History of Buckfast Abbey

As with all Catholic monasteries, the fortunes of Buckfast have fluctuated throughout the ages. The river Dart provides a secluded spot for the Abbey, and remains a peaceful location today amidst the hustle and bustle of our busy world.

With the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of King Henry VIII, the Abbey was forced to surrender all its lands and wealth, which fell into disrepair. Only the stones remained as a living memorial to monasticism. Thankfully, in 1882, some French monks, looking for a new home, came to live on the site and painstakingly rebuilt the magnificent building which we see today.

Buckfast Abbey timeline

1000 - Saxon and Savignac Origins

The Saxon Monastery

The first monastery at Buckfast was founded during the reign of King Cnut in 1018, and was Benedictine. In comparison with the fifty or so other abbeys in 11th century England, Buckfast was small and unprosperous. The rule of life which the community followed was the ‘Regularis Concordia’, drawn up at Winchester in about 970 for all Benedictine monasteries in England. We do not know for sure exactly where the Saxon monastery stood. A site near the river would possibly have been more convenient when one considers the small size of the Abbey. However, as today, there would have been the danger of flooding. During the excavations of the 14th century Guest Hall, a fragment of stone was discovered which may originally have been part of the Saxon church, but no other evidence of the Saxon monastery has so far been found.


1136- Buckfast and the Savignac Rule

Buckfast and the Savignac Rule

For about fifty years after 1086, when the Domesday Book was written, Buckfast’s history is obscure, but it seems likely that the house was in decline at this time. King Henry I had confirmed the Abbey and its possessions at the beginning of his reign, but in 1136, King Stephen (who was sympathetic to monasteries, establishing and revitalising many of them during his reign) gave Buckfast to the Abbot of Savigny, who chose a monk from his own monastery to lead a group across the Channel and establish the Savignac rule at Buckfast. It is unknown how the remaining members of the Saxon community took to the new Savignac rule. However, there was soon to be a more drastic change, when Buckfast joined the Cistercian Order in 1147.


1147- Cistercian Buckfast

The reforms of the monastic observance which led to the new Cistercian Order were started at the Abbey of Citeaux at the beginning of the 12th century. The Cistercian observance was conceived as a return to the Rule of St Benedict in its original, austere form. The Divine Office now occupied six hours per day, and began with a service in the small hours of the morning. The elaboration of the Gregorian Chant was replaced with a new simplicity. All luxuries were swept away, and the churches were ripped of ornaments. The rule of silence was re-affirmed, and a vegetarian diet enforced. The characteristic Cistercian white habits were made from natural, undyed wool.

Buckfast became a Cistercian abbey in 1147. There was an immediate and fundamental transformation. The whole monastery was rebuilt in stone - the Cistercian pattern. When the present monks returned to Buckfast in 1882, they were able to uncover almost all the original foundations dating back to this period, and rebuild the Abbey in the architectural style of the mid-twelfth century - effectively restoring the original Cistercian abbey.

Archaeological excavations in the outer court (1982–1990) have shown that the whole precinct probably dates back to this period. The arch of the north gate and part of the barrel-vaulted undercroft by the west cloister are now the only buildings to survive (above ground) from the original 12th century Cistercian abbey.

The remains of the undercroft


1300 - Medieval Era

The remains of North Gate date from the twelfth century and are the earliest standing remains at Buckfast.

After a brief spell of trouble during the reign of King John, during which time England was placed under an Interdict by the Pope, Buckfast entered a long period of relative stability. A small chapel - possibly a Lady Chapel - was added at the eastern end of the church. Quantities of 13th century floor tiles, tracery and Purbeck marble columns excavated in the late 19th century indicate further building work in the cloisters, chapter house and refectory. The 13th century was perhaps one of the peak periods in the Abbey’s history.

This was the time when the influence of the Cistercians made itself felt in the area, and indeed across the country. As owners of large areas of land, the Cistercians became the country’s main wool producers, setting up the industry which was to lead to England’s great wealth in the later Middle Ages. In 1236, the Abbot and his monks were admitted to the guild of Totnes merchants. In 1315, Buckfast was listed along with Forde, Newenham and Torre Abbey as an exporter of wool to Florence, although it is likely that in line with most abbeys in the country, Buckfast was sending wool to Italy by the end of the previous century.

