The grandeur that had been
Netley as an Abbey, and then a great house for one of Henry Villas new
men, lay far in the past at the dawn of the eighteenth century. After
the ignominy of being used as a quarry site for Netley Castle and
other local building im projects, the Abbey lay now as a ruin.
A magnificent ruin but a ruin none the less.
Lucky for the Abbey therefore that England was enjoying a flirtation
with Romanticism and the country was soon awash with writers and poets
looking for inspiration. An early guide describes the Abbey thus:
Antiquity Etc, in the Neighbourhood of Southampton 1781
'Mr. Dummer, the present possessor of these venerable ruins, has
enclosed them with a wall, and, by a judicious management of the
trees, which have spontaneously sprung up among the mouldering walls
has greatly improved the beauty and solemnity of the scene; and by
that means, rendered it as well worth visiting as any object of that
kind in Great Britain. The spot whereon these ruins stand, is almost
surrounded (as Mr, Keate observes, who has eternised their memory in
an elegant Poem) with beautiful woods, which slope gradually to the
edge of the sea: and the prospects from hence, by land and water, are
equally extensive and delightful'.
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) the writer and younger son of the Prime
Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was an enthusiastic visitor to the site.
It is perhaps no coincidence that he went on to pen the first Gothic
novel, The Castle of Otranto published in 1764:
how shall I describe Netley to you? I can only by telling you, that it
is the spot in the world for which Mr Chute and I wish. The ruins are
vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roofs pendent in the
air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and
round with ivy - many trees are sprouted
up amongst the walls, and only want to be increased with cypresses!
...In short, they are not the ruins of Netley, but of paradise — Oh!
The purple abbots, what a spot had they chosen to slumber in! The
scene is so beautifully tranquil, yet so lively, that they seem only
to have retired into the world'.
The Mr Chute referred to was John Chute, a connoisseur whom Walpole
had met on his Grand Tour and who formed with Walpole and Richard
Bentley a Committee of Taste.
Walpole visited more than once and
in 1764 travelled with the poet, best remembered for his Elegy Written
in a Country Church Yard, Thomas Gray.
the bosum of the woods (concealed from profane eyes) lie hid the ruins
of Netteley-Abbey, There may be richer and greater houses of religion,
but the Abbot is content with his situation. See there at the top of
that hanging meadow under the shade of those old trees, that bend into
a half-circle about it, he is walking slowly (good Man!) and bidding
his beads for the souls of his Benefactors, interred in that venerable
pile, that lies beneath him. Beyond it (the meadow still descending)
nods a thicket of oaks, that mask the building, and have excluded a
view too garish, and too luxuriant for a holy eye, only on either hand
they leave an opening to the blew glittering sea. Did you not observe
how, as that white sail shot by and was lost, he turned and crossed
himself, to drive the Tempter from him, that had thrown, that
distraction in his way, I should tell you, that the Ferryman, who row
'd me, a lusty young Fellow, told me, that he would not for all the
world pass a night at the Abbey, there were such things seen near it,)
the' there was a power of money hid then
Where Walpole led other lesser writers of the Gothic genre followed.
The most famous house of sensational fiction, the Minerva Press,
published Richard Warner's 'Netley Abbey, a Gothic Story in two
volumes' in 1795:
'That the abbey conceals a mystery of a horrible nature I have no
Edward the hero, turning with all the impatience of youthful
curiosity,' could not wait 'to unravel the mystery of Netley Abbey. Of
course there was a damsel in need of rescue from the sinister cowled
inhabitants of the Abbey Edward confronts the Abbot thus:
'Father,' replied Edward, but I was called hither by the screams of
'Holy virgin!' exclaimed the abbot, 'what doest thou say? - A female
within these hallowed walls!... - No! the inmates of Netley Abbey have
long renounced the sex.'
Of course Edward was triumphant, rescuing the imprisoned Agnes from an
It was not only in literature that Netley Abbey was immortalised.
