History of Bayham Abbey
Founded over 800 years ago, Bayham Abbey was home to a community of Premonstratensian canons – ordained priests who lived according to a strict monastic rule. It was dissolved on the orders of Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 and the buildings were left to decay. In 1714 Sir John Pratt, later Lord Chief Justice of England, bought the Bayham estate, and he and his successors retained the ruined abbey as a fashionable landscape feature for their country retreat.
Today, Bayham is the best surviving example of a Premonstratensian abbey in England, and its impressive ruins show how life evolved at the monastery over 300 years.
The abbey was founded around 1208, the result of a merger between two earlier monastic communities, at Otham (Sussex) and Brockley (Kent). The site at Otham had proved unsuitable and it is likely that there were similar problems with Brockley. Robert de Thurnham, a powerful knight and courtier, gave land for Bayham, or Begeham as it was then known, to be built. The new monastery, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was also supported by Richard de Clare, 3rd Earl of Hertford, and Ella de Sackville, daughter of Ralph de Dene, who was to be the first abbot at Bayham.
The Premonstratensians, like some other religious orders, chose isolated locations for most of their abbeys. At Bayham they took advantage of the isolated valley of the river Teise, on the Kent and Sussex border, to site their new abbey.
Initially there was probably a temporary structure at Bayham before building work started properly around 1211. First to be constructed were the buildings around the cloister and the east end of the church.
The Premonstratensian order was founded by St Norbert of Xanten (d.1134) in 1121. Norbert chose a lonely, cross-shaped valley in Prémontré, near Laon in north-eastern France, as the site of the first abbey.
The order spread quickly throughout Europe. Over 200 houses had been founded by the end of the 12th century, with Bayham Abbey being a relatively late foundation.
Most monks followed the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict, renouncing the world for a contemplative life. Norbert chose instead to follow the older Rule of St Augustine, which better fitted his aims that Premonstratensians should serve communities by preaching, teaching, charitable work, and sometimes by direct service as parish priests.
Known as white canons from the colour of their habits (ecclesiastical clothes), the Premonstratensians’ lives were austere. Objects found during excavations at Bayham hint at this austerity – many domestic items show signs of continual reuse despite their great age.
Image: A 12th-century manuscript illustration depicting Norbert (right) receiving the Augustinian Rule from St Augustine of Hippo
Monastery and community
Building an abbey was an expensive business. Donations of land and property, as well as money, from rich benefactors ensured that the newly merged community at Bayham was successful and could finance its expansion.
Many of the gifts came with an expectation that the canons would remember the souls of the patrons in return. Patrons like Sybil de Icklesham, a member of the locally important de Sackville family, left funds to support a canon at Bayham who was expected to be solely responsible for saying prayers for the souls of Sybil and her family. In 1290 Simon de Payn gave the canons 150 acres (61ha) of land, and in return the canons agreed to support Simon and his family by supplying food, beer and clothing – an indication of the industry that took place at the abbey.
The canons also agreed to support Simon’s son Henry, a ‘crippled clerk’ who was to be given work at the abbey ‘as far as his health allowed’, while Simon’s other sons were to be taught a trade within the abbey precincts. The relationship between the canons and the local community benefited both.
Frequent donations of land ensured that the abbey was financially stable in the 13th century. Local benefactors also improved access from the precincts – in 1242 a 20-foot wide track from the abbey to Pembury, 5 miles away, was dedicated by Simon le Puer de Peperslonde. This would later be known as the Priests’ Path.
The Abbey Church
The church was the most important building within any religious community – it was here that the canons gathered for the eight services that punctuated their day. On feast days there were elaborate religious processions. Rich patrons were buried within Bayham’s church, and there is evidence that in the summer of 1299, during the Anglo-French war, Edward I stopped there to give thanks for good news that he had received from France.
The original early 13th-century church was ambitiously extended in about 1260 with an unusual, angular east end. The ‘stiff-leaf foliage’ sculpture on the corbels (supports) is similar to contemporary work at Westminster Abbey. Later, in the 15th century, Bayham’s long, narrow nave – typical of Premonstratensian churches – was largely rebuilt. Something of its glory can be glimpsed in the surviving pillars, with their distinctive fluted decoration, and the enormous windows in the south wall.
During excavations in 1966, fragments of fine stained glass were found in a vault above the north transept. This richly decorated glass dates from several periods spanning the 13th to 15th centuries, and the quality and style of some of the 13th-century glass has been compared to the glass at Canterbury Cathedral.
As well as enjoying the financial backing of local people the abbey welcomed the support of some important benefactors. In 1234 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Abingdon, issued an indulgence to raise funds to continue building work at Bayham. This ensured that those who donated money to Bayham for the continued building of the abbey church would receive 40 days’ reprieve from the punishment of their sins.
Six years after his death in 1240 Abingdon was declared a saint.
