Buckfast Abbey can be found on the fringes of Dartmoor, a National Park known for its wild open moorland and ancient history. In stark contrast, the modern in comparison building of Buckfast Abbey is a modern miracle in the truest sense of the word…
ABOUT Buckfast Abbey
SETTLEMENT: BENEDICTINE ABBEY AND VILLAGE
REGION: SOUTH WEST ENGLAND
OS GRID REF: SX 74076 67414
Buckfast is a small village adjacent to the historic mill town of Buckfastleigh. It nestles on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, close to the banks of the River Dart. Highly accessible, it’s just half a mile from the The Devon Expressway (A38). This road links the cities of Exeter and Plymouth with Buckfast being found roughly midway between the two; approximately 30-40 minutes by car.
Buckfast Abbey is set within its own extensive grounds which are predominantly large grassy areas. There are also three delightful formal gardens – Physic, Sensory and Lavender harking back to an earlier Medieval monastic feeling.
To the east of the Abbey Church is a private area set aside for the monks – currently 15, including Abbot Charlesworth. Beyond this is Buckfast Abbey’s farm which covers approximately 300 acres and is both arable and grazing land.
Within the grounds, there are a number of shops including a Monastic Produce Shop that sells wares created by monks and nuns across the world; including the world-famous Buckfast Tonic Wine. There is also a conference centre, a restaurant, bookshop and even, as of 2015, a hotel.
A small Methodist chapel sits within close proximity of the Abbey. It was constructed in 1881, and built next to the ‘main’ road running through Buckfast Village, prior to the Benedictine Monks purchasing the abbey ruins and land. The church is open daily and is used for joint Anglican and Methodist Services every Sunday.
The early history of Buckfast Abbey
It’s unknown when or exactly where the original monastery was founded. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913) by David Oswald Hunter Blair, “it was certainly long before the Norman Conquest”. The earliest known date is mentioned in a charter discovered, in the 1950’s, amongst documents belonging to the Petre family, descendants of William Petre.
The charter was a grant of property “to the monks of Buckfast of the manor of Sele (Zeal Monachorum).” It seems that both Zeal and its neighbouring manor, Down, were gifted to Buckfast Abbey by King Canute in 1018. The first stone constructed abbey church was built on the current site when Buckfast joined the Cistercian Order in 1147. By the 14th century, it had become one of the most prosperous abbeys in the South West.
Its holdings were vast including:- manor houses in Central and South Devon, fisheries on the Dart, townhouses in Exeter and land covering much of South Dartmoor for sheep farming. There was even a manor as far north as Petrockstowe in North Devon.
Over the next couple of centuries, the fortunes of the Abbey waxed and waned. It was Henry VIII’s desire to dispense with his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, beget himself a male heir and replenish his coffers that, through a sequence of events, finally led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Dissolution of the Monasteries and Henry VIII
In 1534 Parliament passed ‘the Act of Supremacy’ making Henry Supreme Head’ of the church and divorcing England from any Papal authority. This meant he could disband any of the religious orders in England, appropriate their income and sell off any assets.
Buckfast was not immune to the vagaries of history and by 1539 it was in Henry’s clutches. However, the Abbot and all monks who co-signed the Deed of Surrender were rewarded and received annual pensions of the king’s agent that carried this out was Sir William Petre.
Some of the manors belonging to the Abbey were bought from the king including those of Churstow and South Brent. The monastic buildings and Abbey Church were not so fortunate. They were stripped of all the lead and left to decay.
In 1539 forty monasteries in the West Country were appropriated, including Buckfast Abbey. The haul from this last campaign was not insignificant; 1 1/2 tonnes of gold, silver and gilt was taken to the Tower of London!
19th Century- 1906
Up until 1800 the Abbey and grounds were left to the whims of nature. However, in this year, Samuel Berry, the local mill owner, purchased the lands. He razed most of the remaining Abbey Church and Monastery to make way for a castellated mansion.
The site changed ownership a number of times until it was purchased by a Dr. James Gale in 1872. Ten years later he decided to sell and placed an advert in The Tablet, a Catholic journal published in London.
To digress slightly, The Tablet has an interesting history. It was, somewhat ironically, launched in 1840 by a Quaker, Frederick Lucas, who converted to Catholicism in 1839. It’s still published and is the oldest surviving weekly journal in Britain.
Gale’s advert in the Tablet described the Abbey as “a grand acquisition, could it be restored to its original purpose”. This notice was seen by a group of French Benedictine monks who had been exiled from the Abbaye Saints-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire in 1880 during the Third Republic. By October 1882, after an absence of over 300 years, the monks were once again back at Buckfast.
