Whalley Abbey

Although Whalley had been a place where Christian worship was offered continuously from the 7th century, the story of the Abbey begins at Stanlow in Cheshire, where it had been founded in A.D. 1170 by John, Baron of Halton. The Monks were not at all satisfied with the location of their monastery. When Roger, the Founderís son, succeeded to the titles and estates of his kinsman the Earl of Lincoln, he changed his name to De Lacey - that of the Earl - and acquired extensive lands in east Lancashire and west Yorkshire.

Slowly the monastery of Stanlow acquired property in Lancashire through the De Lacey connection, and a series of disasters from flood and fire at Stanlow eventually made the Monks anxious to move. Henry de Lacey, Roger's descendant, agreed to a move to Whalley in 1283 when he gave to the Monks the right of appointment, with the intention that they should build their Abbey on the land. All the necessary permissions from the Bishop, the King and the Pope had been obtained by 1288.

At the time the head of Whalley Church was Peter de Cestria, who was the First Secretary of King Edward I's Exchequer. He was unwilling for the move to be effected. Nothing more could be done until after his death, which did not occur until 1295. In the April of the next year the Abbot and 20 Monks arrived at Whalley and moved into Peter de Cestriaís new Rectory which he had built about 1250. This was to be their home until the monastery had been built. The little oratory which was part of this house is all that survives, and it is in the south-east corner of the present Conference House.

On arrival at Whalley the Monks did not find the neighbouring monastery at Sawley welcoming and the people of Whalley were at first positively hostile. It therefore took them along time to settle. They even made another attempt to move into Yorkshire, but the Earl of Lincoln refused this. It was not until 1340 that serious work began on the building of the Conventual Church, and 8 years later this work was impeded by the Black Death. In 1388 however, the Church was completed and there was a great Consecration Mass. The buildings where the Monks lived and worked were not finished until 1440. In 1480 the North East Gate was built.

It seems that there were never more than 30 Choir Monks at Whalley, but there was a staff of about 90 servants, as the Abbey had to look after upto 24 sick people, as well as pensioners and many guests.

Many Abbeys and monasteries usually followed a plan and rules laid down by St. Benedict. They were built in lonely, isolated places so that the Monks could concentrate on their worship. Where possible, the Abbey buildings where on the south side of the Church. A good supply of clean water was needed to keep the Monks healthy, so Abbeys and monasteries were usually close to rivers.

The Abbey Church was built in the shape of a cross. It was 110 yards in length and 70 yards wide at the broadest point. It was built of local stone quarried firstly on Whalley Nab and later in the village of Simonstone. The head of cross, at the east end and nearest the Holy Land, contains the Presbytery with the High Altar. Around the Presbytery is the Ambulatory (from the Latin 'ambulare', meaning to walk) used for special Church processions. To the west of the crossing is the Choir, and the main stem of the cross is the Nave, with an aisle on each side. The arms of the cross to the north and south are the Transepts, containing 'side chapels'.

In the North Transept are the bases of three pillars. There are also fragments of four tombstones, which, taken from north to south, have the following designs or inscriptions:-

(1) Situated in the western aisle : part of a cross.
(2) Head of a cross with the letters IHS (meaning 'Jesus the
Saviour of Men').
(3) Lettering round the edges 'DOMINE MISERE (RE) (MON)ACHO' (meaning Lord have mercy monk).
(4) Fifteenth century lettering '(OR)ATE PRO ANIMA JOH (ANNIS)'  (meaning Pray for the soul of John). Also carved on the stone are what appear to be crossed tenterhooks or sickles.

In the South Transept there are the remains of three more tombstones, of which the details from north to south are :

(1) A cross. Lettering round the edge : 'DOMINE MISERERE AN (IM) E (FRATRIS)JO (HANNIS) WALTON M (ONACHI) (MO) NASTER (II)'  (meaning Lord have mercy on the soul of Brother John Walton, monk of the monastery).

(2) Lettering '(S) ANCTA (M) ARIA TH (OME) WOD (E)' (meaning Holy Mary Thomas Wood). One of the Priors (understudy to the Abbot) had this name.

(3) A cross

Immediately above the Transept rose the lantern tower and in it once hung a peel of bells. It is interesting to note that three of these bells still exist and hang today in the tower of Downham Church.

At the east end of the Church stood one of its glories a magnificent window of coloured glass. Sadly not one piece of this glass remains today. The Asshetons did preserve it for some time and it was stored in a room immediately above the North East Gate, but at a time of rich harvest, the room was needed to store the grain and the glass was cast into the river.

The High Altar is the focal point of Christian worship. This altar has been rebuilt in its original style of the 1400's on the original base. Here, an ordained Monk led the Choir Monks worship and asked for God's Blessing on the bread and wine, reminding the Monks of Jesus Christ's sacrifice for us.

The Choir was once surrounded by a high screen, separating it from the Nave. The Choir Monks worshipped here, standing for up to 6 hours a day. They were helped by tip up seats called Misericords, which let them rest their legs, while still looking as if they were standing.

