Hailes Abbey: Place of Pilgrimage

English Heritage

Holy blood, royal blood and the transformation of Hailes Abbey

Hailes Abbey
The royal gift of a holy relic transformed Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire into one of the most important pilgrimage sites in medieval England. Occupying a tranquil spot in the Cotswold Hills, its museum now hosts a stunning collection of monastic objects and architectural fragments from the abbey's heyday.
The Royal Touch
Benefitting from royal patronage, Hailes Abbey was a magnificent and richly decorated place of worship.

Hailes Abbey was founded in 1246 by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, a prominent member of the English royal family. Richard was the son of King John and brother of King Henry III. This floor tile bears the coat of arms of the Earl of Cornwall.

Richard of Cornwall was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Europe. In 1257 he was crowned 'King of the Romans' – heir to the Holy Roman Emperor – at Aachen in Germany. The coat of arms on this floor tile reflects his new position.

The monastery at Hailes belonged to the Cistercian order. Traditionally, Cistercian churches avoided rich ornamentation, which was thought to distract from religious life. But by the time Hailes Abbey was founded these restrictions on decoration had been lifted.

Its royal patronage meant Hailes was spared no expense. Finely carved and painted stonework adorned the buildings, including massive ceiling bosses that weighed upwards of 250kg. Red pigment and traces of gilt surface decoration can still be seen on these exquisite bosses.

Richard of Cornwall spent 10,000 marks (over £6,600) on the construction and decoration of Hailes Abbey – an enormous sum at this time.

The building works were completed under the direction of a master mason named Brother John – possibly John of Waverley, who also worked at the royal palace at Westminster.

This exquisite sculpted ceiling boss showing Samson and the lion – an analogy for Christ defeating evil – is rightly considered a masterpiece of medieval art.

The Samson boss was part of the vaulted ceiling of the chapter house, where Hailes’ monks gathered each day to listen to a reading from the Rule of St Benedict, which guided the Cistercian way of life.

Royal Resting Place
The church at Hailes Abbey was the favoured burial place for its founder’s family. Richard of Cornwall was buried there, along with his second wife and two of his sons.

Fragments from the tomb of a knight were found during excavations at the east end of Hailes Abbey church in 1899–1908. They included an arm, parts of the knight’s feet and tomb decoration.

The style of the chainmail on this arm date the tomb to about 1270–1320. Richard of Cornwall and his sons, Henry of Almain and Edmund, were buried at Hailes during this period.

This limestone head was part of an ornamental footrest in the form of a lioness. It came from the same tomb as the knight's arm.

Richard of Cornwall's second wife, Sanchia, of Provence was also buried at Hailes. Tiles with her coat of arms were found with those of Richard in the north-east aisle of the church. This was the traditional location for the burial of a founder.

This beautiful carving of an angel holding a book would have been suspended beneath an ornate canopy in the east end of the church, close to the royal burials. If the canopy was built over a tomb, the angel would have looked down over the individual buried beneath.

Pilgrims and Patrons
The arrival of the Holy Blood relic in 1270 enhanced the fortunes of Hailes Abbey. Believed to be a portion of the blood shed by Christ on the cross, the relic attracted pilgrims from across Europe and brought much needed income to the abbey after it lost its royal patrons in the 14th century.

The Holy Blood was brought from Europe by Edmund, son of Richard of Cornwall. The relic was of the highest provenance, having been guaranteed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, later Pope Urban IV.

Contemporary witnesses described the blood as being held in a crystal container. The container, surmounted by a cross, is shown in the right hand of the monk in this early 16th-century seal impression.

The east end of the church was remodelled to provide a suitably magnificent setting for the prized Holy Blood relic.

The Holy Blood transformed Hailes into one of the most important pilgrimage sites in England. It was even mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 'The Canterbury Tales':

"By God’s Precious heart and by His nails / And by the blood of Christ that’s now at Hailes."

During the 14th century, Hailes experienced a downturn in its fortunes. The Black Death (1348–9) and financial mismanagement took their toll and parts of the abbey fell into a ruinous state.

The Holy Blood relic was key to securing support from the Church in Rome. Successive popes granted spiritual benefits to people who visited the Holy Blood and contributed to the upkeep of the Abbey.

In 1535 offerings amounted to £10, a substantial sum for the time.

Aristocratic benefactors funded the rebuilding of the ruined cloisters in the late 15th century. Bosses decorated with theirs coats of arms were set into the vaulted ceiling of the cloister walkway.

Sir John Huddleston and his wife Joan, born Joan Stapleton, were major benefactors. Joan’s will provided funds to add lead and battlements to the church’s roof.

Hailes prospered until the abbey’s closure in 1539. New tile pavements were commissioned by Anthony Melton, abbot of Hailes from 1509–27. They feature Melton’s name, his initials and a rebus or emblem. The barrel or ‘tun’ is a pun on 'Melton'.

The tiles were stripped from Hailes during the Dissolution and were later discovered at Southam in Gloucestershire, where they had been reused in the home of the aristocratic de la Bere family.

On Christmas Eve 1539, the abbot of Hailes Abbey and its community of 21 monks signed a surrender deed as part of Henry VIII’s Suppression (also known as Dissolution) of the Monasteries. The shrine of the Holy Blood had already been stripped of its adornments and dismantled.

The church, which for almost 200 years was home to one of the greatest relics of medieval England, was rapidly reduced to ruins.

Today visitors can see the newly displayed museum collection alongside the surviving ruins of Hailes Abbey. Personal objects and architectural fragments found on the site help us to imagine the former splendour of the abbey and the lives of the monks who lived there.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Ian Leins, Rose Arkle

Visit Hailes Abbey

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