Buckland Abbey

Has been described as a Possible Fortified Ecclesiastical site

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameBuckland Abbey
Alternative NamesBuckelond
Historic CountryDevonshire
Modern AuthorityDevon
1974 AuthorityDevon
Civil ParishBuckland Monachorum

Buckland Abbey was one of the last Cistercian houses to be founded in England and it was also the most westerly. The Great Barn is one of the largest medieval barns remaining in the country. The presence of quarries from which stone was derived for the construction of the abbey is also an unusual feature. The abbey was converted into an Elizabethan mansion by Sir Richard Grenville and subsequently became the home of Sir Francis Drake, two important figures in the history of Elizabethan England who have acquired an heroic and legendary national identity. Drake also has international historical connections. Grenville's adaptation of the abbey church into a dwelling, rather than the more usual adaptation of part of a claustral range, is of interest. In particular, the conversion of the presbytery, the most sacred part of the abbey, into a serving area between the hall and kitchens, demonstrates an aggressive invasion of the secular into a sacred space which gives an insight into the emergence and growth of rationalism and sectarianism following the Reformation, and Grenville's understanding and interpretation of these trends in thought.

The monument includes much of the surviving remains of Buckland Abbey which are situated between the village of Buckland Monachorum and the hamlet of Milton Combe on the eastern side of the valley of the River Tavy some six kilometers above its confluence with the Tamar. It lies within a small sheltered cleave on the south side of a small tributary stream of the Tavy, on ground sloping down to the north west. The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of an abbey of the Cistercian Order in occupation from c.1278 until 1539. The abbey conforms to the traditional monastic plan in which a church and three ranges of buildings were grouped around the central open square court of the cloister, with ancillary buildings farther from the nucleus

