The ruins of Hailes Abbey enjoy a beautiful and tranquil setting in quiet seclusion in the Cotswolds near Winchcombe.
Hailes Abbey was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III. He had been caught in a storm at sea and, upon threat of his ship going down, he vowed to God that if he survived, he would found a religious house.
Upon returning to land he kept his vow. Henry granted him the manor of Hailes and with the help of monks from Beaulieu Abbey, in five years Hailes Abbey was built.
The site was consecrated in 1251 in the presence of Henry III, Queen Eleanor of Provence, and 13 bishops, among others.
The Abbey would probably have remained a relatively unimportant place but in around 1270 the monks claimed to have a phial said to contain the “blood of Christ” and supposedly authenticated by the Pope. Such a potent religious symbol meant the abbey could set themselves up as a place of pilgrimage.
A special extension to the east end of the abbey church was built and the phial was kept in an elaborate shrine. Soon Hailes Abbey became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in England and the faithful flocked in their thousands to pay homage to the sacred phial. A hotel was even built by the Prior to accommodate the wealthier visitors and to attend to their need for somewhere to stay.
Chaucer mentions the abbey and the phial in The Pardoner’s Tale (one of The Canterbury Tales) written between 1387 and 1400. The theme of the tale is said to be “greed is the root of all evil”!
The Abbey was closed in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the phial with the so-called “blood of Christ” which had brought pilgrims for centuries was smashed. The phial was found to contain a mixture of honey and saffron.
After the Dissolution, Hailes Abbey was given to Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and was subsequently passed down through the family. By the 18th Century, the site was overgrown and decaying.
Hailes Abbey today is a tranquil place of dramatic cloister arches which give an idea of how impressive the site must have been when it was built and as it grew in importance as a leading pilgrimage destination. Around the site, sheep graze contentedly and because it is a relatively unappreciated place, it is often possible to have the ruins all to yourself.
The site is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.
You can walk among the evocative ruins of Hailes Abbey and imagine how the medieval monks once lived in its extensive and elaborate buildings. The museum contains sculptures, stonework and other finds from the site. The church (by the car park) pre-dates the Abbey by about 100 years and is well worth a visit to see the magnificent wall-paintings.
There are only limited facilities at the site but if you follow the lane, about 500 yards further down is Hayles Fruit Farm and they have a little cafe.