Milton Abbey occupies probably the most beautiful setting of any church in the county of Dorset. It rests in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by delightfully wooded hills. The first church was established here in 933 by King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, to commemorate his brother lost at sea. Legend has it that Athelstan was responsible for the death because he thought his brother was plotting to take the throne and had him cast adrift in a boat with neither oars nor sail. Almost certainly prompted by guilt, he endowed the Abbey with the income from sixteen manors in Dorset and several important relics of saints from Brittany, thus ensuring a generous income from pilgrims.
King Edgar (959-975) sacked the secular priests and replaced them with Benedictine monks in 964. It has been suggested that it was still quite a small establishment consisting of a stone church with the monastic buildings constructed from wood.
The monastery appears to have grown in importance during the Norman period, sitting roughly in the middle of the monastic income league for Dorset. More than Abbotsbury and Sherborne, but less than Shaftesbury and Cerne. Whilst not a lavish income, it was certainly enough to maintain a programme of building to replace the early temporary structures.
There was a catastrophic fire in 1309, caused by a lightening strike on the spire. Although the building of a replacement church was soon started, it took a long time and only reached its present size under Abbot William Middleton, who was elected in 1482. The delay was caused by a number of reasons. Arguably, the most important was the fact that the Abbey had become exceedingly lax with the brethren failing to adhere to the monastic rules to the extent that they were even keeping women! In addition, as has been mentioned elsewhere on this website, building in those days tended to be a slow process, partly because it depended on funds being available, but also partly due to the nature of the workforce. Construction only moved forward between March and September because the unskilled workers had to return to their land for the harvest in the autumn and could not leave until they had ploughed and sown their crops in the spring. Only the skilled masons etc. remained to work through the winter preparing stones for the next building season. So it needed a man of vision like Abbot Middleton to drive the project forward. Gradually a town, called Middleton, had developed alongside the Abbey and this had prospered, partly as a result of a weekly market and an annual three day fair, granted by a charter from King Henry III in 1252 and partly because it was on an important route between Blandford and Dorchester and was used by many pilgrims. By 1332, it was the biggest provider of a personal tax in Dorset demanded by the King to fund his wars with France.
Monastic building continued until terminated by King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The monks were sent elsewhere, all with pensions, and Abbey's estates sold off.
John Tregonwell, a lawyer who had assisted Henry VIII in obtaining a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, accepted the surrender of the Abbey and its lands on behalf of the King. He was anxious to become the owner of the Abbey and after offering bribes to Cromwell for another monastery, was successful in purchasing Milton Abbey and some of its estate a year later for a down payment of £1,000 plus a rent of £12 per year. He gave the Abbey to the towns people as their parish church and took up residence in part of the old monastic buildings. Despite the fact that the country had become Protestant, he and his family still practiced Roman Catholicism, which stood him in very good stead when Queen Mary ascended the throne. He was knighted during Mary's coronation and made Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset. When he died there was confusion over his estate, which led to bitter feuding within the family and was not sorted out for several generations. Things were more settled by the time John Tregonwell IV married Jane Freke ( the daughter of Sir Thomas Freke - see Iwerne Courtney) whose son, John V, fell in 1605 from the Abbey roof and was saved by his billowing skirts that acted as a parachute. There were more Tregonwells and more litigation amongst rival beneficiaries until finally, in 1752, the estate was sold to the immensely wealthy Joseph Damer. His fortune had been amassed in Ireland and he had married Lady Caroline Sackville, the daughter of the second Duke of Dorset. In the same year he was elevated to the Irish Peerage and created Baron Milton. The ancient town of Milton close by irritated him and he set about destroying it. He had the grammar school transferred to Blandford and demolished each house as the leases fell in. Finally, when only a few houses remained, he flooded them by opening the sluice gates, but he had met his match because one of the tenants was a lawyer who successfully sued and won. He did, however, build the model village of Milton Abbas, albeit out of sight!
In 1771, he instructed the eminent architect, Sir William Chambers to design a new mansion house in a pseudo gothic style to blend with the Abbey church. It was not long before the architect and client fell-out. The architect referring to his client as "..this imperious lord". Chambers resigned whereupon Damer retained James Wyatt, who finished the house and designed most of the superb interior. He also worked on the church, although he was responsible for destroying many of the medieval features. The famous landscape gardener, Capability Brown had been employed, since 1763, to re-model the setting, including the provision of an ornamental lake. Damer was not a happy man, his wife died in 1775 and his sons were hopeless spendthrifts. He was elevated again and created Earl of Dorchester in 1792. He died in 1798 at the age of eighty, whereupon one of his sons reformed and settled down to manage his inheritance.
After passing through the hands of several other family members, the house and estate of over 8,500 acres was sold to Baron Hambro in 1852. It is to this Danish merchant banker that subsequent generations must be profoundly grateful for his restoration of the Abbey church. The building was in a poor state of repair and he retained the services of Sir George Gilbert Scott as architect to carry out a complete restoration. He and his son Sir Everard Hambro were exceptionally good landlords and paid for many charitable undertakings in the area including the provision of a hospital and doctor in the village. By 1932 the rents from agricultural holdings were abysmal and the house with the estate were put on the market. It was not until 1939 that the house and church were finally sold to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners with a view to converting it into a theological college. This was not to be and the building was used as a faith healing centre for some years before being sold again in 1953 to establish a boy's Public School, which it still is. The Abbey church is used as a chapel and the only remaining monastic building, the Abbot's Hall, as the dining room.