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The Cistercian Abbey of Woburn

Woburn Abbey coat of arms
Woburn Abbey coat of arms

Woburn Abbey was founded by the Cistercian Order in 1145 during the reign of King Stephen (1135-11554). It was founded by Cistercians from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. The Cistercians were themselves founded at Cîteaux near Dijon in eastern France in 1098 by Benedictine monks who wanted to return to the strictest observation of the Rules of Saint Benedict. They wore white habits and were an enclosed order of monks.


There was another Cistercian abbey in Bedfordshire – at Old Warden. There were over eighty Cistercian abbeys in England (for nuns as well as monks), as well as priories and granges; the most famous include Furness in Cumbria, Buckfast and Buckland in Devon, Hailes in Gloucestershire, Beaulieu in Hampshire, Quarr on the Isle of Wight, Buildwas in Shropshire, Cleeve in Somerset and Byland, Fountains, Jervaulx, Kirkstall and Rievaulx all in Yorkshire. Monks from Woburn founded Medmenham Abbey in Buckinghamshire


Woburn was first endowed by the Lord of the Manor, Hugh de Bolbec, who granted his manor to the abbey to give it income. The abbey would have had a document containing all its grants of land and privileges, a document known as a cartulary. Sadly, as Gladys Scott Thomson reported in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Volume XVI of 1933 [CRT130Woburn59]: “The ancient deeds and charters of the abbey have disappeared and there is, unfortunately, some ground for believing that they are no longer in existence. The late Cardinal Gasquet held fast to the hope and expectation that ultimately a detailed examination of the muniments of the Dukes of Bedford would disclose the early deeds and other documents of Woburn Abbey. In this expectation he would have been disappointed. The present Duke of Bedford is himself keenly interested in the history of the abbey and gave full facilities for a comprehensive search among all his muniments and papers. The melancholy result is that no trace of the early Woburn deeds, in a collection which has preserved everything belonging to other property, has been found”. Nothing has come to light since 1933 either.


Miss Scott Thompson went on to say that there was evidence that the dukes had never had the abbey archives, as there was a gap of ten years between the dissolution of the abbey in the 1538 and the acquisition of the property by the Russell family, initially on a lease from the Crown.


Fortunately the findings of the Court of Augmentations with regard to Woburn are held by The National Archives. This court was established in 1536 to deal with the property and income of all the dissolved religious houses. The accounts for Bedfordshire were published in two volumes (Numbers 63 and 64) by Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1984 and 1985.


As might be expected the abbey, as it held the Manor of Woburn, held most of the buildings in the town of Woburn itself including The George Inn, The King’s Head Inn, The White Hart Inn, the Market Place and Utcoate Grange. In addition the abbey owned the following manors: Eversholt, Potsgrove and Westoning. The abbey also owned lands in the following Bedfordshire parishes: Battlesden; Biddenham; Hockliffe (including Tebworth); Hulcote; Husborne Crawley; Milton Bryan; Pulloxhill (including Greenfield); Ridgmont and Toddington; the following Buckinghamshire parishes: Bow Brickhill; Cheddington; Chesham; Drayton Parslow; Great Brickhill; Linslade; North Crawley; Quainton; Shenley; Soulbury; Stewkley; Swanbourne; Waddesdon; Wavendon; Whaddon; Wing; Wingrave and Woughton as well as land in London and the following parishes in other counties: Fewcott [Oxfordshire]; Hemingford Abbots [Huntingdonshire]; Little Houghton [Northamptonshire] and Whitchurch [Berkshire]


A short history of the abbey was written in Volume I of The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire published in 1904. In 1202 Peter, Abbot of Woburn, was sent to Worcester to investigate miracles taking place at the shrine of Bishop Wulfstan and he was one of the papal commissioners in Wulfstan’s canonisation as a saint.


In 1234 Woburn Abbey was reduced to a state of poverty. The abbot, Richard, was removed so one can only conclude that he was to blame by his bad management. He was replaced by a monk from Fountains called Roger and most of the monks and lay brothers seem to have been dispersed to other houses until Woburn had built up the means to support them again.

Key in this rebuilding process would have been the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair in Woburn - granted by Henry III (1216-1272) in 1245, a hundred years after the foundation of the abbey. By 1290 the abbey was one of the richest religious houses in the county and probably had forty of fifty monks. The rest of the history of the abbey is largely unrecorded until it was dissolved in 1538.


At the time of the dissolution there were thirteen monks, perhaps more, as well as the abbot. There does not seem to have been a prior (second-in-command to the abbot) at the time, though there was a sub-prior.

The Abbot of Woburn was Robert Hobbes and evidence points to his running a well regulated abbey rather than the sort of licentious and lazy place of popular mythology. Hobbes was very opposed to Protestantism and reform of the church which made his fate almost unavoidable. Two of his own monks gave evidence to the King’s commission against him though they do not seem to have been motivated by personal animosity but by inclination towards the new faith. Two or three more brethren were with Hobbes in strongly opposing the new ways but the majority of the monks seem to have been neutral.


In 1535 a royal official had visited the abbey and extracted the Oath of Supremacy, that the King, not the Pope, was Head of the Church in England from all the inmates. He also took all the papal bulls (executive orders, as it were, from the pope) from the premises. Hobbes, however, had copies of the bulls made before delivering them up. At Hobbes’ trial he expressed the view that he felt himself a coward in taking the Oath of Supremacy. He became ill in Lent 1538 and expressed the wish that he had died with Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher of Rochester who had both been executed for not taking the oath.