By the 15th century, Buckfast had become a wealthy landowner, and a pillar of the establishment. Nevertheless, it had not lost sight of its social responsibilities, running its own guest hall, almshouse and school, as well as maintaining its parishes and manors, and establishing fairs and markets to encourage local trade. Two of the most impressive medieval buildings still standing at Buckfast date from this time.

The 15th century South Wing of the Abbey's Guest Hall was fully restored in 1992.

One of these buildings is the south wing of the Guest Hall, which has survived almost unchanged, and was restored to its original appearance in 1992. Another is the ‘Abbot's Tower’ at the south-western corner of the conventual buildings. This was a series of three small but very well-appointed rooms adjoining the western range. Each room had the luxury of its own fireplace and garderobe en suite, suggesting that the Abbot's Tower was probably for the Abbot's most important guests.

This photograph from 1883 shows the start of the restoration of the late medieval Abbot's Tower


1539- The Dissolution of Buckfast

By the beginning of the 16th century the monasteries in England, although generally very rich, were in decline. At Buckfast in the 12th century, there may have been as many as 60 choir monks, and perhaps twice as many lay brothers; between 1500 and 1539, only 22 monks were ordained, ten of whom remained at the Dissolution and signed the deed of surrender. Historians have tended to view monasteries of this period as being corrupt, as well as being lax in their religious and charitable duties. However, some modern historians now dispute this.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, National Portrait Gallery.

Whatever state the monasteries were in, King Henry VIII had his eyes on their wealth. In 1535, he appointed a new Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, with instructions to visit and reform the houses of the religious orders. Only a year later, the smaller monasteries in England had been closed. This financial decision was justified on the grounds that they were centres of ‘‘manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living’’ - a conclusion not supported by the Visitor’s reports.

For Buckfast, the fateful day arrived on the 25th February 1539. The King’s Commissioners, led by a select group of some five distinguished lawyers, had been travelling around the country for the past twelve months closing monasteries as they went. Two of them, William Petre and John Tregonwell, turned their attention to the West Country in January 1539. In Exeter, they separated in to ‘clean up’ the remaining monasteries in Devon and Cornwall. William Petre was at Torre Abbey on the 23rd, and Buckfast on the 25th, before continuing to Buckland on the 27th and Plympton Priory on the 1st of March. They met again in Dorset on the 8th of March to close Forde Abbey. In four months, these two men had visited and closed forty monasteries. During each brief visit they presented and witnessed the signing of the Deed of Surrender, assigned pensions to the monks, and took possession of the Abbey’s seals, charters, and church plate. After this campaign, they delivered 1.5 tons of gold, gilt and silver to the Tower of London, which included the treasures of Buckfast Abbey.


1600+ - After the Dissolution, sharing the spoils

After the Dissolution, the land which Buckfast had formerly owned became the property of the King. The tenancy agreements did not change to any great extent. For most, the dissolution just meant a change of landlord. During the next few years, some of the Abbey’s manors were bought from the King. William Petre, who had been present at the signing of the dissolution charter, bought the largest and most prosperous manors of South Brent and Churstow. The Abbey itself was immediately vacated, and it seems that the church and monastic buildings were stripped and left to decay. Lead was melted down, furniture and chattels were auctioned, and the Abbey’s five bells were bought by the parishioners of Buckfastleigh. Many of the smaller buildings in the outer court were retained and converted for different uses.

The East View of Buckfastre-Abby, in the County of Devon' by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1734

Tracing the history of Buckfast for the two centuries following the dissolution is difficult. The archaeology of the buildings in the former outer court shows that they remained largely unchanged until the early 19th century. Even as late as 1793, the ruins of the former Abbey were still very much in evidence, and remained so until the site was bought by Samuel Berry in 1800, who cleared most of the rubble away to make way for the building of a mansion house on the site. Berry retained the Abbot’s Tower and the 12th century undercroft, but the rest of the Abbey was flattened.

'Buckfast Abbey',  pen-and-ink drawing of Samuel Berry's house, built c. 1806

Over the next eighty years, the Buckfast site changed hands four times, finally falling into the hands of Dr James Gale in 1872. Ten years later, Dr Gale decided to sell the property, but was keen to offer it to a religious community. An advert was placed in ‘The Tablet’, describing the Abbey as ‘a grand acquisition - could be restored to its original purpose.’ Six weeks later, monks were again living at Buckfast after a gap of 343 years.