The monks erected a temporary church which is now the Chapter House and set about restoring and improving the Abbot’s Tower and other areas of the monastery. Much of this work was paid for by Lord Clifford of Ugbrooke House, Chudleigh.
The plans to restore the Abbey Church garnered much public support and Mr. Frederick Walters, a renowned architect of the day, was appointed. By 1884 accurate drawings of the existing foundations had been created and plans drawn up for a mid-12th-century style Abbey.
These plans were based on existing ruined Cistercian Abbeys such as Fountains, Rievaulx and Tintern. However, reconstructing the Abbey Church itself was still a distant pipe dream. All funds available were channeled into extensive building and reconstruction of the Monastic buildings.
Boniface Natter ( 1866-1906) was born in the Kingdom of Wuerttemburg, now part of Germany, had taken his vows at Buckfast in 1883. He became the first Abbot of the newly reformed Benedictine Buckfast Abbey in November 1902. After the benediction, a cheque to the sum of £1000 was gifted by Dr. Macnamara of Torquay, meaning that the restoration work was able to continue.
Work on the monastic quarters was progressing well, and the 12th-century foundations of the Abbey Church had recently been uncovered and restored when tragedy struck. Abbot Natter was among over 400 people who drowned when the SS Sirio, a steamship, struck a reef near the Spanish coast in August 1906. His body was never recovered, but miraculously, his travelling companion, Anscar Vonier survived.
Buckfast Abbey from 1906- 1938
Anscar Vonier (1875-1938), like his predecessor, was German-born and only thirty-one when he was elected the next Abbot of Buckfast in October 1906. Within a month of taking office, he publicly announced that work would start immediately on rebuilding the Abbey Church on.
What was truly unbelievable was the fact that the monks themselves were going to do all the work as there were no funds available to appoint a contractor. There was only one monk who was a master craftsman and he was put in charge of the whole operation.
The first stone was, in fact, laid the 5th January 1908 but Vonier realised the importance of publicity; and so, in July, organised a public foundation laying ceremony that attracted more than 2000 people. While funds were low the monks cut and dressed the stone themselves and lifted them with manual hoists. Later on, they were able to buy the stone ready dressed from the quarries.
Two-thirds of the monks were German, including Vonier himself, and on account of this, were interned in the abbey grounds for the duration of World War I. They must have encountered some local animosity especially after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
They were only permitted to leave the Abbey if they were granted a Special Licence. Their confinement lasted up until September 1919, long after the last shots were fired. Despite the shortage of materials, during this period, they were able to continue building.
Finally, on the 25th August 1932 the Abbey Church was consecrated after twenty-one years of building work. This was surely the pinnacle of his career as an Abbot, however, Vonier’s vision was not complete!
Eighteen months later plans were drawn and work started on the construction of an enormous four-turreted tower. It was to be large enough to house a peal of 14 bells that had been donated by Sir Robert Harvey and a 7 1/2 tonne Bourdon Bell (this produces the lowest tone).
Abbot Vonier, whose health had been slowly failing, died on 26th December 1938. However, not before he had witnessed the completion of the project. A couple of weeks, prior to his death, the scaffolding had finally been removed, revealing Buckfast Abbey in all its magnificence.
Memorial Plaque to Abbot Anscar.
Buckfast Abbey today
He had spearheaded one of the most remarkable Ecclesiastical Building projects of the 20th Century. Buckfast Abbey remains the only British Medieval Monastery to have been completely restored and returned to its original use – and by the very monks, themselves, that worshipped there.
Abbot Vonier, and indeed all the original monks, would certainly be astonished to see what a thriving enterprise the Abbey has, once again, become. The tonic wine, the recipe which the monks brought from France with them in the 1880’s, had sales of £43.2 million in 2017. In the 1920’s they sold just 1,400 bottles per annum!
The Benedictine Community at Buckfast holds net assets in excess of £50 million. (Source: The Tablet – The International Catholic News Weekly)
Buckfast Abbey Visitor Information
Entrance and Parking at Buckfast Abbey are free. There are toilets (including accessible toilets) on site. The Church is open 9.00am – 6.00am on a daily basis. While there, the Grange Restaurant is also open on a daily basis and seat up to 200; offering both an indoor and an outdoor seating area. The Grange offers both lunches and Afternoon Teas.
Dartmoor National Park – whether you are by car, foot or bike Dartmoor is just a stone’s throw from the Abbey. Breathtaking views and loads of prehistoric history.
South Devon Railway – Take a scenic trip along the River Dart. Travel back in time with the gleaming GWR steam engines.
Buckfast Butterflies & Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary – Get close to nature and enjoy a perfect family day out.
Ashburton – a bustling historic stannary town full of cafes, antique shops and independent retailers.