Hailes Abbey, near Winchcombe

Hailes Abbey, near Winchcombe

Founded in 1246 by the Earl of Cornwall the son of King John, Hailes Abbey, located between the pretty village of Winchcombe and the spa town of Cheltenham, offers a fascinating glimpse into life as a medieval Cistercian monk. Whilst today all that remains are silent, crumbing archways and stonework tucked amongst the trees, the museum takes the visitor deeper into a world far removed from modern day life.

Built by Cistercian monks in the 13th century, Hailes followed a simple, disciplined way of life. Once one of the most significant pilgrimage locations in medieval England, devout travellers flocked from all over to the Abbey to catch a glimpse the Holy Blood of Hailes, reportedly a vial of Christ’s blood. The Abbey became so well known it is even mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

The years that followed saw Hailes Abbey grow and flourish, but then its fortune turned, and it fell into financial trouble when the monks last benefactor, Earl Edmund, died without an heir. After this, the Black Death swept through the country and killed many monks and lay brothers who lived at the Abbey, then thieves broke in and stole riches worth £660 in todays’ money.

Following rising debts and inept management, the Pope stepped in and helped raise the status of the Abbey which resulted in money pouring in and renovations to be completed with halls, chambers and a private chapel, projecting its religious and secular importance. The early 16th century was a time of prosperity for the Abbey, but in the 1530s Henry VIII sought to reform the church, and in 1538 the Holy Blood of Hailes was denounced as a fake and the shrine destroyed.

The following year, the Suppression of the Monasteries lead to over 840 religious houses to be closed across England and Wales. Hailes Abbey fell on Christmas Eve in 1539.

Stripped of its wealth and then pillaged by locals, Hailes became a country home for the Tracy Family, but after a couple of hundred years the site was in ruin again, and by the mid-19th century its romantic decay attracted tourists. Following several excavations, the site was finally donated to the National Trust in 1937.

Today, visitors can wander through the tranquil grounds, where the ruins offer a glimpse into how spectacular the Abbey once was. There’s an audio tour available, which cleverly takes you back to how the monks once lived at this historical site. The newly refurbished museum is well worth a visit, showcasing 300 years of history with impressive remnants of stonework on display, such as the imposing 13th-century sculpture of Samson fighting a lion, whilst the English Heritage shop has lots of goodies available.

Set next to the ruins, make sure to pop into the neighbouring chapel, which predates the Abbey by a century. Whilst unassuming on the outside, step within and you’ll find incredible wall paintings and fine examples of medieval stained glass.

Feeling inspired? Take a look at our luxury cottages in the Cotswolds here.

Hailes, Nr Winchcombe, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 5PB |

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