Saturday, July 22, 2017

Whalley Abbey

by Elizabeth Ashworth

The Cistercian monks of Whalley originally had an abbey at Stanlaw in Cheshire, founded by John FitzEustace, constable of Chester on the eve of his departure for the Holy Land in 1178. It was built on a sandstone outcrop at the confluence of the rivers Mersey and Gowy, and was surrounded by low-lying marshland. In 1279, a great storm flooded much of the abbey and representation was made to the Pope for permission to leave and build a new monastery on another site.

Whalley Abbey
When John FitzEustace’s son, Roger, had inherited the Honour of Clitheroe from his grandmother and taken the de Lacy name, he had granted the valuable rectory of Rochdale to Stanlaw Abbey. Roger’s son, John de Lacy, who became the Earl of Lincoln, also granted various lands in Lancashire to the abbey, including the rectory of Blackburn. So it wasn’t surprising that the monks looked to Henry de Lacy (the great, great grandson of the original founder) when seeking a new home. Neither Rochdale nor Blackburn was deemed suitable, but when the site at Whalley, on the banks of the River Calder, was offered the monks agreed to migrate to there.

Henry de Lacy agreed to give the land at Whalley on certain conditions: the remains of his ancestors and others buried at Stanlaw would be reburied at Whalley, and the name of the abbey would continue to be Locus Benedictus (the blessed place). On 23rd July 1289, Pope Nicholas IV granted a licence for the translation of the abbey and the appropriation of the church at Whalley on the resignation or death of its aged rector, Peter de Cestria (Peter of Chester), who had held the benefice for 54 years. But he was so long-lived that the monks had to wait until January 1295 before the move to Whalley could begin, leaving behind a cell of four monks at Stanlaw.

On the 4th April 1296, St Ambrose Day, a small group of monks took possession of the land. The monks lived in Peter de Cestria’s manor house whilst building work began. It progressed slowly owing to financial difficulties, changes of abbot, problems with the weather and a lack of wood for buildings and fires, and it was not until June 1308 that Henry de Lacy laid the foundation stone for the new abbey church. Even then, the monks were not entirely happy at Whalley and after the death of Henry de Lacy in 1311, they asked Thomas of Lancaster for an alternative site, but in the end nothing came of it and under the leadership of Abbot Robert de Toppecliffe serious building work began in 1330.

Peter de Cestria's chapel.
Around this time the monks moved out of Peter de Cestria’s house into temporary accommodation, probably a collection of wooden huts in the midst of a busy building site. But their religious life would not have been neglected. Prayers would have offered and mass said every day in Peter de Cestria’s small chapel, which pre-dates the other abbey buildings. 

The chancel of the church must have been complete by 1345 when the burial of John of Cuerdale, a benefactor of the abbey, is recorded. This calls into question the re-interment of Henry de Lacy’s ancestors. He may not have lived to see the remains of his ancestors brought from Stanlaw and there is, in fact, no record of this happening, but I doubt the monks did not carry out the full terms of their licence. Henry de Lacy’s daughter, Alice did not die until 1348 and would have been eager to see her father’s wishes for her own ancestors fulfilled. And in the ruins of what would have been the chancel of the church there is a broken gravestone that clearly shows the de Lacy lion. I believe that this is the site of the burial of Roger de Lacy, John de Lacy, Edmund de Lacy and maybe their wives and other family members.

This gravestone shows the
engraving of the de Lacy lion.

In 1348, the Black Death came to England and this seems to have interrupted the work on the church as permission was given to build a crenelated wall around the outer precincts of the abbey, probably to guard against the plague being brought in by casual visitors. When the sickness passed work began again on the central tower of the church, which was built in a plainer style than the chancel. It held a bell and a lantern and would have been three times the height of the present gatehouse. Work must have been well advanced by 1356, when Brother Ralph of Pontefract was killed by a falling stone.

Whalley Parish Church
After Henry de Lacy's death, his lands had passed to his son-in-law Thomas of Lancaster and after Thomas's execution for his rebellion against Edward II, to his younger brother Henry. In December 1360, Henry Duke of Lancaster gave land at Ramsgreave and Standen for the maintenance of a recluse or anchoress to live in a hermitage in the churchyard at Whalley. However, it seems that many of the recluses were somewhat reluctant and in 1437, a widow, Isolde Heaton, ran away from the hermitage. You can read more about it in my blogpost here: Reluctant Recluses

By 1425, the Chapter House was brought into use when William of Whalley was the abbot and an account of the dedication of the Dormitory records: Lord William, the Abbot, and the whole Convent standing in processional order sang the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamus’. Then the Abbot, clothed in a cope and carrying his pastoral staff, sprinkled all the beds with holy water…

The north east gatehouse.
The last building that completed the abbey was the North East Gatehouse and this remains today with its original great oak doors and the heavy bolt with which they can be secured. In all it took until 1444, which was 136 years after Henry de Lacy laid the foundation stone, for the abbey to be completed and even after that new buildings were added.

