Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast Abbey
Abbey Church of St Mary
Buckfast Abbey
Location within Dartmoor
Coordinates: 50°29′34″N 3°46′32″W / 50.49278°N 3.77556°W / 50.49278; -3.77556
OS grid reference SX7414167369
Location Buckfastleigh, Devon
Country UK
Denomination Roman Catholic
Website www.buckfast.org.uk
Founded 28 October 1882 (1882-10-28)
Dedication St Mary
Consecrated 25 August 1932
Status Benedictine Monastery
Functional status Active
Heritage designation Grade II*
Designated 10 January 1951
Architect(s) Frederick Walters[1]
Completed 1937
Parish Buckfast
Deanery Torbay
Diocese Plymouth
Province Southwark
Abbot Dom David Charlesworth OSB

Buckfast Abbey forms part of an active Benedictine monastery at Buckfast, near Buckfastleigh, Devon, England. Buckfast first became home to an abbey in 1018. The first Benedictine abbey was followed by a Savignac (later Cistercian) abbey constructed on the site of the current abbey in 1134. The monastery was surrendered for dissolution in 1539, with the monastic buildings stripped and left as ruins, before being finally demolished. The former abbey site was used as a quarry, and later became home to a Gothic mansion house.

In 1882 the site was purchased by a group of French Benedictine monks, who refounded a monastery on the site, dedicated to Saint Mary. New monastic buildings and a temporary church were constructed incorporating the existing Gothic house. Work on a new abbey church, which was constructed mostly on the footprint of the former Cistercian abbey, started in 1907. The church was consecrated in 1932 but not completed until 1938.

Buckfast was formally reinstated as an Abbey in 1902, and the first abbot of the new institution, Boniface Natter, was blessed in 1903. The abbey continues to operate as a Benedictine foundation today.


The nave of the Abbey church is in a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles

The first abbey at Buckfast was founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1018.[2][3] The abbey was believed to be founded by either Aethelweard (Aylward), Earldorman of Devon,[3] or King Cnut.[4] This first monastery was "small and unprosperous", and it is unknown where exactly it was located,[5] and its existence was "precarious" especially after the Norman Conquest.[2]

In 1134[3] or 1136,[5][2] the abbey was established in its current position; King Stephen having granted Buckfast to the French Abbot of Savigny. This second abbey was home to Savignac monks. In 1147 the Savignac congregation merged with the Cistercian, and the abbey thereby became a Cistercian monastery.[3] Following the conversion to the Cistercian Congregation, the abbey was rebuilt in stone.[6] Limited excavation work undertaken in 1882 revealed that the monastery was built to the standard plan for Cistercian monasteries.[4]

In medieval times the abbey became rich through fishing and trading in sheep wool, although the Black Death killed two abbots and many monks; by 1377 there were only fourteen monks at Buckfast. By the 14th century Buckfast was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the south-west of England. It had come to own "extensive sheep runs on Dartmoor, seventeen manors in central and south Devon, town houses in Exeter, fisheries on the Dart and the Avon, and a country house for the abbot at Kingsbridge".[3]

By the 16th century, the abbey was in decline. Only 22 new monks were ordained between 1500 and 1539, and at the time of the abbey's dissolution, there were only 10 monks in residence.


At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the last Abbot, Gabriel Donne (d.1558), despite the solemn oaths he had taken, on 25 February 1539 together with nine others of his religious community, surrendered his abbey into the hands of Sir William Petre, as agent for King Henry VIII. On 26 April 1539 he was rewarded with a large annual pension of £120 which he enjoyed until his death. The other monks, who all co-signed the deed of surrender, also received smaller pensions.[7][8] The site of the abbey was granted by the king to Sir Thomas Dennis (c.1477-1561) of Holcombe Burnell[9] in Devon, who had married Donne's sister Elizabeth and was Chamberlain of the Household to Cardinal Wolsey.

