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Abbeys of the Witham Valley

Barlings Abbey

A guide to the history and remains of the Premonstratensian abbey. The stark ruins of Barlings Abbey lie seven miles east of Lincoln on the west bank of the Barlings Eau, a tributary of the River Witham.

Sequence
1154
Barlings Abbey founded by thirteen canons from Newsham Abbey on land given by Ralf de Haya
1334 – 1360
Abbey Church rebuilt through generosity of Edward III who occasionally lodged at Barlings Abbey
1536
The Lincolnshire Rising - Abbot Mackarel accused of participating in the Rising and imprisoned in the Tower of London
1537
The Abbot and four canons hanged for treason. Barlings Abbey dissolved and the land-holdings leased to Sir Edward Clinton
1539
The abbey site given to Henry VIII's brother-in-law Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
c.1620
Sir Christopher Wray acquires the site and builds a mansion
1688
John Sheppard buys the site for £300
1697
Abraham de la Pryme records that the church is "standing, tho in rubbish" with "several monuments and inscriptions to be observed"
c.1720
Site bought by Sir John Tyrwhitt of Stainfield
1726
Site of the abbey drawn by Samuel Buck - only the church tower remains
1757
Church tower falls
1791
John Byng visits Barlings and notes "they are daily carting away the stones"

Artist's impression
 
Artist's impression
 
Artist's impression
Aerial view
 
Layout of the abbey
 
How to get to the abbey
 
 
 
 
The Founding of Barlings Abbey
 
The abbey, which belonged to the Premonstratensian order, was founded on land granted by Ralf de Haya around 1154 by a small group of canons who travelled here from Newsham Abbey, near Grimsby.
 
It is thought that they first settled on the higher ground at Barlings Grange (about a mile away from the site) but soon moved to the present site, then known as Oxeney. This was a small 'island' in Fiskerton fen, hence the name, derived from the island (ey) where the oxen grazed. The canons built a raised pathway, or causeway, of about half a mile to cross the fen and link the abbey field to the higher ground. Their causeway along which visitors to the abbey must still pass now forms the foundation of the modern road.
 
 
 
The Premonstratensians
 
The Premonstratensian order was founded in 1121 by St.Norbert at Prémontré near Laon in Northern France. Premonstratensians followed a strict version of the rule of St.Augustine and were closely related to the Cistercians in their lifestyle and choice of isolated sites for their monasteries.
 
Their first English abbey was founded at Newsham in Lincolnshire (near Grimsby), in 1143. The canons (as Premonstratensian monks were known) wore a white habit and cap and were often called 'the white canons'. Unlike ordinary monks, they did not always stay within the cloisters of the abbey, but served as village priests and missionaries in the local community.
 
Agriculture, especially wool production, provided most of their income and over the years they accumulated many gifts of land. Barlings Abbey became one of the richest and most influential of the Premonstratensian houses in England, ultimately overshadowing its mother house in importance. The nearby abbey of Tupholme, founded a few years after Barlings, was also a Premonstratensian house.
 

 
The Medieval Abbey
 
Everyday life within the abbey revolved around the monastic routine of prayer and devotion. There were eight daily services beginning with Vigils (at 2.00am) and ending with Compline (at about 7.30pm). Only a few hints of the ordinary affairs of the abbey now survive; in the British Museum there are several manuscripts detailing land transfers and business transactions bearing the seal of Barlings Abbey.
 
All monasteries were regularly visited to check that all was right and proper and the reports of these visitations make interesting reading... in 1491, for instance, the brethren were warned against the adoption of new fashions and unnecessary ornamentation of their habits, and in 1494 they were admonished for wearing slippers. Generally, however, the reports of Barlings show a well regulated and prosperous abbey.
 
