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Program 107

Forde Abbey


Dorset, like nearby Devon and Somerset, is a county in England's West Country known for its beauty and charm. Its villages, farms and countryside evoke a strong sense of rural history reaching back thousands of years, with Roman ruins and even prehistoric burial mounds crowning many of the area's hilltops. Of the famous people who have lived in Dorset, one of the most notable is novelist Thomas Hardy, many of whose 19th-century classics took Dorset as the inspiration for their setting.

In the medieval era, Catholic monasteries gained significant power over the region. Built as a Cistercian monastery in 1146, Forde Abbey is today a stately family home with award-winning gardens. Though it was a small number of monks who started the abbey, it nevertheless became one of the wealthiest and the most cultured monasteries in the southwest of England, flourishing for 300 years. Many parts of the original abbey are now gone, including the church, and what remains has been adapted to another purpose, and yet the essence of a monastery inhabited by 12-century monks survives.

The last of Forde Abbey's 32 abbots , Thomas Chard—whose name now graces the nearby Somerset town of Chard—devoted years to keeping the abbey in good repair, adding a tower over the entrance door in the then-contemporary perpendicular style. But the large monasteries were doomed. Famously quarrelsome with the Catholic Church, Henry VIII sought to increase both his preeminence and his treasury by destroying the monastic system in England, ordering the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Conveniently for Henry, all the monastic properties reverted to the Crown. Accordingly, Thomas Chard and his 12 monks handed Forde Abbey over to the king, and Chard was then appointed vicar of the local village.

But the abbey was left neglected by absentee landlords for over 100 years. Eventually it was purchased by Sir Edmund Prideaux, Oliver Cromwell's attorney general during England's Commonwealth period. Prideaux had great plans for the building. He favored the Italian palazzo style and turned the abbey into an elegant, up-market family home. Using the skills of the finest English craftsmen, more space was added above the cloisters and the abbey's main rooms were lavishly transformed with paneling and plasterwork.

As for the gardens, each generation of residents has added its own touches to the abbey's grounds, virtually since the time of the monks. As the art and craft of garden landscaping developed in England over the centuries, the design of the abbey's gardens has also gradually changed, from what was likely the more naturalistic setting of the monastery, to the carefully tended lawns, trees, flowers and waterfalls visitors can see today.

Forde Abbey has been owned since the late 1800s by the present family, the Ropers, who continue to live and farm there.

To learn more about Forde Abbey and Dorset, visit: and


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