VISIT | The Church that once was an Abbey - Dore Abbey at Abbeydore | Herefordshire
Where Religion Meets Life
An ancient abbey in wildest Herefordshire that became something more...
Discover a church set in an abbey - it takes some thinking through!
Beautiful. Enchanting. Ancient. Enthralling. Pick a word when you wander inside
"...this extra-ordinary abbey with its amazing history..."
There is no place like this one. Dore Abbey in west Herefordshire is probably a building that shouldn’t exist. This place is special. It really shouldn’t be. But for a man with a wish and a conscience it probably wouldn’t. But let’s begin at the beginning...
Dore Abbey is in the village of Abbeydore in Herefordshire. Its tucked away in the lee of the Black Mountains and in the once troubled border territory where Wales meets England. To appreciate this architectural gem, you must go back to a different time. See if you can draw upon your history lessons from back in the day, to the days of the Norman conquest, the troublesome Celts making a nuisance to its new Norman neighbours and the days when religion trumped all.
When poor old Harold Godwinson lost the Battle of Hastings in 1066 thanks to some poor strategy and an arrow that went somewhere it shouldn’t, Guillaume, Duc de Normande became King of England – the English would term him William the Conqueror. And thus began the Norman Conquest.
As William parcelled up England for his knights, gifting them lands and patronages, the many manifestations of the church including monks and nuns from orders across mainland Europe were tempted by the opportunities of these new lands.
Step forward the monks of Morimond from France – a Cistercian order looking for new horizons and expansion into mainland Britain. In 1147, Robert Fitzharold, Lord of Ewias founded a new Cistercian Abbey at Abbeydore and according to legend, bumped into the Bishop of Morimond at one of the Crusades into the Holy Land who offered up some of his monks. How kind!
The Abbey was sited in a good position with protection from several Norman castles at White Castle, Longtown, Grosmont, Raglan and Dorstone. Like many other Cistercian abbeys, they prospered in these medieval years from wool profits and tithe ‘donations’. The church was singular in terms of its power, its ultimate power over Kings and countries. The wool that was produced on the Dore Abbey estate was particularly valued and sold for high value on the continent. Life was good. The Abbey prospered and expanded.
Now with every story of success, there comes a turning point. And for every religious building and every religious order in England, that moment happened when King Henry VIII decided that one woman was not enough.
It is more widely known as the Reformation – a period of religious reform and change, when Henry VIII demanded a divorce from the Catholic princess he had married, Catherine of Aragon and permission to re-marry his new beloved Anne Boleyn. Because let’s face it, if you’re a King you need a male heir and if you don’t get one, you want someone who will give you one. The only person able to award such a divorce was the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic church. And unfortunately he wasn’t in the mood to award such a divorce – for fear of upsetting the very Catholic nation of Aragon on the Spanish mainland and because well, Henry’s reasoning wasn’t entirely convincing (there was a dead older brother, a proof of consummation and other accusations) but all trying to besmirch the character and good name of his then wife Catherine.
Now how then does this affect little old Dore Abbey? Well what happens when a King doesn’t get his way – well, he takes control! There was a ‘schism’ in the church – and Henry named himself Head of the Church of England. And a massive onslaught against the very Catholic institutions – such as the monasteries, nunneries, churches and abbeys all making money for the Catholic church. Henry’s troops were ruthless in their closure and subsequent stripping of all wealth and acquisitions. It was called the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It meant that for places like Tintern Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey and poor old Dore here in Herefordshire – the end was nigh.
The monks came and went. Most went back to continental Europe. Which left the buildings. Most like Tintern and others fell into disrepair and ruin. The old stone buildings began to be taken down as locals used the stone for their own buildings and housing. Piece by piece – these once wealthy and impressive ecclesiastical buildings became broken and robbed away.