1882 - The Return of Monastic life

The French community in Leopardstown, Dublin; the photo was taken in 1882, just before their move to Buckfast. The acting Superior, Dom Thomas Dupérou, is seated fourth from the left on the front row.

The monks who returned to Buckfast came here by a rather roundabout route. In 1880, following the French government’s orders to suppress all ‘unauthorised’ religious houses, they were exiled from their monastery in La Pierre-qui-Vire, in the Moran region. They were given shelter by the community of St Augustine’s Priory (later Abbey) at Ramsgate, who loaned them a large property in Leopardstown on the outskirts of Dublin.

Two years later, they noticed the advert in The Tablet for the Buckfast property. Their superior, Père Dupérou, acted quickly, travelling with Dom Adam Hamilton (a monk of Ramsgate, who acted as translator) to Plymouth, where they met Dr Gale. They immediately took out a temporary lease on the property, with an option for permanence which they subsequently took up. The first six monks arrived at Buckfast on the 28th October 1882, with the remainder arriving during the next few weeks.

Dom Adam Hamilton, originally a monk of Ramsgate, but who became an instrumental member of the newly restored Buckfast community. He wrote a history of Buckfast Abbey and played a pivotal role in uncovering the medieval foundations of the Abbey Church

A monk exploring the newly purchased Mansion House and grounds at Buckfast


1884 - The Rebuilding of the Monastery

The Discovery of The Foundations

Much public interest and support was shown for the monks’ plans to restore the Abbey. Frederick Walters, one of the leading architects of his day, was appointed to draw up plans for the restoration, which he did using the evidence of the Buck print of 1734 (a picture of the ruins of the Abbey at that time), and the few ruins still standing. As it turned out, Walters’ original plans for the restored Abbey Church turned out to be wrong, for shortly after Walters made his proposal, one of the monks discovered part of the medieval foundations whilst digging in the vegetable garden. The monks then uncovered most of the remaining foundations of the 12th century Cistercian Abbey. Substantial foundations of the domestic buildings were being uncovered as late as 1997. By March 1884, Walters had made accurate drawings of the foundations, and put forward another design for the rebuilding of the Abbey in the style of the mid-12th century, based on studies of other Cistercian Abbeys at Kirkstall and Fountains.

The discovery and excavation of the medieval foundations in 1883 radically altered F. A. Walters' proposed plan for the Abbey's restoration.

F.A. Walters, 'Buckfast Abbey Devon: Proposed Restoration'. This was the completely revised plan, made in light of the medieval foundations.

In the meantime, work was under way to improve the monastery buildings. The Abbot’s Tower had been restored, and a temporary church (now the Chapter House) had been erected next to it. This was opened on the 25th March 1884. Also in 1884, work started on the south wing of the monastery, which was to include the kitchen, refectory, and cloister, mostly paid for by Lord Clifford of Chudleigh.


During this time, the Buckfast monks were still officially part of the community of La Pierre-qui-Vire in France. It was not until 1899 that Buckfast was given independent status, and only in 1902 that it finally became an Abbey again. The first Abbot to be elected was Dom Boniface Natter, from southern Germany, who had joined La Pierre-qui-Vire at the age of 12, just before the community was expelled.

Blessing of Abbot Boniface Natter in the temporary church, 25th February 1903.

Boniface Natter was blessed as Abbot on the 24th February 1903 - by pure coincidence, exactly 365 years after the closure of the medieval Abbey. After the blessing, a cheque was found in the collection basket for £1,000. This money was used to complete the west wing of the monastery, providing much-needed bedrooms, as well as rooms for the novitiate.



Abbot Natter also arranged for the medieval statue of Our Lady of Buckfast to be restored. The lower part of the statue had been discovered in an old wall, still retaining its original colouring and gilding. The statue was initially placed in the temporary church, until it was transferred to the newly blessed Abbey church on the 2nd August 1922.

Work on the Abbey Church started in earnest after Anscar Vonier’s election as Abbot in September 1906. He can be seen here in the background, to the left of the cart. On his right is the Abbey's architect, F.A. Walters.

The Abbey Church was built piecemeal, according to the funds available, but at no time did work come to a halt until the whole church was completed, thirty-two years later. The builders - normally only four monks, and never more than six - began with the east end, the sanctuary, transepts and two bays of the nave. At first, while funds were low, all the stone had to be cut and dressed by the monks. In later years, they were able to buy the stone ready-dressed from the quarries. Scaffolding was made from wooden poles, lashed together with ropes and chains. Stone was lifted with manual hoists or block and tackle.