'Netley Abbey, An Operatic Farce' was performed at Covent Garden in
1794. The last scene was played before an elaborate stage set
representing the ruins by moonlight produced by Mr John Inigo Richards
of the Royal Academy. Pearce described the work as being 'one of the
most picturesque portraits of a Gothic Ruin, that the hand of Science
ever produced. Mr Richards was scene painter at Covent Garden from
1777-1803. Mr Pearce, the front page of the operatic farce informs us,
was also the author of 'Hartford Bridge' and 'The Midnight Wanderers'
One character from the opera, was a stage Irishman, Phenegan M'Scrape,
who combined being a barber and fiddler, and is given to making snide
remarks about the pretension of those who adore the' picturesque
and the antique whilst evicting tenants to improve the view; It must
cost your worship a great deal to keep those ruins in a continued
state of decay' he declares to Mr Oakland, the
modernising owner of the Abbey.
The opera also makes reference to the Abbey being the hiding place for
booty and indeed in the heyday of smuggling in the 17th and 18th
centuries it was a known location for stashing tea, rum and other
necessities of life. It is probable that the smugglers fermented the
stories of ghostly happenings to put off prying eyes from their
As Thomas Gray remarked about the Abbey it was:
with poetry ... one need not have a very fantastic imagination to see
spirits at noon-day' but was it all imagination'
Back in 1700 when the builder Walter Taylor was intending to remove
the stones and use them to erect a town house at Newport and dwelling
houses elsewhere, he was the victim of a nightmare. In the dream he
was threatened by a monk who warned of great mischief if he persisted
with his plans. The dream involved Taylor seeing that, in the course
of the demolition of the building, a large stone from one of the
windows fell on him and fractured his skull. Taylor was a Non-
Conformist and friend of the father of Dr Isaac Watts, to whom he
told the dream. Watts Senior suggested that Taylor should keep out of
the way during demolition. However due to avarice and contrary to the
advice of other friends, Taylor took part in the demolition work JH
himself and, in the course of tearing down a board, he loosened a
stone that fell and fractured his head. The wound was not considered
mortal but, in operating to extract a splinter, the surgeon's
instrument slipped, entered Taylor's brain and caused instant death. A
victim, it is said, of the curse of Netley Abbey.
'To muse on the chanty of old dispensed at tne gates, on the early
call of the Matin bell which woke up the fathers, on the guilty
Southampton builder who had sought to destroy and had himself been
destroyed and who lies now beneath the monument of wrath, on the
monkish shades that seem to walk the violated groves, on the
melancholy decay, the black wind howling through the shattered
pile, the reeling gothic pillars and walls rent by growing trees',
Extract from George Keate's Elegy on Netley Abbey.
The curse is said to date from the time of the dissolution of the
monasteries when one of the Abbey monks, Blind Peter, became the
guardian of the Abbey treasure. It was assumed that all the abbeys had
of course secreted away treasure to prevent it falling into the hands
of Henry VIII. Blind Peter's ghost
only appears at Halloween.
A gentleman called Mr Slown, is reported to have attempted to find
this buried treasure. Arriving at the Abbey with his shovel, he began
dig a hole. But moments later he ran screaming from the place.
collapsed within minutes from a heart attack, uttering his dying words
'For God's sake, block it up'
The idea of the curse of Netley Abbey may date back to a medieval
service of excommunication carried out by the Abbot. Apparently found
in a book called 'The Festival' last printed in 1532 is a script of
the holy service given in the abbey church. It would appear that four
times a year, the Bishop would lead a curse on anyone who offended the
monks of Netley Abbey. The Bishop, dressed in white, would stand in
the pulpit, lifting his cross, he would read out a list of names i
if malefactors, and then he would lead the curse.
'By the authority of God, Father Almighty, and the blessed Virgin
Mary, and all saints, we excommunicate, anathematise, and deliver over
to the devil, all the aforesaid malefactors, that excommunicated and
anathematised and delivered to the devil they may he. Accursed they be
infields, in highways, in foot paths...'
