Netley Abbey | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Netley Abbey

Lucy Davidson

24 Jun 2021
Image Credit: Jacek Wojnarowski / Shutterstock.com

About Netley Abbey

With almost all of the walls of 13th century building still standing, Netley Abbey is the most complete surviving abbey built by the Cistercian monks in the south of England. Today, the ruins represent its 800-year evolution, since the abbey was transformed from a monastic to a mansion house, and finally, a romantic ruin.

History of Netley Abbey

The Abbey is situated in the village of Netley, near Southampton. It was founded in 1239 as a house for Cistercian monks. King Henry III took an interest in the abbey from the mid-1240s, at which point the fruits of royal patronage were demonstrated by the construction of a large church in the fashionable French-influenced Gothic style which was pioneered by Henry III‘s masons with Westminster Abbey.

It is not known precisely when the abbey was built, though it was certainly before 1251 since roofing timber and lead was gifted by Henry III in that year. Construction of the church proceeded from east to west, with the sanctuary and transepts being built first to allow the monks to hold services, followed by the nave. It was finally finished between 1290 and 1320.

The church was cruciform in shape, with vaulting and a square sanctuary and a low central tower containing bells. Excavated sculpture shows that the church contained a number of elaborate tombs and monuments, and was richly decorated, plastered in white and maroon and plastered with geometric patterns. It also featured coats of arms including those of England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Queen Eleanor of Castile, Richard of Cornwall, and many powerful noble families.

Unlike other orders of monks who allowed parishioners and visitors access to the nave, the Cistercians officially reserved the churches solely for the use of the monastic community.

By 1291, taxation returns showed that the abbey had a comfortable annual revenue. Shortly after, however, a period of poor management resulted in the abbey accruing substantial debts from which it never recovered. Combined with the hospitality costs for the numerous sailors and other travellers by sea, the abbey lived harmoniously but in poverty.

Following The Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbot and his seven monks were forced to surrender their house to the king in the summer of 1536.

Following Netley’s dissolution, Henry VIII granted the abbey buildings to Sir William Paulet, his Lord Treasurer and subsequently the Marquess of Winchester. Paulet converted the abbey into a series of luxurious apartments for his personal use.

It eventually passed down the family line to William Seymour, who died without issue, meaning that it passed to his sister Elizabeth Seymour. It was finally inhabited by Theophilius Hastings, 7th Earl of Huntingdon, who lived in the abbey until the end of the 17th century.

In around 1700, the decision was made to demolish the unfashionable house. The demolition ground to a halt, however, and it was instead left to decay instead, later becoming a very fashionable ruin which attracted the attention of artists, dramatists, and poets such as Jane Austen.

Netley Abbey Today

Today, the shell of the church and monastic buildings around the cloister as well as the abbot’s house are visible. In most places, the abbey stands close to its original height.

During the summer months it is occasionally host to events such as open-air theatre, and was the site of a flash mob wedding in 2011.

It is open to the public under the management of English Heritage.

Getting to Netley Abbey

From the centre of Netley, the Abbey is reachable in around 8 minutes by foot or 3 minutes by car via New Rd. From the centre of Southampton, it takes around 15 minutes to reach the site via the A3025 road, or is a pretty hour and 15 minute walk via the same route.

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