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
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 Chardwhose name now graces
the nearby Somerset town of Charddevoted 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
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
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: www.fordeabbey.co.uk and www.dorset-cc.gov.uk.
Sources: fordeabbey.co.uk, dorset-cc.gov.uk