The curse goes on to condemn ail the aforesaid to burn in hell, unless
they immediately repent. It was obviously not a good idea to get on
the wrong side of the monks of Netley. It is perhaps not surprising
that it is the Abbot's Lodging House which inspires most feelings of
unease to visitors of the ruins, some of whom complain of a foul and
disgusting smell and others insist they have been touched on the
shoulder by some long dead hand.
According to the nineteenth century antiquarian, Cuthbert Monk:
'Marvellous tales are told -with what ruin are they not? Of a
wonderful sword and the mysterious phantom of the Earl of Southampton
who locked in rash and vain intruders of his ancient seat.' This
surely relates to the legendary founder of Southampton, Sir Bevis, who
not only had a magic sword called Mortglay, but a
giant companion called Ascupart and a beautiful wife known as the Fair
Josian. The tales of Sir Bevis were favourite stories of the warrior
king, Henry V, who sailed with his fleet past Netley Abbey en-route
for Agincourt in 1415. Tales of Sir Bevis can be found in Icelandic
sagas which drew upon an Anglo-Norman narrative poem, Boeve de
Haumtone, and its first printed version appeared in medieval Venice.
The sword can still be seen today by visitors to Arundel Castle where
it is known as Mongley a corruption of the Anglo-Norman Morgelei.
The author of the 'Ingoldsby Legends', the Rev Richard Barham
(1788-1845), felt the appetite for Gothic tales had gone too far and
hoped with his story of a walled up nun found at Netley Abbey to lay
to rest the genre. It was inspired by the discovery of some female
human remains uncovered at the ruins.
there was an ugly hole in the wall
For an oven too big for a cellar too small.
And I said 'Here's a nun has been playing some tricks"
That horrible hole! It seems to say
I'm a grave that gapes for a living prey!
Ah me, ah me tis sad to think
That maiden's eye which was made to blink
Should here be compelled to grow blear and blink
Or be closed for aye. In this kind of way
Shut out for ever from wholesome day.
Walled up in a hole with never a chink
No light - no air - no victuals - no drink.
That wandering glance and furtive kiss
exceedingly naughty and wrong I wis
Should yet be considered so much amiss
As to call for a sentence severe as this
And I said to myself as I heard with a sigh
The poor lone victims stifled cry
Well I can^t understand how any mans hand
Could wall up that hole in a Christian land'
Perhaps the nun is also the apparition of the grey lady who witnesses
say roams the site. Others insist she carries a parasol and must
therefore be Florence Nightingale who had wandered down from the
nearby Netley Hospital. Barham was a friend of Hook, Dickens and
Thackeray and it was via 'Bentley's Miscellany' edited by Dickens,
which the stories of the Ingoldsby Legends first appeared.
Ode Netley Abbey: Midnight
'Within the sheltered centre of the aisle,
Beneath the ash whose growth romantic spreads
Its foliage trembling o'er the funeral pile,
And all around a deeper darkness sheds;
While through yon arch, where the thick ivy twines,
Bright on the silvered tower the moon-beam shines,
And the grey cloister's roofless length illumes,
Upon the mossy stone I lie reclined,
And to a visionary world resigned
Call the pale spectres forth from the forgotten tombs
But now no more the gleaming forms appear,
Within their graves at rest the fathers sleep;
And not a sound comes to the wistful ear,
Save the low murmur of the tranquil deep:
Or from the grass that in luxuriant pride
Waves o'er yon eastern window's sculptured side,
The dew-drops bursting on the fretted stone:
While faintly from the distant coppice heard
The music of the melancholy bird
Trill to the silent heaven a sweetly-plaintive moan.'
An Extract from the Elegy on Netley Abbey
'Now sunk deserted, and with weeds overgrown,
Yon prostrate walls their awful fate bewail;
Low on the ground their topmost spires are thrown,
Once friendly marks to guide the wandering sail.