The four principal builders of the Abbey Church, from left to right: Br Hilarion Mohn, Br Peter Schrode, Fr Richard Dillenz and Br Ignatius Birk.

The building work continued throughout the First World War, during which time the community (two-thirds of whom were German) were prohibited from leaving the monastery without special licence, also enduring the hostility of some of the local population.

Nevertheless, funds still came in. In 1910, Sir Robert Harvey donated a peal of fourteen bells. Most of the furnishings in the church were also donated by individuals, such as the Stations of the Cross, the stone carvings on the Altars in the side-chapels, the stained glass, candelabra, and the great ‘Corona Lucis’ above the sanctuary.

Abbot Anscar Vonier with Sir Robert Harvey who donated a peal of fourteen bells to the Abbey in 1910, in memory of his wife, Alida.

Abbot Anscar Vonier with Mr and Mrs Schiller, generous benefactors and contributors to the Abbey Church rebuilding, with Br Peter and his fellow builders, 1925.

Did they really believe this would be possible when the first stone was laid in 1907.


1932 - Consecration of the Abbey Church

The 25th August 1932 was the day chosen for the Consecration of the Abbey Church. After 25 years of labour, all but the upper section of the tower had been completed. Cardinal Bourne was chosen by the Pope as his representative; also taking part were five Archbishops, sixteen Bishops, thirty Abbots and many priests. Not only was the Church full to capacity, but thousands heard the service outside, where loudspeakers had been installed. The service was broadcast by the BBC.

25th August 1932, the day of the Consecration. You can make out the loudspeakers on the side of the Church. Some spectators are perched on the top of the Mansion House, on the right.

The West Front of the Abbey Church is consecrated, with the reliquary visible on the left.

The final phase of the rebuilding of the Church saw the completion of the tower to accommodate the superb set of bells which had been donated in 1910. The final stone was laid on the tower on the 24th July 1937, completing thirty-two years work. It was not until December of the following year that the pointing was finished, and the scaffolding removed.

The Rebuilding Completed - Abbot Anscar Vonier Dies
Abbot Vonier was away on a lecture tour in the last weeks of 1938, returning on the 6th December. The builders had hurried to remove the last of the scaffolding for his return, so that Vonier (exhausted and ill with a cold) could see the great work completed. He died three weeks later. Abbot Vonier was internationally known as a writer, preacher, and scholar, but it was his life’s work as a builder for which he was known best. One writer in the Telegraph recalled a conversation that they had recently had with Vonier, in which the Abbot had said, ‘‘Once the Church is completed and the whole building finished, I have done my task and I can go.’’ Abbot Vonier was buried in the Church. A Bronze memorial plaque, showing the achievements of Vonier’s life, was made by Benno Elkan and erected in the south aisle.


1939 - Buckfast and the Second World War

By this time, most of the community were German born, though during the 1920’s the Abbey had begun to attract new members from the British Isles. The harmony enjoyed by this increasingly international group of men contrasted sharply with the deteriorating situation in Europe as a whole. Shortly after his election, Abbot Bruno had to face the ordeal of guiding his community through another World War. Five of the English monks became Army Chaplains, and one French lay brother was mobilised by his government.

Abbot Bruno Fehrenbacher with the monks who became Chaplains to the Forces (left to right) Paulinus Angold, Robert Nicholl, Placid Hooper, and Charles Norris.

A newspaper cutting from 1940, monks practising a fire drill.

Fr Placid Hooper was Chaplain to the Forces during World War II. In 1957 he was elected as Abbot of Buckfast.

The older German members, who had all become naturalised British subjects, remained at Buckfast. The Community took part in the British war effort, supporting the local fire-fighters’ force, farming intensively and offering a refuge from the blitz for the staff and 100 pupils of St Boniface College, Plymouth.



With his health deteriorating, Abbot Bruno decided to step down and in 1957 Fr. Placid Hooper was elected to succeed him. Abbot Placid thus became the first English Abbot of Buckfast, reflecting what was now a predominantly British Community. Dom Placid entered Buckfast in 1929 and during the Second World War he served as Chaplain to the Forces in much of Europe and the Middle East. As the 1960s began, Abbot Placid guided the Community through a number of significant developments.