Life at Whalley Abbey settled into a routine of prayer, care for the sick and poor, and sheep farming. Abbot followed abbot until John Paslew entered the Novices' Cell at Whalley on St Matthew's Day 1487. His father is listed as a gentleman from Wiswell, although the family were originally from Yorkshire and had connections with East Riddlesden Hall. He became the abbot and built what seems to have been a spectacular Lady Chapel to attract both pilgrims and income, although no trace of it remains. It was during the time that John Paslew was abbot that Henry VIII decided to close down the monasteries and use their wealth for his own purposes. It was not a popular decision and throughout the north of England there was rebellion, culminating in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Although Abbot Paslew seems to have taken no active part in the uprisings, other than giving sanctuary to a monk from nearby Sawley Abbey after it was closed, he was arrested and taken to Lancaster for trial on five counts of treason. For an inexplicable reason he pleaded guilty and at the age of 70 was hanged as a traitor. Local legend says that he was hanged outside the abbey, but as there are no records it is impossible to verify whether he was killed at Lancaster or Whalley. 

After the dissolution, the site was stripped of its valuables: lead from the roof, books, plate and embroideries were taken away on carts by Thomas Cromwell's men, although some of the vestments were saved by the Towneley family of Burnley. 

The remains of the abbey were bought by Ralph Assheton who made his home in the abbot’s lodgings. The ruins of the abbey and its church remained until Mary Tudor came to the throne and brought back the Catholic faith. The families who were now living on former abbey lands became concerned that Mary would reinstate the monasteries and so Assheton, like many others, set about destroying what was left so that it was beyond use and would not be reclaimed for the church. 

The church windows were 1
probably taken from Whalley Abbey.
Windows from the abbey were taken away to be used in other places. They can be seen in the chapel of Samlesbury Hall, for example, where the Southworth family remained Catholic, and it seems that the church of St Leonard at Old Langho, one of only a handful of Catholic churches built during Mary's reign, was constructed using stones and timbers from the abbey. 

St Leonard's Old Langho

The Assheton family continued to live at Whalley Abbey until they ran out of male heirs. The house was sold to John Taylor, who in turn bequeathed it to Colonel John Hargreaves, but after the upheavals of the First World War, the role of country houses was declining and many owners found their upkeep too expensive. Colonel Hargreaves put the house up for sale in 1923 and its function was brought full circle when it was purchased by the Diocese of Manchester for use as a training college and conference centre. When the diocese was split up and the Diocese of Blackburn created the abbey came into its care and remains so.

In the 1930s, when Canon J R Lumb became the Warden of Whalley Abbey, he suggested that work could be created for the large numbers of unemployed men in the area by beginning an excavation of the gardens to see what traces of the abbey remained there. By 1936, the foundations of the church had been uncovered and on 14th June that year, the site was rededicated as a place of worship, with an altar placed on the site of the original one in the chancel of the church. Today the abbey is used as a conference centre. The grounds are open to the public for a small fee and if you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit.

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives. Originally published on 21 October 2014. 

Elizabeth Ashworth lives in Lancashire close to Whalley Abbey and has traced her ancestors in the village back to the 1600s. She has a particular interest in the history of the de Lacy family and they feature in several of her historical novels: The de Lacy Inheritance, Favoured Beyond Fortune, and The Circle of Fortune.


  1. Thank you SO much for that! I went to school next to the Abbey, the school being Whalley C of E, and remember the buildings and grounds of both the Abbey and the church very well. We moved south in 1967 but I did manage to visit some years later. Wonderful memories - I recently found my 'librarian' badge from when I was at school there! We had a tiny museum in the school library, mainly shuttles from the local cotton machines, but it inspired a love of history which I've never lost.

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  3. The school is still there and thriving. I'm not sure if it still has a museum though. I must find out. I'm glad to have brought back some happy memories for you.

  4. Hi Elizabeth, are there actually any families named Whalley in the area? Mine come from Notts

  5. Great read, I thoroughly enjoy reading about old churches in England.


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