A Cotteswold Shrine, England

Could Stephen Sagar, last Abbot of Hailes, revisit the beautiful scene once so familiar to him and to his brother, who now lie side by side in a far-off Yorkshire village churchyard, the sight of his Abbey would scarcely make him desirous to linger there. For, with the exception of some broken portions of the south wall of the Church and merely a shell of the Cloister, together with some of its doors, the House he ruled has vanished. The Shrine with its renowned Relic went already during his own lifetime, as also did the five bells and the lead from the long roofs. But now even the chever of pentagonal chapels, which formed a graceful crown above and around the 'Shrine of the Holy Blood,' can only be traced below the soil. It is level almost with the coffinless skeletons of Princes, Abbots, and noble Knights, whose tombs have been violated and ransacked at the Dissolution. But there, at least, the spade has discovered the complete foundations (as the plan subjoined shews,) and almost as clearly the mental eye can re-construct it, together with its elaborate groups of buttresses formed of the golden oolite from the neighboring hills. This it is that the aforesaid Abbot would need to do. The Infirmary, Guest-house, the far-extending Precinct-wall, and both Gate-houses, have likewise disappeared, together with, not merely the Dorter, Chapter-House. Warming-Parlour, and Prater, but that also which the Augmentation Commissioners spared even the Abbot's own Dwelling-House located in what had once been the Cellarer's Building. He would find nothing above the green pasture of the rich and ancient meadow-land, appropriately called Hailes, Hayles, or better Hales (Cf . Hales-Owen and Sheriff-Hales: A. S. Healh, = meadow-land,) but the imperfect walls of the Cloister, containing the original entrances to various important domestic buildings, and through all which he (and greater men than he) must very often have passed. He would, moreover, learn that the country-maids fear to pass through the field after sundown, for dread of ghosts; that many believe a golden coffin lies buried somewhere in it doubtless a reminiscence of the once-splendid sepulchre of Richard Plantagenet, King of the Romans; and finally, that there is a great subterranean passage leading to Coscombe, at the end of which sits a virgin mourning.

Like so many Abbeys, Hailes has been used, time out of mind, as a convenient stone-quarry; and the antiquary, and the wild birds that yearly nest in the remains, may be duly thankful that it has not been absolutely deleted. That it has not been, will be the part-purpose of the following pages to shew. In this respect, at least, it has certainly fared far better than its more ancient neighbors at Winchcombe or Evesham, though less well than either Tewkesbury or Gloucester.

In order, to put the Abbey-History into form rather more fully than hitherto has been possible to do, it has seemed necessary to bear in mind the historical and topographical setting belonging both to the site and to the Abbey on it; namely, that of the Manor in which the latter came to be placed, and to which it has added a most singular, if much-neglected, interest. For, although the County of Gloucester contained two other Cistercian Foundations, i.e., at Flaxley and at Kingswood, and though the Cistercian order possessed many splendid houses up and down the land, there was only one Cistercian Shrine in all England; and that was, even here at Hailes, built by a Plantagenet Prince in mid-thirteenth century.

It may, perhaps, be thought that the story should have been kept within narrower limits, that is, strictly to the Manor. Parish, and Abbey thus intimately wedded; that the Umner might have employed a smaller canvas, and this more especially so, because the story of Winchcombe (placed but two and a half miles away), has a long while since found a loving pen. This, nevertheless, proved impracticable, for the reason that both Sudeley Castle and Winchcombe Abbey (as nearest neighbors often are found to do), considerably influenced the course of the destinies of Hailes and of some of its owners, both as a Manor and as an Abbey.

In a more subsidiary manner it became needful to take into account the intimate connections of Hailes with Didbrook, Stan-way, and Toddington, not to speak of Snowshill, Stanton, Rowell, and Farmcote; which all stood as in ministering relationship of satellites to the two monastic worlds which for a time controlled their destinies. Excuse, if necessary, will be found for this if in the process of so-doing it may prove to have been possible to record certain peculiar local interests of those places, which (as far as the writer is aware), have escaped the recording pens of more worthy predecessors, the County Historians.

 

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Battles have ceased among these green, beautiful hills. The clash of bronze and iron is heard here no more. The shaggy boars, that once haunted them, have vanished from their dark woods. But the clouds, tinged with western light, look down, as they silently pass, upon the very same prehistoric camps, upon the same high and lonely burial-mounds where unknown warriors sleep and dry leaves still whirl around them that crown bold crest and rugged escarpment; there, at Cleeve, across the vale yonder, lifted above Winchcombe; there, again, on the isolated pine-crowned hill in Toddington deer-park ; at superb Bredon, further off; or finally, here, at woodland Beckbury. Below the last the ancient manor of Hailes* is spread even as a green carpet, and patterned out into irregular pasture-fields.