After dissolution

Following dissolution, the abbey site and its lands were granted by the crown to Sir Thomas Denys (c.1477-1561) of Holcombe Burnell, near Exeter, who stripped the buildings and "reduced them to ruins".[3][10] The abbey site was subsequently used as a stone quarry.[4]

In 1800, the site was purchased by local mill owner, Samuel Berry. Berry had the ruins demolished, constructing a Gothic style "castellated Tudor" mansion house, and a wool mill on the site in 1806.[3][10] The Gothic house was constructed on the site of the abbey's former west cloister. The only pieces of the former abbey to escape demolition were some of the outer buildings - which were retained as farm buildings - and a tower from the former abbot's lodgings, the only part which remains to this day.[3]

In 1872 the site came into the possession of Dr. James Gale. Dr. Gale chose to sell the site in 1882 and, wishing to offer it for religious use, advertised the estate as "a grand acquisition which could be restored to its original purpose".[11]


In 1882 "the whole site was purchased" by French Benedictine monks, who had been exiled from the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire in 1880.[10][2][12] On 28 October 1882, six Benedictine monks arrived at Buckfast having been exiled from France. The land had been leased by monks from the St. Augustine's Priory in Ramsgate and it was later bought for £4,700.

Most of Samuel Berry's house was remodeled and incorporated into new claustral ranges which were built in 1882.[3] A temporary church was constructed to the south of these new buildings, with the current abbey church constructed between 1906 and 1938,[2] mostly on the footprint of the Cistercian Abbey (the east-end does not follow the original plan[12]).[3][10] The new abbey church was built in the "Norman Transitional and Early English" styles, to the designs of architect, Frederick Arthur Walters.[10] There were never more than six monks working on the project at any one time, although the whole community had repaired the ancient foundations up to ground level. Construction methods were primitive: wooden scaffolding was held together by ropes and no safety protection was worn by the monks. One monk fell 50 feet but survived; and three monks fell off a hoist without serious injury in 1931. Construction continued throughout World War I: some of the monks were of German nationality, but were not sent to an internment camp on condition that they remained confined to the Abbey grounds.

Buckfast was formally reinstated as an Abbey in 1902, and Boniface Natter - who died at sea in 1906, when the SS Sirio was shipwrecked - was blessed as the new abbot on 24 February 1903.[11][13] His travelling companion Anscar Vonier became the next abbot and pledged to fulfill Natter's dying wish, namely to rebuild the abbey.[13]

The abbey church was consecrated on 25 August 1932, but the building was not finished for several years: the last stone was laid in late 1937 and final works completed the following year.[14]

The only portion of the medieval monastery which survives is the "much restored", former abbot's tower, which dates from 14th or 15th century.[4] This was incorporated into the abbey's guesthouse, which was constructed during 1982 and 1994, when the abbey's precinct was rebuilt.[3] The abbey's former well, which was located in the crypt of the former abbey and which may have dated from Saxon times, was destroyed when the new abbey was built.[3]

Buckfast receives many visitors; men are lodged in the guest house belonging to the monastery, and men and women in a restored building.[2]

The grounds

Fritillaria meleagris in the grounds of the abbey.

There is a conference and seminar centre, and a restaurant (the Grange). On the west side of the Abbey are two gardens with plants ranging from herbs used in cooking or medicine to poisonous plants. Behind the public area is an enclosed garden for the monks. A bridge leads over the river to the abbey farm.

Self sufficiency

Buckfast Abbey, monastic produce shop.

The Abbey is self-supporting, with a farm where vegetables are grown and bees, pigs and cattle are kept, a shop which sells wine, honey beeswax, fudge and other items made by religious communities throughout the world, and a gift shop, book shop, and restaurant.

