the west range was 42m by 8.2m wide. In keeping with other Cistercian abbeys, the west range extended to the south cloister and south range.

There survives in the west range the remains of a large, ground-floor fireplace and chimney. The ground floor was the cellarer’s stores and the first floor the lay brothers’ dorter (dormitory). It is curious that a fireplace was put in the ground-floor of this range. It was probably was used for more than just storage.

Figure 7: Remains of southern end of the western range in a neighbouring farm.


The Cistercians came to England in 1128. In 1098 the order had been founded with the establishment of Citeaux Abbey, near Dijon in eastern France. It is from Citeaux that the order gets the name ‘Cistercian’ (French: Cistercien from the Latin for Citeaux: Cistercium).

In the spirit of monastic reform, the Cistercians wanted to break away from the developments in the established Benedictine Order. This was particularly in response to the influential Benedictine Abbey of Cluny. The Cistercians sought to live a life dedicated to the simplicity and strict observance of the Benedictine rule. They distinguished themselves by wearing a white habit, or rather un-dyed, as opposed to the Benedictines black habit.

The order spread a network of houses across Europe. In England, the first house founded was Waverley (near Farnham in Surrey) in 1128. This ‘motherhouse’ founded ‘daughter houses’, such as Forde Abbey in Dorset (circa 1141). The method of founding an abbey was to send 12 monks to find an appropriate remote site and establish a new community. From Forde, 12 monks were selected, headed by a workman monk called Gregory to build the abbey at Dunkeswell. The abbey was dedicated to St. Mary.

Dunkeswell had a secular founder, who endowed the monastery, namely Lord William Brewer. He had a distinguished and acquisitive career in royal service during the reign of King John. As well as being a ruthless administrator and justice, he was the sheriff of a significant number of counties, sometimes holding the office for several at once.

He founded and endowed 3 religious houses:

1196    Torre, Devon – a Premonstratensian house

1201    Mottisfont, Hampshire – an Augustinian house

1201    Dunkeswell, Devon – a Cistercian house

It was at Dunkeswell that he chose to retire as a lay brother in 1224 and died 2 years later. He was buried before the high altar. Today, at the back of the Victorian church is an empty stone tomb, possibly belonging to him.

According to John Leland, who traversed the West Country circa 1535 to 1543, Brewer’s wife was buried at Mottisfont Priory.

His son, William (d. 1232) is buried at Torre Abbey.


The strict life of the Cistercians meant following a daily routine of prayer, study and manual labour. Their architecture reflected their virtue of austerity – modular, regular and relatively plain. The monastic site plan was utilitarian and ordered. The overall design within the monastic precinct was to accommodate the needs of the religious brothers and their activities. The other main function was to ensure the self-sufficiency of the abbey. This included accommodating the lay brothers nearby the religious brothers in order to ensure the practical running of the monastery and the farms around. Lay brothers worked in and around the abbey, employed in roles such as labourers, masons, carpenters, ploughmen, dairymen and shepherds.

There is a haunting beauty in the regulated structure of Cistercian architecture. The ruins of the Cistercian abbeys of Tintern in Wales, Rievaulx and Fountains in North Yorkshire are particularly spectacular. High regular gothic-arch windows and standardised tall columns that draw the eye upwards. The austere, aesthetic monks did not want unnecessary ornament and the buildings were plain. The buildings were grouped around the church and cloisters. Their first-floor dormitory had night stairs to lead them into the church for the Benedictine observance of the night canonical hours. The chapter house was nearby, situated in the east of their complex.

It did take some experimentation before the Cistercians got their building practices in place in Britain. At Fountains Abbey excavations of the south transept of the great church show that it was the 3rd church to be constructed on the site – this is the church which still stands in part today. This church is thought to date from the late 1130s and the Cistercians first settled there in 1132. In 1133 the abbey’s chronicle records that they sought help from Bernard of Clairveaux – he was responsible for the implementation and spread of the Cistercian Order, which is why they are sometimes called Bernardines. He sent Fountains an experienced monk, Geoffrey d’Ainai, to instruct them in Cistercian manners which included the correct form of building. The Cistercians were building at a time when Gothic architecture was beginning to arise in Europe. The first ambitious building to incorporate all the elements of gothic architecture was the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris, built by Abbot Suger and his innovative mason and dates from the early-1140s. The Cistercian buildings of the medieval period were primarily built in Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

Figure 8: Looking out from the current churchyard – this large field once contained abbey buildings. The abbey was dissolved in 1539. Soon after the abbey buildings were sold for salvage. Dunkeswell is now a scheduled monument.

It was important to the Cistercians to be self-sufficient as they chose remote places for their foundations. They became specialists in water engineering, forest management and metallurgy. Wood, metal, stone and the use of water for power were the key resources for the building of an abbey. At Dunkeswell there is evidence of iron smelting. The ore would have come from open-cast pits in the Blackdown Hills. Wood from the hills would have provided the needed charcoal for smelting.

Whilst the Cistercians sought seclusion in remote sites to establish their foundation, they soon became the focus point for the surrounding area. Their presence and initiative established a network of parish churches, grange farms, tenant villages, almshouses and hospitals. Their cloister garden was the physic garden for plants with medicinal qualities. The Cistercian’s medical knowledge and medicines may not have been just restricted to the abbey and could have been an important support for the locals.


Set into the floor, near the altar, of the Victorian Church are some wonderful medieval tiles. A recent river walk by the team at Dunkeswell has brought to light remains of discarded tiles. It is possible that tile-making was part of the industry at Dunkeswell.

Figure 9: Decorative medieval floor tiles – notice the Elephant and Castle, symbolising strength. In 1255 Louis IX of France gave Henry III of England an elephant for his menagerie at the Tower of London. Matthew Paris’s drawing of this elephant appears in his bestiary. At Exeter Cathedral there is a misericord of an elephant (circa before 1279).

I visited Dunkeswell Abbey as part of the Heritage Open Days weekend in September 2019. Cat, Marie and the team gave us a welcoming and informative tour of the abbey grounds. They brought to life what a large powerhouse Dunkeswell must have been. At the centre was the secluded, peaceful monastic abbey complex where monks went about their structured day, following the Benedictine rule. This, however, would have been surrounded by a hive of activity with forest management, charcoal burning, mining, metal working, carpentry, building, tilemaking, waterwheels, mills, agriculture, fishponds, and animal husbandry.

As I sat in the September sunshine enjoying tea and cake, I contemplated the significance of this site. I really got an impression of the innovation and energy the Cistercians brought with them. Whilst there are only fragments left today, this was once a substantial monastic complex.


A Short History of Dunkeswell Abbey (Dunkeswell Abbey)

Cassidy, Richard and Michael Clasby, Matthew Paris and Henry III’s elephant <> [accessed 15 September 2019]

The Chambers Dictionary (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1999)

Chandler, John, John Leland’s Itinerary: Travels in Tudor England (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1993), p. 423

Chisholm, Hugh, ed., “Cistercians“,  Encyclopædia Britannica6 (11th ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), p. 393

Church, S. D., ‘Brewer [Briwerre], William (d.1226)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, <> [accessed 15 September 2017]

Coppack, Glyn, Abbeys & Priories (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2009)

‘Dunkeswell Abbey’, Historic England List Entry 1009303, (1948), <> [accessed 14 September 2019]

‘Ruins of Dunkeswell Abbey Gatehouse’, Historic England List Entry 1098253,(1955), <>[accessed 14 September 2019]