The ivy now with rude luxuriance bends
Its tangled foliage, through the cloistered space
O'er the green windows mouldering height ascends,
And fondly clasps it with a last embrace.'
'Fallen pile! I ask not what has been thy fate:
But when the winds, wafted from the main,
Through each lone arch, like spirits that complain,
Come hollow to my ear, I meditate
On this world's passing pageant, and the lot
Of those who once might proudly in their prime,
Stood smiling at decay, till bowed by time
Or injury, their early boast forgot,
They might have fallen like thee! Pale and forlorn
Their brow, besprent with thin hairs, white as snow
They lift, still unsubdued, as they would scorn
This short-lived scene of vanity and woe
Whilst on their sad looks smilingly they bear
The trace of creeping age and the pale hue of care.'
It was not only the gentlemen who were inspired; the poet Susan Evance
(fl 1808-1818), friend of the author Maria Barton, wrote the following
sonnet whilst on a visit to the Abbey:
Sonnet Written at Netley Abbey:
'Why should I fear the spirits of the dead?
What if they wander at the hour of night,
Amid these sacred walls, with silent tread,
And dimly visible to mortal sight!
What if they ride upon the wandering gale,
And with low sighs alarm the listening ear;
Or swell a deep, a sadly-sounding wail,
Like solemn dirge of death! Why should I fear?
No! seated on some fragment of rude stone,
While through the Ash-trees waving o'er my head
The wild winds pour their melancholy moan,
My soul, by fond imagination led,
Shall muse on days and years for ever
flown, And hold mysterious converse with
And it has been argued, and who are we to disagree, that the divine
was inspired by the Abbey to write her own spoof Gothic novel,
Abbey, whilst on a picnic with her niece Fanny Knight and other
members of the
'We all except Grandmama, took a boat and went to Netley Abbey the
ruins of which look beautiful. We ate some biscuits we had taken, and
returned home quite delighted', wrote young Fanny.
Brush as well as quill served the visitors to Netley. There are dozens
of surviving drawings, etchings and paintings surviving from both
professional and amateur palettes. Too numerous to mention and record
but the highlights must be;
The Ruins of Netley Abbey, with several figures 1795
Turner is rightly acclaimed as one of the finest landscape artists
this country has produced. Successful throughout his life he was first
exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 15. By the time he was 20
and painting views of Netley Abbey, he was a favourite with print
sellers eager to purchase his drawings
FRANCIS TOWNE (1740-1816) - Netley Abbey c 1809
Towne was an expert proponent of the watercolour style of tinted
drawings and is considered by many critics to provide the high point
of this 18th century tradition. Working in the field, the artist would
make a pencil drawing in bound sketchbooks, outlining all the forms,
capturing essential details and textures and
noting colour to aid memory later in the studio. Back in the studio
the artist would painstakingly draw over the pencil sketch with a reed
pen and India or bistre ink.
JOHN CONSTABLE (1776-1837) Netley Abbey c. 1833
Constable is said to have first been inspired by the Abbey whilst
the area on honeymoon. John Constable used an expressive style he
described as 'Experiments in natural philosophy' to capture the drama
of Netley Abbey. The darkened trees framing the ruins of the gothic
arches, hovering birds in a turbulent sky of brown, apricot and dull
blue, all serve to intensify the
By mid 19th century the Abbey had become so popular with visitors
large events called Fetes Champetres were being organised on a regular
A description of the event in the 1840s records:
'On Mondays, the Fountain Court presents a singular scene of
gaiety. It has long been the custom for people from Southampton and
the neighbourhood to meet at the Abbey on that day, and to hold a kind
of festival. Tea and other provisions are furnished by the inhabitants
of a neighbouring cottage, and this is followed by mu^ic and dancing'.