The most immediate cause of Hobbes’ undoing was the discovery of the copied papal bulls by an assistant priest, formerly a friar, at Woburn chapel who was new a convinced Protestant. He took them to the court in London and on his return was dismissed from his post by the abbot. In early May two royal commissioners, named Legh and Williams, arrived and the abbey was surrendered to the Crown on 8th May. Williams retuned to Woburn a few days later with a man named Petre, who had administered the oaths and seized the papal bulls in 1536. The abbot was questioned in opposing the supremacy of Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England on 11th and 12th May and practically confessed all he was charged with.


At the summer assizes at Woburn on 14th June 1538 Hobbes was tried for treason along with the sub-prior, Ralph Barnes alias Woburn, and a sexton called Laurence Blunham who had boasted that he had never taken the oath and never would. Hobbes, it was stated, had said that: “The Bysshop of Rome’s Auctorite is good and lawfull within this Realme accordyng to the old trade and that is the true waye And the Contrary of the kynge's parte but usurpacion discuyved by flattery and adulacion”. He was also reported to have said: “Yt is a mervelous thing that the Kynge’s grace could not be contented with that noble queen his very true and undowted wyffe queen Kateryn”. These were very dangerous words. The abbot made no defence and the jury (John Davy of Ampthill, Thomas Vernam, gentleman, John Carter, William Cotton, William Pantoft, William Sybthorpe, John Laurens, William Borne, Thomas Borage, Richard Reve, Robert Hethe, John Wellys and Richard Hawkyns) had no realistic option but to find him, and his two co-defendants, guilty.


All three were duly convicted. All three made separate pleas for mercy but it was refused. Clearly Hobbes admired More and Fisher but could not find their courage. The abbot was sentenced to be taken to the prison from whence he had come and to be drawn from there through the town of Woburn to the “furcae” and there be hanged and, while, living, thrown to the ground and his bowels removed and burned in front of him, his head then being cut off and his body divided into four and the quarters with the head dispersed to points the king should appoint for public display.


The date of the execution is not given nor is it specified where the furcae were. Gladys Scott Thomson in her piece for the Royal Historical Society says “A tradition so strong that it must be treated with respect points to an oak tree in sight of the abbey, 193 yards from the south-west corner of the west front, as the scene of the execution. Loudoun, who saw it in 1836, estimated its age then as 500 years. If that excellent authority be accepted, then in 1538 it was about 200 years old”.


Furcae is the Latin word for forks. In this interpretation the forks would, presumably, be the point branches left the trunk of the tree. Another explanation would be that furcae means forks in the road which would point to the spot where Park Street forks off from the Market Place/George Street and Leighton Street does the same thing on the opposite side of the road. This would have made a much more public spectacle. Perhaps one of the abbot’s quarters was nailed to the eponymous Abbot's Oak in Woburn Park.


Miss Scott Thomson traced the subsequent history of five of Woburn’s remaining monks. Edward Bune, alias Woburn, became Rector of Fortho in Northamptonshire and later Rector of Grafton Regis [Northamptonshire], finally returning to his old haunts as Rector of Eversholt in 1560. Robert Slingsby, priested by Bune, became Vicar of Stagsden and then Rector of Aston on the Walls in Northamptonshire; he died in 1585. Thomas Toller alias Tailor was curate in Woburn in 1538, he became Rector of Stibbington [Huntingdonshire] in 1558, a living in the gift of the Earls of Bedford. Each of these three was young at the time of the dissolution and were probably the most open to Protestantism.


William Styl or Stolt was an older man and had been Abbot of Vaudey in Lincolnshire, becoming cellarer at Woburn in 1534. John Grace was also an older man. He and Styl witnessed a document declaring Sir Francis Bryan had been steward of Woburn Abbey in 1545.


The following is a partial list of abbots of Woburn:

  • Allan; the first abbot; from The Abbey of Saint Mary, York; he was living in 1170 when Richard, Abbot of Fountains died at Woburn;
  • William - 1180;
  • Peter - 1200;
  • Nicholas - 1203;
  • William - 1204;
  • Richard – 1217; deposed 1234;
  • Roger – 1233; a monk of Fountains Abbey;
  • Adam de Luton, died 12th March 1247;
  • Nicholas – 1247, Abbot of Medmenham;
  • Roger – 1261; died 1281;
  • Hugh de Soulbury - 1281;
  • William - 1289;
  • Robert de Stoke - 1297;
  • Henry - 1312;
  • Robert - 1325;
  • William Monepeny;
  • William Hawburton - 1436;
  • John de Esseby - 1458;
  • Robert Charlet - 1463;
  • Robert Hall - 1483;
  • Thomas Hogeson - 1499;
  • Robert Hobbes – 1521; executed 1538.


There is a local tradition that today’s Woburn Abbey stands on the site of the cloister of the monastic building. None of the structure of the old abbey survives above ground though English Heritage, in the listing for the house, considers that some of the fabric has been re-used in the later building. The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The entry for the abbey [HER 40] notes: “Small scale investigations and observations have located the remains of a medieval wall under the north west corner of the present house, which may relate to the west end of the church. Skeletons are reported to have been found to the north of the house”.


Of interest may be the story told by a former guide at the Abbey, now deceased. She was taking refreshment in the undercroft area, set aside for employees, when she was a figure in white. She took no real notice, thinking it was a workman in white overalls, until the figure disappeared through a wall in front of her!

Woburn Abbey south front seen from London Road January 2008
Woburn Abbey south front seen from London Road January 2008