He had been a tutor to another future saint who was known to the canons of Bayham Abbey, Bishop Richard of Chichester. In 1242 Bishop Richard stayed at Bayham – probably in the west range. Richard had witnessed the ‘translation’ or movement of the holy remains of St Edmund Abingdon into his new shrine at Pontigny in France.
Richard died in 1253, shortly after his visit to Bayham, and was declared a saint in 1262. The bed in which he had slept at Bayham came to be venerated because it was believed to possess miraculous qualities, one Bayham canon claiming that it had cured him of an ‘affection of his limbs’. The canons esteemed the bed as a relic of St Richard.
Bayham in the 15th century
During his regular inspections in the late 15th century, Bishop Richard Redman, the Abbot of Premontré’s visitor-general in the British Isles for 46 years, often criticised Bayham Abbey. He found that parts of the building had been allowed to fall into a ruinous state, and was also concerned that the daily services were not being carried out properly as there were not enough canons at Bayham. In 1472 he complained that Bayham was very poorly supplied with grain ‘and other necessaries’.
Nonetheless, Bayham’s canons felt sure enough of their future to embark on a major programme of building works in the 15th century, perhaps spurred on by Bishop Redman’s findings. And in 1500 Redman even praised Bayham’s abbot for his laudable administration of the monastery.
Yet Bayham was closed on Cardinal Wolsey’s orders in 1525, as one of 20 small monasteries whose endowments he wanted to use for colleges he had founded.
The closure of Bayham provoked local people from many nearby villages to turn to violence in support of their abbey. On 4 June 1525 ‘over a hundred men with painted faces and visures’, armed with longbows, crossbows, swords and clubs, assembled at the abbey in an attempt to reinstate the evicted canons. They stormed the abbey gatehouse and temporarily restored the community.
Those taking part would have feared the loss not only of their spiritual carers, but also of their incomes. Many of the men indicted for taking part in the protest were local tradesmen, such as shoemakers and labourers.
Bayham was not the only abbey to be suppressed in 1525, but it was the only religious house whose closure provoked violent support. Although the protest lasted for many days and included men from many different communities, it did not save the abbey from closure.Read more about the Dissolution
Bayham and the Pratts
After Wolsey’s fall from power Bayham’s estates mostly reverted to the Crown, and Henry VIII leased them to royal favourites. Eventually in about 1580 Elizabeth I granted Bayham to Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montagu.
In 1714 the lawyer Sir John Pratt, who became Lord Chief Justice of England four years later, bought the Bayham estate. For over 250 years the Pratt family used the estate as a residence and country retreat.
In about 1750 Sir John’s grandson John (III) extended an existing villa here (later known as the Dower House) by adding a north wing, an early example of the Gothic Revival style. At a time when there was new interest in the picturesque qualities of ancient buildings, the house, close to the abbey, formed a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the ruins.
John Pratt (III) and his wife, Sarah Eyles, had been given Bayham on their marriage in 1746. This was one of several marriages the Pratts made in the first half of the 18th century with the Eyles and Jeffreys families. Both these families (which were also interconnected by marriage) were extremely rich, their wealth deriving from many sources including land ownership and global trade. Through marriage with the lawyers and politicians of the Pratt family, heiresses brought this wealth to Bayham.
The Bayham estate passed in 1805 to John (III)’s cousin, the politician John Jeffreys Pratt (1759–1840), 2nd Earl and later 1st Marquess Camden, who made Bayham his main residence. Lord Camden had already inherited both the considerable Jeffreys fortune (through his mother, Elizabeth) and his father’s wealth and title.
In 1805 the renowned landscape gardener Humphry Repton recommended that Lord Camden demolish the house so as to provide a more picturesque setting for the abbey ruins, and build a more substantial house on the opposite side of the valley. Fortunately Camden only partially implemented Repton’s plan, and the house survived. Around the same time, however, the architect William Wilkins supervised the repair and consolidation of the monastic ruins, overseeing the partial reconstruction of buildings in the abbey’s south and west ranges.
The abbey site was opened to the public around this time. Gravel paths were introduced for the convenience of visitors, who flocked to see the picturesque ruins.
A new house
It was not until 1870 that the 3rd Marquess Camden had a new, much larger house, Bayham New Abbey, built across the valley, reflecting the family’s rise in status and fortune.
John Charles Pratt, 5th Marquess Camden, placed the abbey in state guardianship in 1961, and it has been in the care of English Heritage since 1984.
Find out more
Visit Bayham Abbey
Bayham’s impressive ruins include much of the 13th- to 15th-century church, the chapter house, and a picturesque 14th-century gatehouse.
Bayham Abbey Collection Highlights
These highlights from objects excavated at Bayham hint at both the abbey’s grandeur and the lives of the people who lived and worked there.
What Became of the Monks and Nuns at the Dissolution?
Discover what happened to the many thousands of monks and nuns whose lives were changed forever when, on the orders of Henry VIII, every abbey and priory in England was closed.
Delve into our history pages to discover more about our sites, how they have changed over time, and who made them what they are today.