English Benedictine Congregation and School
First was the transfer of the Community from the Subiaco Congregation to the English Benedictine Congregation which enabled closer links with other monasteries in the British Isles. A defining characteristic of Communities within the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) was the provision of education within their schools.

The Buckfast Abbey School opened in 1967.

Thus in 1967, following some years of preparation, including a substantial building project and training for a number of the monks, a preparatory school was opened at Buckfast. The school thrived for twenty-seven years until changes in educational trends (such as a move away from boarding) brought about its closure in 1994.

Second Vatican Council and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel
At the start of the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council took place in Rome. One of the central developments which followed from this Council was the reform of Church Liturgy and of the Religious Life. For some time, Buckfast had explored the possibility of building a new Blessed Sacrament Chapel, to cope with increasing visitor numbers as well as to meet the needs of the parish. The Liturgy reforms provided further impetus to this, and in 1966 the new Blessed Sacrament Chapel was inaugurated.

Construction of the new Blessed Sacrament Chapel, 1964

Later Developments 1980+

It was under Abbot Leo that a significant, and enduring, element of Buckfast’s pastoral commitment was established. The Education Department was created in 1985 to develop facilities for schools wishing to visit the Abbey and find out more about its life. Over the years, this service became an integral part of Buckfast’s outreach and continues to flourish today.

The Development of Tourism
By the late 1970s Buckfast Abbey was amongst the most-visited places in the West Country, attracting some 300,000 visitors each year, but the facilities for these guests were inadequate. As a result, perhaps the main feature of Abbot Leo’s two terms of office was the start of a major redevelopment of the Abbey precinct. This was the largest building programme since the completion of the church, and a recognition by the monks that their ministry of hospitality to visitors was of the utmost importance. A new car park,a gift shop and the Grange restaurant were built.

Hospitality, Evangelisation and the Millennium 1990+
Dom David Charlesworth was first elected in 1992 and is currently serving his third term of office. Abbot David has been committed to Buckfast’s mission of education and pastoral outreach from the beginning of his abbacy. During his time as Abbot, the Education Department has continued to flourish and St Cuthbert’s Conference Centre, located on the site of the former school, has become an integral part of Buckfast’s ministry of welcome.

Hospitality 2000+
The necessity for additional accommodation became  increasingly apparent so in 1993, the Southgate Retreat Centre was blessed and opened, providing hospitality for groups and individuals who wished to stay at the Abbey.

Jumping forward 20 years, the ministry of hospitality at Buckfast received a wonderful new resource in the shape of Northgate House Hotel. The hotel, blessed and opened in 2015, was able to offer accommodation to those using the Abbey’s Conference centre, as well as to the many guests taking advantage of Buckfast’s beauty and perfect location in South Devon.

If hospitality is part of Buckfast’s Gospel-based mission of outreach, this evangelisation becomes more explicit when focussed on the Abbey church itself. In order to provide a fitting and beautiful place of worship, an exhaustive cleaning, conservation and restoration of the church’s exterior and interior was begun in 2011. In 2013-14, this monumental task included the laying of a new floor of Purbeck stone together with a further section of Cosmati flooring around the altar.

The Cosmatesque pavement around the altar, December 2014

Another important aspect of this evangelisation has been a renewed focus on the Abbey’s liturgical and musical apostolate. The Abbey Choir in its present form was founded in 2009 and attracts semi-professional singers from across the region and beyond. Buckfast has also created its own record label, Ad Fontes, dedicated to presenting recordings of the finest sacred music. The label specialises in choral and organ music, with a focus on the Choir of Buckfast Abbey and the new Ruffatti organ.

1018-2018 Millennium Celebrations
Our final section of Buckfast’s history takes us all the way back to where we began. In 2018, Abbot David Charlesworth and the Buckfast Community celebrated 1,000 years since the foundation of the Abbey in 1018. A new exhibition centre was opened which explains the Benedictine Way of Life and a millennium Garden was created. Let us give the final word to Abbot David himself as he explains the significance of these celebrations: “Throughout the Millennium Year we have always been thankful to God for all the blessings He has bestowed upon our Community. Those first monks would be amazed by all that has happened on this site over the past 1,000 years. This beautiful location next to the River Dart reminds us of the glory of God’s creation and the monks, as custodians of this environment, have sought over the centuries to enhance it with the building of a magnificent Abbey whose symbolism attests to the Christian message.”

Solemnity of Our Lady of Buckfast, 1000th Anniversary of the Foundation Charter - 24th May 2018