The visible remains exist as a number of adapted structures, consisting of substantial parts of the abbey church incorporated into a later mansion, part of the cloister, a barn, a farm building (guesthouse), part of the abbot's lodgings incorporated into a later structure, part of a precinct wall, and two main areas of earthworks. The buried remains are extensive and include the claustral ranges, graveyard, a gatehouse, buildings forming the home farm, and the water management system. The walls are constructed of random rubble utilising shillet, with the moulded stone and most quoins in granite. In general the buildings were terraced into the higher ground to the south east. The abbey church is of late 13th-early 14th century date, of cruciform plan, aligned ENE-WSW. The most substantial remains are those of the tower over the crossing which forms the focal point of the later mansion and survives to a height of over 18m beneath a modified parapet. The tower retains the moulded piers and arches of the crossing incorporated into its walls. Those of the nave, chancel and north transept are visible within the mansion, and those of the south transept form a decorative feature in the external wall face. The chasing of the high pitched roof lines of the transepts are visible in the wall faces. The walls of the nave and presbytery exist almost to roof height with the remains of some window arches and windows incorporated into the later structure. The transepts were each of two bays, aisled on their east sides to contain two chapels. In the southern chapel of the north transept the ribbed vaulted ceiling remains intact. The existing remains of the church are about 37.6m in length, with a width across the transepts of 28m. The nave and presbytery were 10.1m in width, and were apparently unaisled. The presbytery had two bays, and retains the remains of the east window, with the springing for the vaulted ceiling visible on the second floor of the mansion. The area of the high altar was excavated early in the 20th century. The length of the existing nave is 17.9m, with four bays, although the dimensions of the cloister indicate that the original nave may have been longer by two or three bays. The monastic graveyard was sited to the south west of the abbey church; five burials were revealed in this area in 1993 during work to improve drainage. The cloister stood to the north of the church and was about 30m square, terraced into the natural ground slope. The south wall of the north range of the cloister acted as a retaining wall and has been incorporated into the later property boundary. The medieval wall is some 30m in length and stands to a height of 3.3m. The 16m length forming the eastern half includes five blocked windows with wide splays on the inside. The north face of this section has an inset for a floor below the windows, and beneath that includes sections of six arches. It appears that due to the ground slope, access into this range from the cloister would have been, unusually, at first floor level. Excavations in 1984 on the north side of the west end of the wall revealed a complex sequence of medieval activity in the form of floor levels and wall footings. The north range would have contained the refectory (dining hall) and kitchens. In the traditional Cistercian layout the refectory was positioned with its long axis at right-angles to the north range so that it would have projected from the cloister. Some 20m north of the existing wall of the cloister is the Cider House, an extensively modernised dwelling which includes some medieval features in its southern end. The position of this building suggests that it probably incorporates the northern end of the refectory. To the east of the Cider House stands a modernised building incorporating part of the abbot's lodgings in the form of a three storeyed tower of 15th century date, known as Tower House. This building is illustrated in an engraving dated 1734. The tower appears to have formed the north east corner of a larger building. It has angled buttresses on its outer corners and another buttress on the north side. At second floor level the north and east faces are framed in unique decorative friezes that include small flowers. The tower has a pentagonal stair turret projecting from the south side and extending above the embattled roof to form a turret. The ground floor is set into the rising ground to the south east. It has a blocked door on the north side and, internally, a blocked arch leading eastward into an underground space of unknown extent. Access to the tower and stair is now gained from the stables adjoining the east side of the tower. Some 20m to the east of the church stands the monastic Great Barn, a complete, free-standing rectangular structure of early 14th century date, with some later modifications, measuring 50m by 19m overall. It is buttressed all around, has slit windows splayed internally with rounded arches, and a wooden roof of 20 bays, now slate covered. In the centres of its longest sides there are substantial external porches, with doors set in large pointed arches in moulded stone matching those of the church. Both porches have an upper floor. Some 20m to the east of the barn stands a farm building (guesthouse), a complete, free-standing rectangular structure of early 14th century date, with many later modifications, measuring 33.4m by 7.4m overall. The building is two storeyed and slopes downwards markedly from east to west. The ground level on its south side has been raised so that access on that side is now at first floor level. Excavations and an analysis of the standing structure in 1987 revealed that the building was intended for storage and housing animals, with an upper floor only at each end and the central bays open to the roof. In the mid-15th century the west end of the building was converted into accommodation through the addition of an internal dividing wall, a fireplace and larger windows. An essential part of the design of all abbeys was the provision of a supply of fresh running water. At Buckland the main water source was the stream to the north of the claustral ranges. The stream feeds a small pond which is retained by an earth dam and held within vertical stone rubble retaining walls of some 2m depth. Water from the dam is then culverted in the area where the kitchens and reredorter buildings (latrines) were situated. The land forming the monastic precinct was traditionally enclosed behind a wall, and contained, in addition to the nucleus of the church and cloister, all the buildings and structures, both agricultural and industrial, associated with the degree of self sufficiency that the abbey was capable of sustaining. At Buckland part of the line of the precinct has been identified with two short lengths of walling. Adjacent to the south east corner of the barn there is a substantial wall some 10m in length and 4.5m high which includes two slit windows, internally splayed with round headed arches. There is an inset beneath the windows that probably indicates a floor level. A longer section of walling survives to the east of the Linhay, it has four slit windows of identical design, but no inset. Both sections of wall contain putlog (scaffolding) holes. In a field in the valley to the west of the abbey there are extensive low earthworks associated with the stream which include terraced areas, the site of a large pond retained by a dam, and drainage channels with stone revetted sections of their banks. The southern edge of the field is bounded by a track leading to the river. To the east of the abbey, a field contains earthworks in the form of terraced areas and a linear bank, and archaeological excavations in this area in 1987 revealed medieval and Iron Age activity. To the north east of the abbey church the rising ground contains three quarries from which shillet (Upper Devonian slate) was derived in the construction of the abbey. The western quarry is the lowest; it is roughly circular, some 30m across, with a flat floor, and a vertical face of some 6m height to the north, sloping down on both sides to a wide entrance to the south west. Small areas of exposed bedrock remain visible in the north and west faces. The middle quarry is elongated, of some 40m length and 20m width, and is at its greatest depth of some 6m to the north, sloping down on both sides to ground level to the south west. A small area of bedrock remains visible in the lower part of the west face. The floor is uneven, sloping up to the north, with substantial spoil tips at the entrance to the south west. The east quarry is the highest and smallest, defined by a vertical rockface forming its northern limit. The quarry face is about 16m across and 3.5m high, and consists, in plan, of two clearly defined rectangular cuts, the east cut being deeper and extending farther north. The floor of the west cut is obscured by spoil tips. Beyond the spoil tips the southern extent of the quarry is obscured; a visible depression further down the slope may be the course of a hollow way. The abbey was founded in c.1278 by Amicia, Countess of Devon following her grant to the Cistercian Order of the adjoining manors of Buckland, Bickleigh and Walkhampton, together with the east Devon manor of Cullompton. The abbey was colonised by monks from Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight, and dedicated to St Benedict. Buckland was the last rural Cistercian foundation in England and owned a substantial tract of land in south west Devon. The episcopal registers of the bishops of Exeter attribute five granges to Buckland in addition to the home farm at the abbey. The registers refer to the grant of a market and fair at Buckland and Cullompton in 1318, and the impoverishment of the abbey following the Black Death in 1349. They state that in 1337 Edward III granted the abbey a licence to crenellate, and in 1522 refer to the existence of a west gate furnished with an upper room. The registers also give an insight into a number of local disputes. At the dissolution there was an abbot and 12 monks in residence. The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 when the largest and wealthiest religious houses were surrendered to Henry VIII. The inventory of the property includes (in addition to the church and claustral ranges), houses, buildings, barns, tenements, burial ground and pools, within and near to the precinct. A condition of the subsequent sale of these sites was that the buildings were to be rendered unfit for monastic use, and this was greatly assisted by the crowns sequestration of the roofing lead. In 1539 the abbey and home farm were leased to George Pollard and in 1541 sold by the Crown to the Grenville family. The inventory of the sale includes a list of the fields adjoining the abbey in which 'Quarry Park' is named, and this field is referred to again in relation to two small meadows said to lie adjacent to it. By 1576 Sir Richard Grenville had completed the conversion of the church into an Elizabethan mansion. The west end of the nave was shortened by two or three bays and converted into a great hall with a large fireplace, panelling and decorative plasterwork, and a screens passage at the east end in the crossing of the church. Both transepts were removed, although three of the side chapels were retained, and the church tower remained standing to its full height. A staircase was added to the west of the south transept leading to two floors of apartments above the hall. A service wing was added, extending southwards from the south side of the presbytery, and this contained a kitchen with two large fireplaces and four charcoal burning ovens. The serving area occupied the former presbytery. The service wing also contained two upper floors of apartments. In 1581 the property was sold to Sir Francis Drake and remained with that family until 1946. In the later 18th century a staircase was inserted in the service wing and the windows throughout the house replaced in gothic styling. An engraving of 1734 shows the mansion with the north transept of the church intact and abutted by a series of roofed structures standing on the alignment of the east claustral range of the abbey. These structures remained standing until 1769. In the early 19th century an excavation was undertaken in the former presbytery which revealed the base of the high altar; this area was subsequently converted into a chapel. In 1938 the two upper floors of the west wing were severly damaged by fire and were extensively restored. In 1949 the house was given to the National Trust. (Scheduling Report)