Dore Abbey was dissolved in 1536 and the lands and buildings were purchased from the Crown by local nobility and landowners – the Scudamore; specifically John Scudamore. And nothing further was done to the former abbey. It broke apart…
Fast forward just over one hundred years and step forward the great grandson of John Scudamore – his namesake John, the 1st Viscount Scudamore. He developed a strong relationship with William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Under his counsel, John became convinced that God was punishing the family, specifically by the absence of a healthy living son, because of the acquisition and treatment of the former Dore Abbey by his family after the Dissolution.
The Scudamores made money from the former abbey lands and belongings. Viscount Scudamore decided to act. He began by restoring part of the old building for use as a religious building once more. The eastern end was restored, the formerly medieval monastic church became once more a parish church. And Abbeydore once more had a functioning religious building. By 1634, it was re-consecrated – and had stained glass windows. Some of its former belongings were found scattered across the local area such as the altar found in a local barn. Other essential ornaments were purchased and blessed. The Scudamore family had paid back to God what had been taken away under Henry VIII. Poor old William Laud would unfortunately go on to be put on trial and executed during the English Civil War period in the execution of Charles I and the hunt for those seen as heretical and Catholic. But for Dore Abbey – it may not have been what it was once was, but at least it was back as a church.
There were more restorations of the building in the 18th and late 19th century with modest alteration and refurbishments. But nothing of the architectural splendour of before. Indeed, the chapterhouse at Dore has the only twelve-sided example in the entire country (Margam Abbey’s chapterhouse fell into disrepair in the 18th century). Roland Paul, architect and surveyor at the turn of the twentieth century tracked the extent of most of the former abbey buildings and became so enamoured with the place that he got married at Dore Abbey to a local girl. Under his watch and the ongoing parish support which followed its restoration, several hundreds of pounds was spent on restoration and new items including a stained glass window and lectern; some gifted from local citizens.
In 1934 there was even a special commemorative event for the 300th anniversary of the re-opening of Dore Abbey. A special service was held, and prayers and events were held in the village at Abbeydore. They even used some of the original prayers and parts of the service from the original re-opening on March 22nd 1634.
But of course there is one more twist to the story of this amazing place. By 1964, Dore Abbey had become a venue for the Abbeydore Festival. World renowned classical musicians and singers visited this quiet valley to sing in the church that was once an abbey. The acoustics of the magnificent space echoed with the masters of the age. The Abbey made newspaper headlines when former Soviet and world acclaimed pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy performed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at Dore Abbey in 1967. The following year was even more peculiar – when plain clothes policemen had to be drafted into the audience and surrounds due to potential political protests about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 when world famous Soviet cellist Mtasislav Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, the soprano performed. It seems entirely incredible to believe this tiny place needed that kind of police support…
But these musicians were and remain historically global classical superstars. It must have been standing room only in this reformed abbey. Lord knows what the farmers thought.
Those days have possibly come and gone, and although performers do come and sing or play, Dore Abbey it seems needs that little bit more light shone upon it.
Simply speaking, Dore Abbey is the only Cistercian Abbey used for ‘divine service’ in this country. How many abbeys were brought back into service after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century? Compare if you will with the relatively close Tintern or Llanthony abbeys – both now lie in partial ruin. But Dore Abbey remains – not perhaps half the abbey it was, but still a functioning religious place of worship. And more significantly with the echo of the abbey that it once was.
So after you wander through the lych gate, poddle down the path and enter into the building – see this place for that which it was and that which it is now. Beloved by the local community but who are now laden with the responsibility of a church that is/was/remains an abbey in size, status and character. It is a very special place. We must all make sure that Dore Abbey remains for another thousand years. It is that special.
Don’t just take my word for it – go stand in the centre of this ‘church’ and appreciate the majesty that it holds on to; and then imagine the melodies of a piano or a cello splendid in these surrounds. Would you rather Dore Abbey be more like Tintern? Roofless and still? Join those who love this place and fight to keep it standing and sealed tight.
Prove you’re better than a King.
Directions and Map |
Find the church at Abbeydore on the road through the village of Abbeydore signed Dore Abbey in west Herefordshire in the lee of the Black Mountains