The Nave pillars were made with dressed stone, called Ashlar, with a rubble infill. The Lay Brothers worshipped in the Nave, separated from the Choir Monks by the Rood Screen. The south east door from the Cloisters was the Choir Monks entrance to the Church for daytime worship. The steps can still be seen.

The Cloisters surrounded the garth, which is a garden where herbs were often grown. The Cloisters were a covered walk way. In the east range walls, there are holes which held the supporting beams for the roof. Under this roof, the Monks would sit and read, or walk around while meditating, or thinking. At the Church end of the east range are the foundations of the wooden night stair. The Monks came down this from their dormitory for night time worship.

The Cloister Court was a square garden surrounded on all four sides by two-storied buildings. Here in this hallowed spot, the Monks who had died in the service of the Church were laid to rest when their labours were over.

Deep in the south wall of the Cloisters is a feature of special interest. A cell is hidden in the thickness of the masonry to which access was gained by means of a hole in the wall. There was no doorway, just a hole. Through this aperture Monks who had offended against the rule of the order would be thrust in to serve a period of penitence. He would stay there until it pleased the Abbot to have him released. Until recent years, few people knew of this secret cell. Harrison Ainsworth knew about it in the early days of the 19th century, but, in the intervening years garden huts had been built which concealed it. A few years ago these huts were demolished and once more, the secret was laid bare. (Harrison Ainsworth wrote the book 'Lancashire Witches').

At the southern end of the east range is the Reredorter, meaning 'the room at the rear of the dormitory'. This was the main toilet block. The Monks reached it from their dormitory over the east range. It was built over the main drain.

The Abbey's water supply came from the river upstream of the buildings, and the waste was returned through the main drain downstream. Clean water was piped in underground channels to parts of the Abbey where it was needed. The waste water found its way to the main drain.

The Chapter House is yet another of the unusual features of the Abbey. It was octagonal in shape, and, whilst there were others of similar design elsewhere in the country, they were few and far between. All around the walls would be oaken stalls and the central one was the seat of the Abbot. His Prior would sit on his right hand side and all around in descending order, would be the other members of the monastery. The Chapter House gets its name, because every meeting there opened with the reading of a chapter from the Bible.

A Slype, or passage between the parlour and the warming room led from the Cloisters to the Abbotís Lodging, the infirmary and the Monks graveyard. The warming room was one of the few places with a fire. Here, the Monks would warm themselves on cold days and talk with their brothers. Apart from the Abbot's Lodging and the kitchens, the only other fire was in the infirmary.

The day stair was the Monks daytime route between the Cloisters and their dormitory above the east range. They also used this route to reach the toilet block. Unlike the night stair, the day stairs were built of stone.

The Monks washed their hands in the Lavatorium before going through the nearby doorway into the Frater, or refectory, for their midday meal.

The Lay Brothers lived in the Cloisters of the west range. Their dormitory was on the upper floor and their toilet block was at the southern end. They had their own night stair down to the Nave of the Church. The ground floor had food store rooms and the office of the Cellarer. The Cellarer, was the person who bought in the food that the Monks could not grow and sold the farm produce the Monks did not need. He was one of the few Monks who had regular dealings with the outside world.

The room closest to the Church is the Vestry, were the Abbot or Clergy Monks prepared themselves for worship.

The Abbey lands where extensive and reached southwards to a point three miles South of Manchester, in a district which still bears the name of Whalley Range. The Monks where sheep farmers as well as being religious leaders.

The Abbot of Whalley built an Abbot's Lodging, which was rather a grand manor house of the time and this forms the core of the present Conference House. There are also the ruins of a smaller, but still quite impressive manor house with a great hall and a West Wing of two storeys, in which probably Abbot Topcliffe, the third Abbot of Whalley, lived, because we know that he retired as Abbot but continued to live at Whalley until his death ten years later.

The Abbot lived in greater comfort than the other Monks and had his own kitchen. He needed to entertain important guests who would not have liked the Monks vegetarian food. In the large kitchen meat was roasted on a spit and pots where hung up to boil water. In a corner of the kitchen was a bread oven known as a ëbeehiveí, and remains of this can still be seen today.

The whole complex of Church, cloisters, living quarters, kitchens, infirmary, Abbot's Lodging and guesthouses would have been completed before the turn of the 15th century. The last Abbot of Whalley, John Paslew, built a Lady Chapel after that date in an attempt to attract more pilgrims to Whalley, but so far no trace of its foundations have been discovered.

The Infirmary or Monks hospital, had three uses. Sick Monks were nursed back to health with the warmth of the fire and with medicines made from herbs. They also came here for regular blood letting, thought in olden days to let out evil and disease. Monks to old to stand the harsh life could live out their years here in a little comfort.

The original entrance to the walled grounds was the North West Gate, about 400 metres along the road from the Abbey. Apart from the worship of God, an Abbey's work included giving shelter to travellers, as there were few inns in country areas.