Gatehouse Comments

What building was constructed in association with the licence of 1337, if any, is not clear but possibly the West Gate.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSX488667
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Copyright Katrin Vorbeck All Rights ReservedView full Sized Image
Copyright Katrin Vorbeck All Rights ReservedView full Sized Image
Copyright Katrin Vorbeck All Rights ReservedView full Sized Image
Copyright Katrin Vorbeck All Rights ReservedView full Sized Image

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  • Higham, Robert A., 1999, 'Castles, Fortified Houses and Fortified Towns in the Middle Ages' in Kain, R. and Ravenhill, W., Historical Atlas of South-West England (University of Exeter Press) p. 136-43
  • Salter, Mike, 1999, The Castles of Devon and Cornwall (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 87 (slight)
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus and Cherry, Bridget, 1989, Buildings of England: Devon (Harmondsworth) p. 27-30
  • Knowles, David and Hadcock, R Neville, 1971, Medieval religious houses in England and Wales (Longman) p. 116
  • Turner, T.H. and Parker, J.H., 1859, Some account of Domestic Architecture in England (Oxford) Vol. 3 Part 2 p. 352, 412 online copy


  • Gaskell Brown, C., 1995, 'Buckland Abbey' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 53 p. 25-82
  • Higham, R.A., 1988, 'Devon Castles: an annotated list' Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society Vol. 46 p. 142-9
  • Coulson, C., 1982, 'Hierarchism in Conventual Crenellation: An Essay in the Sociology and Metaphysics of Medieval Fortification' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 26 p. 69-100 see online copy

Primary Sources

  • Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1895, Calendar of Patent Rolls Edward III (1334-38) Vol. 3 p. 529 online copy