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The history of Buckland Abbey

Young visitors playing board games at Buckland Abbey, Devon
Young visitors playing board games at Buckland Abbey, Devon | © National Trust Images / John Millar

There are more than eight centuries of history to discover at Buckland Abbey. The Abbey began life as a Cistercian monastery run by wealthy monks, who also created the mighty Great Barn that still stands today. Three centuries later, the monastery was dissolved during Henry VIII’s Reformation, and the building was then developed into an impressive 16th-century Tudor mansion, becoming home to two famous sea explorers in the decades to follow.

Buckland Abbey's medieval origins

Buckland Abbey dates back to 1278, when it was founded as a Cistercian monastery. It was the last one built in medieval England and Wales.

For more than 250 years, monks farmed the vast estate.

Monasteries were woven into the fabric of medieval society, as they weren’t simply centres of worship, but also places of learning and charity. As these estates often had large landholdings, monasteries were often immensely wealthy and politically influential.

The great barn at Buckland Abbey painted c.1800 by John White Abbot (1763-1851).
The Great Barn at Buckland Abbey painted c.1800 by John White Abbot (1763-1851). | © National Trust Images / John Hammond

Who were the Cistercian monks?

The Cistercians – known as ‘white monks’ due to their undyed habits – were a branch of the Benedictine Order, following strict routines. They believed in the importance of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour.

Cistercian monks tended to live in large communities in wild and remote areas, where they took on major land improvement projects.

The monks worked as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. In fact, their farming skills and investment in local industry eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential.

The Great Barn

The monks built the Great Barn to store wool, fleece, cattle hides and crops such as oats, wheat and fruit from their nearby orchards.

The Barn also stored tithes, which were a form of local tax whereby famers gave one tenth of their produce to the church.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (where Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, sequestering their wealth), the Great Barn was used for different agricultural purposes and was modified for ‘modern farming practices’ in the 1790s.

During the Second World War, the Barn did its bit for the war effort. Large letters on the stone walls today are evidence of when it was used by the Admiralty to store grain.

Today, the historic Barn has taken on a new life housing events, exhibitions and fantastic Christmas displays.

Visitors exploring inside the Great Barn at Buckland Abbey, Devon
Visitors exploring inside the Great Barn at Buckland Abbey, Devon | © National Trust Images / Chris Lacey

Buckland Abbey’s famous Tudors

Buckland Abbey’s time as a monastery ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under the reign of King Henry VIII. The Buckland estate was sold to Sir Richard Grenville in 1541, though it seems that his son, Roger, was the one to live here.

However, Roger didn’t live to inherit Buckland as he died aboard the Mary Rose, which famously sank off Portsmouth in 1545.

Eventually it was Roger’s son, Sir Richard Grenville (The Younger), who inherited the estate from his grandfather when he was just 21. He set about modifying the Abbey, pulling down many of the monastery buildings and converting the body of the main church into a Tudor mansion home.

Sir Richard was also drawn to the sea, undertaking many early and exploratory voyages with the aim of colonising lands in North America.

Sir Francis Drake - Buckland’s most famous inhabitant

The house was later sold to Sir Francis Drake – Elizabethan Hero, Sea Captain, Privateer and Slave Trader. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and was able to purchase Buckland Abbey using a fraction of the treasure from the voyage. His later role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 cemented his fame.

Sir Francis Drake’s career was wide ranging and complex. He was born in 1540 at Crowndale, near Tavistock, to a family of shearmen (of woollen cloth) where his family had occupied the same farm for generations.

Drake did not follow in his father’s footsteps, and instead, as early as 1560, turned to the sea and sailed on one of the slave ships belonging to his kinsman, John Hawkins. He sailed again in 1562, 1564 and in 1567 when Drake commanded a ship, the Judith for the first time.

Drake’s voyages – and particularly his Circumnavigation of the globe from 1577-1580 – brought him into contact with a wide range of people in the Atlantic world. This included people from European countries fighting to dominate trade and to establish colonies, freed and enslaved African people transported to both North and South America, and Indigenous Native Americans whose local knowledge was crucial to Drake and his crew’s survival.

Diego and Maria

It is rare that we know the names of the enslaved or Indigenous people that Drake met. Two exceptions to this are Diego and Maria.

Diego was West African man who lived and worked closely with Sir Francis Drake between 1572 and 1579. Formally enslaved by the Spanish who removed him from West Africa (probably Senegambia) to Panama, he eventually became a manservant to Drake and is thought to have lived in Plymouth before his final voyage with Drake in 1579. Diego’s local knowledge was instrumental in Drake’s successful attack on Spanish ports in Panama.

Maria, an African woman of unknown origin, is referred to a few times in documentation, or else her name would be lost to time.

During Drake’s Circumnavigation, he raided many ports and towns on the coast of Central America and Mexico, as well as cargo ships and galleons. One particular ship was owned by Don Francisco de Zarate. The ship was carrying porcelain, linen, taffeta and other silks in abundance from the Philippines. Drake took the cargo but spared the ship. In gratitude, Zarate presented Drake with a gold and emerald brooch and some enslaved people, including a woman named Maria. They were kept aboard Drake’s ship until their homeward journey when Drake abandoned Maria on an island in Indonesia.

Drake’s Final Voyage

Drake was rarely at home during his ownership of Buckland Abbey. With thoughts always of the sea, his last voyage was in 1595. After plans to attack the Spanish again in Panama, a fever broke out aboard his ship and Drake died of dysentery in 1596. He had no children so the ownership of Buckland Abbey passed to his brother, Thomas Drake.

Buckland’s Later History

Buckland remained in the ownership of the Drake family and their descendants until 1946. During this time, the family split their time between Buckland and other houses, principally Nutwell Court in Devon. In the 18th century, the agricultural improver William Marshall advised the family on farming improvements. In the early 19th century, the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerel was employed to remodel parts of the building and estate.

Buckland Abbey was acquired by the National Trust in 1946 at the instigation of Lady Astor. It was seen as a ‘National responsibility’ to save Buckland Abbey as ‘an important symbol of our heritage, the home of one of Plymouth’s famous sons, Sir Francis Drake.

The exterior of Abbot's tower at Buckland Abbey in the evening light

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