For about three hundred years during the Middle Ages a religious order of monks originally from a foreign land flourished in the New Forest. Part of a network of Cistercian monasteries that spread across Europe from Sweden to Portugal, the presence of the Abbey at Beaulieu had a huge impact on the area.
The white monks of Beaulieu Abbey were renowned as breeders of cattle sheep and horses. Their engineering skills made them pioneers in the development of various types of water wheel, an essential ingredient in efficient wool production. Skilled in the use of medicinal herbs they were the only doctors available to the common folk.
Whilst Abbey’s in Yorkshire became the most wealthy from wool, Beaulieu played its part. trading with Italian merchants through the nearby port of Southampton. Then they were gone, their belief system persecuted as the old religion and their beautiful Abbey left in ghostly ruin.
Remote locations on poor soil
Cistercian monks generally favoured remote locations with poor soil as sites for their Abbey’s. The ideal that they strove for and regularly attained in the earlier years was complete self sufficiency. As they preferred to improve poor ground through their farming endeavours rather than start off with good land the acidic soil of the New Forest would have suited their requirements. The Cistercian order is known to have practiced woodland management, a good thing for the Forest at a time when forests across Europe were being cut down and lost forever.
Yorkshire was still a wasteland after the terrible destruction carried out by William the Conquerer in 1069 as he subdued the country soon after being crowned. Much of the population had starved to death and both York and Durham had been burnt to the ground. The white monks who founded Abbey’s in the north east from 1132, transformed these still barren areas into huge sheep runs.
Bad King John
Bad King John had done plenty to get the bad added in front of his name. He and and his famous brother Richard the Lionheart weren’t big on family loyalty. When they rebelled against the King,their dad, Henry the second, the old man died of a broken heart. The sixteen French knights that John starved to death inside Corfe Castle probably didn’t have a good word to say about him either! His majesty didn’t let the implication of his nick name, soft sword, stop him from having his way with the wives of the nobility, much to the disgust of his barons. John lived in a time when people excepted eternal hell fire as being as inevitable as death and taxes if you were a murderous psychopath. One night King John, we are told, had a particularly bad dream that reminded him of his sins and his inevitable fate. Once described as having distasteful even dangerous personality traits, John had plenty to worry about. The conventional wisdom of the day believed that if you were rich enough to be very generous to the church you could escape the expected fires of hell. This nightmare made such a deep impression on him that it led to the founding of a monastery at Beaulieu in 1204 which he paid for.
The Cistercian order, originally founded in France a hundred years before Johns nightmare, were no strangers to having bad boy benefactors. At their very inception in 1098 the feared and hated Bishop Odo played a role in their establishment. The half brother of William the Conquerer, the heavy-handedness and greed of Odo caused a rebellion in Kent after the battle of Hastings, in fact he caused trouble where ever he went. If Williams victory was a gaping wound to Saxon England the odious Odo was the salt that was rubbed in afterwards. Bishop Odo gave land and building materials to help the first Cistercian Abbey in France get started.
The Cistercians were founded by monks who wanted to practice a more simple and austere form of spiritual life which they felt other orders of monks had drifted away from. Working the land was a type of praying in itself for them and they became very knowledgable agriculturists. Some were trained as herbalists and seeking their help was the only option for the local poor and down trodden if they became ill. Along with other religious houses, Beaulieu was able to offer a safe place to live for those sought by the King for crimes real or imagined. This practice of sheltering fugitives from the law was called sanctuary and was a right given directly by the Pope to the Abbey at Beaulieu.
The Cistercians wore white so as to be distinguishable from other orders of monks. To the poor in times of sickness and to the oppressed on the run from the Kings’ law they must indeed have looked like beings from heaven.
For a time in the thirteenth century the White Monks became the most powerful religious order in Western Europe and very influential in many countries.
William Cobbett in his book Rural Rides talks highly of the Beaulieu monks. Cobbett, writing in the 1820s, mirrors the high esteem that the local folk held the white monks in. Always happy to knock the clergy off their perch this defender of the oppressed was not one to pull his punches at the slightest whiff of hypocrisy or double standards. Self confessed Pope hating Protestant himself, nonetheless he acknowledges the huge help that the Catholic Abbey had been to the ordinary people of the area.
The Wool Trade
There had always been a wool trade in Britain since the Bronze Age but this was on a very small scale compared to what was to come within a hundred and fifty years of the Norman conquest. The network of Cistercian Abbey’s across Britain, with their know how and European wide contacts, made the white monks major players in the growth of The wool trade. The demand for wool from countries in Europe made Britain very rich. It is quite likely that without the wealth from wool the Hundred year war with France, with it’s many slaughters and the lose of thousands of lives across France, would not have even been possible!
This was a time when most people who worked the land hardly if ever left the village that they were born in. The White Monks, some of whom travelled to other monastery’s the length and breath of Europe, were at the cutting edge of new ideas and technological breakthroughs. The latest discovery in hydro power somewhere in Spain would soon be known about back in Beaulieu.
Many of the sheep grew a wool that was course and unsuitable for the export market. With their knowledge of horse and cattle as well as sheep breeding the monks were able to improve the quality of the wool. The huge flock at Beaulieu had an excellent reputation and were able to command a good price. The White Monks also won the favour of visiting merchants by selling their wool at three distinct grades. This form of quality control was much appreciated and they developed a reputation that was respected. A vital ingredient In the preparation of wool is plenty of fast flowing water. While the relatively flat New Forest could never match the cascading streams on Yorkshires steep limestone, the monks had an ace card up their sleeve. Strategically placed on the Beaulieu River their Abbey was perfectly positioned to capitalise on the monks engineering skills in the dangerous business of building water mills.
The above advantages enabled the White Monks to act as middlemen for other smaller producers of wool, which greatly increased their wealth.
A meat free diet
The ideal diet for the Cistercian order was meat free. While not all monks followed this practice many did. The monks often had important guests who were given the high quality beef and lamb that the Abbey produced to feast upon. For the strict monks there was a huge bonus in their Abbey’s location regarding their diet. Living right beside a river and not far from the open sea, the monks were not short of both fresh and salt water fish. A further supply of fish came from the especially stocked lake that the monks farmed for this purpose.
The cowslip flower, a lasting legacy to the white monks
The cowslip, sometimes called the fairy cup, featured heavily in the herbal treatments and mythology of the Druids. It cannot grow on acid soil and so is absent from the New Forest except for one place. This yellow flower flourishes in the graveyard at Beaulieu were the bones of many medieval monks give the calcium that the rest of the Forest cannot supply.
The Suppression of the monasteries
In 1536 Henry the Eighth began to close all the Abbey’s and convents in the land and confiscate their property. It was a new age with a new religion and much that was old and medieval was swept away. The Tudors vision for the future was material rather than spiritual. Psychopathic pirates such as Sir Francis Drake were given permission by Henry’s daughter Elizabeth to plunder ships at sea, a first step towards a world empire.
Some three hundred and thirty years after the supposed troubled conscience of a vindictive tyrant caused the flowering of a spiritual community it was all over. These were people who saw working the land and observing nature as not apart from prayer were no longer of use. Monks who were at ease with themselves both in the silent solitude of the Forest, dealing with foreign merchants, or implementing the latest engineering to hydro power were now of less value than their assets would be to Henry. On the whim of a multiple wife decapitating King a peaceful spiritual Beautiful place was left a ruin.