Buckfast Tonic Wine

The monastery's most successful product is Buckfast Tonic Wine, a fortified wine which the monks began making (to a French recipe) in the 1890s. Its perceived links to violent anti-social behaviour - especially in Scotland - have been a controversial issue for the abbey[15][16] which has employed a youth worker in one area affected.[17]

Following a decision by Police Scotland to attach anti-crime labels to bottles in some areas, the abbey's bottler and distributor, J Chandler and Co. announced its intention to pursue legal action.[18]


Brother Adam (born Karl Kehrle in 1898 in Germany, died in 1996) was put in charge of the Abbey's beekeeping in 1919, and began extensive breeding work creating the honeybee known as the Buckfast bee. Brother Adam had to replenish the bee colonies as 30 of the monastery's 46 colonies had been wiped out by a disease called "acarine", all the bees that died were of the native British black bee. The remaining 16 hives that survived were of Italian origin.


Buckfast Abbey Preparatory School

From 1967 until 1994, the abbey ran a prep school for boys aged 7 to 13, but was obliged to close it as the school became financially non-viable due to dwindling numbers of boarders.[19] Two former monks were later convicted and imprisoned for sexually abusing boys during this period.[20][21]

St Boniface's Catholic College

With the outbreak of World War II, Plymouth-based St Boniface's Catholic College evacuated its pupils to Buckfast Abbey between 1941-1945. The school later named one of its Houses "Abbey" in memory of this period in their history.

School of the Annunciation

The School of the Annunciation is a religious school on the grounds of Buckfast Abbey. It offers distance learning, part-time programmes, summer schools and short courses to support the New Evangelisation.[22]

List of Abbots

Stained glass in Buckfast Abbey. The panel, designed by the monks, is 8 metres (26 feet) across.

Benedictine abbots

Cistercian abbots

Buckfast still followed the Rule of St. Benedict, as the Cistercians also live by that Rule.

Benedictine abbots

Monastic life was restored at Buckfast in 1882; it became an abbey, under the direction of an abbot, in 1902.


See also


  1. The Return of the Benedictines to London, Ealing Abbey: 1896 to Independence by Rene Kollar, Burnes and Oates 1989, ISBN 0-86012-175-5, p.53
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Beattie 83.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Emery, Anthony (2006). Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500, Volume 3. Cambridge University Press.
  4. 1 2 3 4 English Heritage. "Buckfast Abbey". PastScape. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  5. 1 2 Buckfast Abbey. "Saxon and Savignac Buckfast". Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  6. Buckfast Abbey. "Cistercian Buckfast". Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  7. Buckfast Abbey. "Dissolution at Buckfast". Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  8. Timeline of the Abbey’s History
  9. "Donne, Gabriel", Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900, quoting: "Oliver, Monasticon Diœcesis Exoniensis, p. 372"
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 English Heritage. "St Mary's Abbey". PastScape. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  11. 1 2 "Buckfast Abbey". Westcountry Scenes. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  12. 1 2 Little, Bryan. Abbeys and Priories in England and Wales.
  13. 1 2 "The Benedictines in England". The Catholic Historical Review. 8 (3): 425–32. 1922. JSTOR 25011898.
  14. "Extended History". Buckfast Abbey. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  15. "Buckfast 'in 5,000 crime reports'". BBC News. 18 January 2010. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  16. MacMillan, Arthur (24 September 2006). "Health minister condemns Buckfast tonic wine". Scotsman.com - Scotland on Sunday. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  17. "Buckfast abbey rejects blame for 'tonic wine crime'". BBC News. 25 December 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-25.
  18. "Police face legal action over Buckfast anti-crime labels". BBC News. 22 February 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-25.
  19. "History of the Abbey". Buckfast Abbey. Retrieved 2012-02-10.
  20. 1 2 "Monk jailed for schoolboys abuse". BBC News. 8 November 2007. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  21. "Jail for child sex abuse teacher". BBC News. 31 August 2007. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  22. School of the Annunciation
  23. Orme, Nicholas (2001). "The Last Medieval Abbot of Buckfast". Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 133: 97–107.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 Beattie 303.

General Sources

External links

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