About Hailes Abbey
Established by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in the 13th century, Hailes Abbey became a popular destination for medieval pilgrims before succumbing to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Its ruins, set peacefully amid picturesque Cotswold countryside, retain an evocative sense of monastic tranquillity but little remains of the site’s former glories.
Hailes Abbey history
Richard of Cornwall, second son of King John and younger brother of Henry III, is said to have founded the abbey following his involvement in a near fatal shipwreck. Praying for his life, Richard vowed to found a religious house should he survive. Needless to say, he survived and Hailes Abbey is that house.
The abbey was established on land gifted to Richard by King Henry and settled by a group of 20 Cistercian monks and 10 lay brothers. The abbey was quickly constructed and its consecration ceremony, in 1251, was attended by the King Henry, Queen Eleanor of Provence, and 15 Bishops.
But, for all the pomp of its consecration, it wasn’t until 1270, when the abbey acquired a phial that was said to contain the Holy Blood (guaranteed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem no less), that Hailes really took off as a popular pilgrimage destination.
The abbey’s fortunes were transformed. Before the arrival of the phial, Hailes had struggled financially but the smash hit holy relic ensured that the site became a magnet for pilgrims. Such a dramatic upturn in fortunes allowed the monks to make dramatic architectural enhancements, including a church that has since been entirely decimated.
Stunning though it may have been, Hailes Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1538, when the phial of Holy Blood was removed from the site and found to be ‘honey clarified and coloured with saffron’. A year later, on Christmas Eve 1539, the abbey was surrendered to the King’s commissioners.
Hailes Abbey today
What remains is a serene, gently evocative shadow of the splendid buildings that once stood here, and a poignant reminder of the routine destruction enacted during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Today, the site is home to the stunted yet elegant ruins of the abbey – the cloisters’ fine arches remain, overgrown but dignified. Nothing’s left of the church, save the outlines of its foundations.
Diminished though it may be, Hailes Abbey is a peaceful spot that grants visitors a deep, almost palpable sense of history and a lovely focal point from which to appreciate this scenic corner of Gloucestershire. There’s also a fascinating little museum displaying items from the site, including floor tiles, carved ceiling bosses and an exceptionally rare fragment of a 14th-century monk’s spectacles, and a free audio tour that really brings the site to life. We recommend visiting on a sunny day and bringing a picnic.
Getting to Hailes Abbey
Hailes Abbey is located 2 miles north east of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. There’s a nearby request stop on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway (Hayles Abbey Halt), which would be a charming way to arrive, but driving may prove to be more practical. Free parking is 20 metres from the entrance. Take the B4632 north of Winchcombe and look for signs to Hailes.