Of course for dancing one needed music and the composer William
Sheppard was happy to oblige, penning a Rondo for the piano-forte
entitled 'Netley Abbey':
As travel became easier at the end
of the 19th century, the Abbey became accessible to the hoi polloi who
William Howitt describes as desecrating the ruins with 'their
relics of greasy paper, and of shrimps and sardine boxes'.
Eventually in 19ww the then owner
of the site, Tankerville Chamberlayne, placed the ruins under the
guardianship of the Commissioners of Works. Nikolaus Pevsner praised
the ministry's concerned with making the ruins instructive.
Netley there is too much to learn and intellectual pleasure have their
privileges side by side with visual ones'.
Despite these noble efforts, the
Abbey still has the power of romance and continues to inspire writers
of the 21st century, as Philip Hoare writes in "Spike Island":
'This gothic vision was
captivating: the Abbey seemed able not only to conjure up the past but
to invite the creation of a new identity - just as the ruins had
Catherine Morland in "Northanger
'As they drew near the end of
their journey, her impatience for the sight of the Abbey....returned
in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solmn awe,
to afford a glimpse of its mossy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a
grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in
beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows'.
THE KING'S NEW MEN
The buildings of Netley Abbey and some of its lands were granted after
the Dissolution to Sir William Paulet, then Comptroller of the King's
Household. It was Paulet - later created first Marquis of Winchester
in the reign of King Edward VI - who had the Abbey buildings converted
into a grand and imposing mansion. These works account for the
appearance of the south range of the ruins seen on entering the
grounds from the main road. Brickwork, doorway and windows are all
typical of the Tudor period. The considerable impression that must
have been made on those who came to the house can easily be imagined
by today's visitors as they pass through the outer doorway into the
courtyard (formerly the cloisters). To the right are then the domestic
buildings and, ahead, the doorway that led into the Great Hall
(formerly the nave of the Church). Very little of the monks' refectory
now remains above ground as that was demolished
to create the view to the main entrance to the mansion.
'The possessions of these monks were by the wife killing founder of
the Church of England, given away (although they belonged to the
public) to one of his court sycophants. Sir William Paulet, a man the
most famous in the whole world for sycophancy^ time serving and for
all those qualities which usually distinguish the favourite of kings
like the wife killer' wrote William Cobbett.
In contrast, a contemporary of
'As he a subject dutiful Five Kings and Queens did serve
And never from the first to last From truth was found to swerve'.
The Abbey later passed into the hands of the Earl of Hertford, and was
assaulted by parliamentarian soldiers during the Civil War; some years
after this, it belonged to the Earl of Huntingdon who enjoyed the
pleasures of the ruin to the full by turning the nave of the church
into a tennis court, the choir into his private chapel, the chapter
house into a kitchen and other parts of the Abbey into stables.
By 1700 the Abbey mansion was in the hands of Sir Berkeley Lucy who
sold off much of the fabric to the Southampton builder Walter Taylor.
Subsequently, in the eighteenth century, the remaining ruins, ivy clad
and with trees springing up within the grounds, attracted writers such
as Horace Walpole and poets like Thomas Gray. They found inspiration
in the old buildings for their romantic writings while, in 1795, the
Rev Richard Warner wrote, as a Gothic story, a thrilling tale of the
Abbey in medieval times. At the beginning of the
nineteenth century, Fanny Knight, Jane Austen's niece was very moved
by her first visit to the Abbey with her aunt.
Guide books came to be written for the benefit of visitors and, in
1860, clearance of stone, rubbish, trees, bushes and mounds of earth
from the site created the levelled appearance seen today and revealed
some stonework previously hidden from view. Today Netley Abbey is a
place in which to wander, to enjoy and to marvel at the skill of the
masons who constructed the original buildings some seven hundred and
fifty years ago.