Near the North West Gate was the Guesthouse. On the upper floor of the gatehouse was a chapel, where travellers could worship. At a later date within the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the function of the Chapel changed to that of a school.

The North East Gate was added in 1480 to give an impressive direct entrance to the Abbot's Lodging and his new stables and out buildings. As with the North West Gate, there is an upper room, but this later gateway has battlements. Only the King could give permission for the walls to be used as the above. The niche on the north side of the North East Gate contained a wooden figure carved in the 1600's, but the original religious figure was probably of stone. The coats of arms were those of the Abbey and of the De Lacey family, who gave money to the Abbey.

John Paslew, against his will was forced by Nicholas Tempest, a local squire, to become involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The King gave certain concessions to the rebels and promised no recriminations if they departed peacefully to their homes. This promise was broken when the Earl of Sussex, Thomas de Radcliffe, acting on behalf of the King arrived in 1537 to arrest Paslew and two Monks and take them to Lancaster to stand trial as traitors. Being found guilty they were hanged and the Abbey was suppressed, with the property becoming that of the King.

In 1545 the Crown sold the property to Thomas Bradyll and Richard Assheton, the latter purchasing that part of the estate which included the Abbey. A few years later Assheton bought out Bradyll and the Abbot's Lodging became the Assheton home.

As the reign of Edward VI drew on and it became increasingly clear that Mary would succeed, those who had bought Church land grew anxious that they might be compelled to surrender it, because Mary seemed likely to want to restore the monasteries. To stop this eventuality, the landowners invited their neighbours who might be building anything from a pigsty to a mansion to use the Conventual Church and buildings as a quarry. This is the reason why so much of the old Abbey has disappeared.

In 1588 the Assheton's made many alterations to the Abbot's Lodging, turning it into a typical Elizabethan manor house. The roof was lowered to make warmer and more comfortable rooms, and the West Wing was extended for a Long Gallery and also to include inside the house a 14th century kitchen.

In the late 18th century, the Assheton's had two daughters but no sons. The elder of the two daughters, who was the heiress, married Sir Nathaniel Curzon of Keddleston and went to live in Derbyshire. She lost interest in the Whalley property which then fell into a state of serious disrepair. In 1836 her grandson, Earl Howe, sold it to a calico painter in Whalley called John Taylor and in the course of time it passed by will to kinsman John Hargreaves. A scheme of restoration was introduced and the house now bears much evidence of the gothic revival of the mid 19th century. In 1900 the property was sold to Sir John Clegg of Blackburn.

The house and grounds were again on sale in 1923, when they were bought by the Diocese of Manchester, after an appeal launched by their Bishop, William Temple. It was intended that it would be the Diocesan Conference and Retreat House, but three years later the diocese was split and the new Diocese of Blackburn bought it from Manchester.

Since then much work has been done to equip the Abbey as a centre for residential conferences, retreats and courses, as well as providing accommodation for other meetings of boards and councils, training days and social occasions. It is a spiritual power house for the Diocese of Blackburn and a place for all kinds of industrial, educational and cultural activities.

The ruins are open to the public and there is a visitor centre, shop, coffee shop, picnic area and nature trail. Visitors appreciate the extensive ruins of the old monastery and enjoy the beauty and splendour of the well kept grounds. The Long Walk is generally accepted as one of the beauty spots in Lancashire, and the site comprises about the finest monument to our local Lancashire heritage in existence.

In January 2005 the Blackburn Diocese carried out £1 million worth of work to upgrade the Conference House, but by the end of the month the work threw up a number of stone foundations, figurines and partition walls that could possibly be Medieval. Foundations have also been uncovered from the Long Gallery, which was built in 1560.

In the East Wing of the Abbey fragments of Medieval tile, ancient pieces of pottery, glass and a wattle and daub partition wall have been discovered. The wattle and daub partition wall dates back to 1588.

Another interesting find, is a finial that could be Medieval. It is made of terracotta and found buried under a concrete floor on the ground floor of the Abbey.

The revenue from all the Abbey land, plus the monks being highly specialised sheep breeders, were probably the primary reasons why Whalley Abbey was one of the wealthiest in the North of England. All this is clearly shown by Abbot Paslew's luxurious lifestyle and the unprecedented amount he lavished on entertaining many distinguished travellers, who found Whalley to be a very comfortable and conveniently situated place for easing their journey.

The Abbot had a personal staff of 20 and the last year's butchers bill for his table alone (not including his wine or provisions for 20 - 30 monks and 75 lay brothers) was £1400. The whole Abbey was later sold for just over £2123.

After the Earl of Sussex, Robert de Radcliffe, had completed his dissolution, Henry VIII installed his cousin John Bradyll from Brockhall as bailiff of the Abbey.

Bradyll lived comfortably at the Abbey before the opportunity arose for him to come to an arrangement with Richard Assheton, who also held a government post, so they knew each other and what was going on. Between them they purchased the Abbey for £2123 and Assheton bought the buildings for £1200. Bradyll was given the surrounding land.