Forde Abbey

Forde Abbey

Forde Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery in Dorset, England, now run as a visitor attraction.



In 1136 Richard de Brioniis founded a Cistercian monastery at Brightley in Devon. Unfortunately, the land was too barren for an agricultural community so the monks were forced to abandon it. On their journey back to Surrey in 1141 they met their former patron’s sister and heir, Adelicia de Brioniis. Determined to honour the wish of her dead brother, she offered them the use of the Manor of Thorncombe and a site on the River Axe. They accepted and within seven years the monastery of Forde Abbey was built.


Forde Abbey flourished as a monastery for four hundred years and became renowned as a seat of learning. The third abbot, Abbot Baldwin, became Archbishop of Canterbury before dying on the crusades and his successor, John Devonius, was confessor to King John and reputably one of the most learned men of his time.


The last Abbot was Thomas Chard. Abbot Chard succeeded in 1521, and applied his substantial learning and imagination to a comprehensive restructuring of the fabric of the building. In 1539, however, Chard was interrupted by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Chard decided that discretion was the better part of valour and handed Forde Abbey over to the Crown and became vicar of Thorncombe until his death in 1543. In the same year the Abbey and its lands was leased by the Crown to Richard Pollard for the sum of £49. 6s. 6d.

ecular owners

Richard Pollard was later knighted and Sir Richard Pollard’s son sold Forde Abbey to his relative, Sir Amias Poulet of Hinton St George. Sir Amias and his father before him, had acted as Steward of the Abbey and its property while it was a monastery. In 1580-81 Sir Amias Poulet was licensed to alienate lands belonging to that abbey to William Rosewell the 20 year old son of William Rosewell, Solicitor-General. Forde Abbey probably changed hands about the same time. William Rosewell of Forde died in 1593 and Forde Abbey was left to his wife Anne. Their son Henry probably took ownership on maturity in 1611. Henry became Sir Henry Rosewell of Forde in 1619. Forde Abbey was held for nearly seventy years by the Rosewells until it was sold in 1649 to Edmund Prideaux, Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis, fervent supporter of the parliamentary cause and later, Oliver Cromwell Attorney General. Edmond Prideaux was largely responsible for transforming Forde Abbey from a Monastic residence to a private home. Prideaux died in 1659 and was succeeded by his son, also Edmund. Despite being considered an intelligent man he made the disastrous mistake of entertaining the Duke of Monmouth one night in 1680.

Five years later, after the Battle of Sedgemoor, in which James II's army defeated Monmouth’s Protestant rebels, Prideaux was suspected of having supported the invasion. On the slender pretext of Monmouth’s earlier visit to Forde, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of high treason. The notorious Judge Jefferies demanded a sum of £15,000 to save him from the gallows. Edmund was ultimately pardoned, and lived quietly at Forde until his death in 1702.

The estate was inherited by Prideaux's daughter Margaret with her husband Francis Gwyn, later Secretary of War to Queen Anne. They and their descendants inhabited the Abbey throughout the 18th century making few changes to the house. To their eternal credit however, they created the gardens. A lack of money meant that John Fraunceis, last of the Gwyns, was unable to continue living in the Abbey. In 1815 he moved abroad and rented the Abbey to the radical philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham entertained a number of famous guests here, among them John Stuart Mill.

John Fraunceis Gwyn died without heirs in 1846 resulting in a massive sale of the Abbey’s contents and only a few items have since been recovered. The house and lands were sold to a merchant called Miles, who apparently occupied just five rooms and allowed the rest to fall into disrepair. Forde was again sold in 1863 to Mrs Bertram Evans and so began another period of investment. Mrs Evans died in 1894, leaving the Abbey to her son William Herbert who, in turn, left it to his cousin Elizabeth, who was married to Freeman Roper. The Ropers moved into the Abbey in 1905.

In 1943 Elizabeth Roper died and the house passed in to the care of her second son, Geoffrey and his wife Diana. Geoffrey devoted his whole life to the Abbey and its gardens, living there for almost eighty years. He added the arboretum and planted many of the woods that are a feature of the estate. Today, Geoffrey Roper’s son, Mark, his wife Lisa, daughter Alice and her husband, Julian, maintain this beautiful building and the surrounding garden and farmland.

External links

* [ Forde Abbey website]
* [ Thorncombe village website]
* [ Annual Forde Abbey 10K Run]


*Frances B James, (1888), 'Sir Henry Rosewell: A Devon Worthy', Trans. Devon Assoc., 20, 113-122.
*C. Sherwin, (1927), 'The History of Ford Abbey', Trans. Devon Assoc., 59, 249-264.

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