The peaceful life of the monks of Netley came to an end in 1536. In
1534, the Act of Supremacy was passed whereby King Henry VIII became
Supreme Head of the Church of England. As a result of this, Thomas
Cromwell, the King's Vicar
General sent commissioners to gather information about the religious
houses throughout the realm. These findings were used in 1536 to
suppress and close all such houses with less than twelve monks or nuns
and an income of less than £200 a year. Although the monks of Netley
were found to be of 'good religious conversation' that was not enough
to save the Abbey. The Abbot, Thomas Stevens, and six out of the seven
monks went to Beaulieu where he became the Abbot only to have to
surrender that abbey in 1538.
In 1533 the librarian and poet, John Leland received a royal
commission "to make a search after England's Antiquities, and peruse
the Libraries of all Cathedrals, Abbeys, Priories, Colleges, etc. as
also all places wherein Records, Writing and secrets of Antiquity were
reposed". His 'Itinerary' is a record of his travels and the notes he
made are some of the earliest descriptions of places in England at the
end of the Middle Ages.
John LeLand's Itinerary 1535-43 has this entry for Letelege Abbey:
'Scant a mile from the mouth of Hamelrise Creeke lyithe Letelege on
the .shore upward in the mayne haven.
Here a late was a great abbay in building of White Monkes'.
Leland never completed his great work and the destruction of
institutions like Netley Abbey were thought to have contributed to his
mental breakdown. He spent the last two years of his life certified
THE MONKS OF NETLEY
For nearly three hundred years, Netley Abbey was home to monks of the
Cistercian Order founded at Citeaux (in Latin, Cistercium), Burgundy
at the end of the eleventh century. In the sixth century, St Benedict
had introduced, at his monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy, a Rule for
the conduct of monks but in the course of the ensuing centuries there
were departures from observance of some
aspects of the Rule.
Chapter from the rule of St Benedict:
'Above all this evil practice must he uprooted from the monastery.
We mean that without an order from the Abbot, no one may presume to
give, receive or retain anything as his own, nothing at all - not a
hook, writing tablets or stylus - in short not a single item
especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of
their own bodies and wills. For their needs they are to look to the
father of the monastery and are not allowed anything which the Abbot
has not given or permitted. All things should be the common possession
of all, as it is written, so that no one presumes to call anything his
But if anyone is caught indulging in this evil practice, he should be
warned a first and second time. If he does not amend let him be
subjected to punishment.'
The Cistercians desired to return to a strict observance of the Rule
of St Benedict and became known as the White Monks because of the
colour of the habit they wore.
A description of the Cistercians or White Monks is to be found in 'The
Life of Aelred' Walter Daniel written c. 1166:
'... certain monks had come to England from across the sea. These
remarkable m,en, famed/or their religious life, were known as White
Monks after the colour of their habit, for they were clothed angel
like in undyed sheep s wool, spun and woven from the natural fleece.
Thus garbed, when clustered together, they look like flocks of gulls
and shine as they walk with the very whiteness of snow. They venerate
poverty — not the penury that stems from negligence and sloth, but a
poverty regulated by voluntary privation, sustained by perfect faith
and rendered congenial by the love of God, so strong is the mutual
love which binds them that their society is as terrible as an army
The Cistercians came to England in 1128 when their first monastery in
this country was founded at Waverley near Farnham in Surrey. Peter des
Roches, Bishop of Winchester, intended that there should be an abbey
at Netley but did not live to see his wish fulfilled, the Abbey being
founded in 1239, the year after his death. By 1256, King Henry III had
assumed the role of co-founder giving a royal connection to Netley.
Cistercian abbeys were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin but Netley was
known by the name of St Mary of Edwardstowe (Edward's Place)
suggesting a connection with a chapel dedicated to St Edward the
Confessor that may have existed on the site before the Abbey was
Monks from Beaulieu, an abbey founded by King John, came to Netley to
begin the religious life there. They would have found a wooded area
that required substantial work to clear it ready for building and all
stone needed to construct the Abbey had to be imported as none existed