Ford Abbey lies in the remote extreme north-west of the County in an incredibly beautiful heavily wooded valley, which it shares with the river Axe. Unquestionably one of the most attractive houses in Dorset, it is surrounded by 30 acres of sumptuous landscaped gardens and ponds, making an assault on the senses that are both a delight and lasting memory.
The chapel was formed out of the monk's chapter house, by Edmund Prideaux sometime after he purchased the property in 1649. His architect (see below) carefully preserved the 12c ribbed vaulting and the Perpendicular window above the altar that was originally installed by Abbot Thomas Chard (16c). Otherwise, the furnishings are excellent examples of 17c craftsmanship. An impressive oak chancel screen divides the space. It is embellished with an attractive segmental pediment, gilded foliar decorative carving and superb pierced foliage above the double doorway. On the northern side of the chancel is a small but very pleasing organ, which is said by Pevsner to be late Georgian Gothic. Opposite, there is a truly magnificent pulpit, replete with its own oval window, which must be the tallest in Dorset! Presumably it had to be this high so that the congregation could see the preacher over the top of the screen. It is built into the wall and was commissioned by Sir Francis Gwyn sometime during the 18c. Other items of great interest are the 12c pillar piscina and the impressive paneling and gilding including some rather glum cherubs. High on the north wall of the chancel is a late 16c helmet with a bust above.
Legend has it that Richard de Brioniis, Earl of Exeter, founded a Cistercian abbey for 12 monks at Brightly near Okehampton in 1136. Unfortunately, he died a year later and the monks had to fend for themselves, but after four years and nearly starving they decided to return to their mother-house in Surrey. On their way through Thorncombe they were met by Adelicia, the founder's sister, who seeing their state, lent them her house and gave them land. Choosing a site near a ford across the the river, they erected the principal buildings within seven years, although the abbey church took one hundred years to complete.
In due course, the Order prospered mightily, being showered with gifts of land and endowments in payment for prayers said by the monks for the souls of the departed. Before the Reformation, England was an entirely Roman Catholic nation and an important part of the religion is the belief that after death the soul enters a sort of 'between' stage known as purgatory. The duration of a stay there could be reduced by giving gifts to the church during a lifetime or purchasing indulgencies or by paying for priests to say Masses on the soul's behalf. Ideally, arrangements should be made for the Masses to be said for ever, hence the need for miniature chapels, known as chantry chapels. All this was strictly for the seriously wealthy and, as a result, the church became hugely rich. Since they could not pay, the poor were not specifically catered for. By the end of the 13c, the monastery owned about 30,000 acres of Devon, Dorset and Somerset.
The third Abbot, Baldwin, rose to become the Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned King Richard Coeur de Lion (1189-99) before dying (1190) while accompanying him on a Crusade.
The monastery flourished for 400 years and its wealth, along with many others, had not escaped the eye of King Henry VIII. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Abbot Chard, having undoubtedly heard of the fate of the Abbot of Glastonbury, who was hanged from his own gates for refusing to hand everything over, discretely surrendered Forde to the King's men and was rewarded by being made vicar of Thorncombe until his death in 1543.
For the next 100 years, the Abbey was let by absentee landlords to a number of tenants with the result that the Abbey church was allowed to decay and its stone plundered and used elsewhere. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell's Attorney General, Edmund Prideaux, bought the property and set about converting it into the gracious mansion it is today. The Abbot's lodgings became the family's quarters and the lay brothers accommodation was made into a grand saloon and all was much beautified with lavish paneling and plasterwork. He converted what had been the monk's chapter house (where the business of the monastery was discussed) into a chapel. The conversion has sometimes been attributed to Inigo Jones, but as he was a well-known royalist it is much more likely to have been the work of Edward Carter who was the architect responsible for the Middle Temple in London. Prideaux's son, also Edmund, after inheriting Forde (1659) made the mistake of being loosely associated with the Monmouth Rebellion and found himself answering for it in front of the notorious Judge Jefferies. After a sojourn in the Tower of London, he had to pay £15,000 to escape the gallows. In the end he was pardoned and quietly lived out his days at Forde. His daughter, who was married to Francis Gwyn, the Secretary of War to Queen Anne, inherited in 1702. Their successors continued to live in the house, but died out in 1846 when it was sold to a Mr Miles, who allowed the property to decay badly. In 1863 it was sold again, this time to Mrs Evans who embarked on the period of serious investment that saved the structure. Through bequests and marriage, the estate came into the hands of the Roper family in 1905. It has been in their care ever since.
For further information, please visit www.fordeabbey.co.uk
This is a stunning building in an exquisite setting, which most generously repays a visit.
The Trust gratefully acknowledges images and text by Robin Adeney ©