During the 14th century, two abbots found favour with Edward III, who is known to have lodged at Barlings on at least three occasions. The King's chaplain was a canon of Barlings and later its abbot. The abbey was exempted from wool taxes for many years, a saving which enabled the abbey church to be largely rebuilt during the period 1334-1360. Royal patronage was supplemented by the shrewd business management of a succession of abbots and the abbey became one of the leading wool producers in the region with extensive land-holdings to the north and east of Lincoln. By the end of the 14th century, Barlings had become one of the richest and most important Premonstratensian houses in the country.
An interesting account survives for expenses incurred by the Abbot just before the Dissolution, in 1535; three rings set with precious stones were bought for £8, a horse for £3, kirtle cloth for his sister cost 8 shillings, while a 'tun of claret' cost £14.13s.4d.
 
 
 
The Dissolution...and after
 
In 1536 Henry VIII closed down most of the smaller monasteries in England. Barlings survived the first wave of suppression as it was a fairly prosperous abbey, but the reprieve was short lived. In October 1536 a rebellion against the Dissolution, known locally as the Lincolnshire Rising, took place. The Abbot, Matthew Mackarel, and six canons were implicated, although they were probably all unwilling participants. They were arrested, and the Abbot and four canons were convicted of treason and hanged at Lincoln on 26th March 1537. As a result of their involvement, none of the other canons received a pension. The execution of the rebels was quickly followed by the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1537. All the valuables were taken away by the King's men, the lead was stripped from the church roofs and 'more than a horse load of the Abbot's books' were carted away.
 
The land-holdings were leased to Sir Edward Clinton and, in 1539, the abbey site was given to the King's brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. By 1620, Sir Christopher Wray had acquired the site and built a mansion next to the ruined abbey. It seems his house did not last long for we know that it was in ruins by 1720. The derelict buildings can be seen on Millecent's drawing made around 1730 and their outline can still be traced on the ground as a complex of earthworks to the south west of the abbey buildings.
 
In 1697, Abraham de la Pryme reported that the church was 'standing, but with all the lead and the bells gone' yet by 1726, when Samuel Buck made his drawing of Barlings, only the tower and a few odd fragments remained. Buck's drawing was commissioned by the new owner of Barlings, Sir John Tyrwhitt who lived in nearby Stainfield Hall. It is likely that Tyrwhitt had the site cleared but that he left the tower standing, as a ready made Gothic ruin, visible from his house.
 
The tower fell in 1757 and John Byng, visiting in 1791, noted 'they are daily carting away the stones'. Many of the nearby houses and farm buildings were built from the abbey stone. In the 19th century, an attempt was made to demolish the last fragment with ropes and a team of horses but, thankfully, it was too solid and survived to mark the site of the magnificent buildings that once stood here.
 
 
 
The Abbey Buildings
 
No formal excavations of the abbey site have ever taken place yet there is much that can be worked out from the surviving ruin and earthworks. The earliest drawings we have of the site date from the early 18th century and show only the tower of the abbey church and an isolated doorway leading from the cloister.
 
In 1710 the tower was described as 40 feet square and 180 feet high. The surviving earthworks suggest the church had a very long chancel, matching the nave in length, the whole building measuring about 300 feet in length. The east window is said to have been 40 feet high. To the south of the church lay the cloister with the chapter house, refectory, kitchens and stores enclosing it, while to the east of this main range lay a separate complex thought to be the infirmary. The remains of the foundations of these buildings can be seen as bumps and hollows on the ground. When viewed from the air the outlines of the lost buildings become clearer.
 
The abbey precinct was ringed with a complex network of ponds, channels and leats. Some of these ponds were probably reservoirs supplying the abbey's water and drainage system. All were probably in use as fishponds as fish farming was an important part of an abbey's economy. The fishponds at Barlings are especially well preserved.
 
 
 
Barlings Today
 
Today, the site of Barlings Abbey is a mass of earthworks with just one imposing wall still standing. This surviving portion is the eastern arch of the north arcade of the nave of the church and part of the north west pillar of the tower base.
 
The arch is filled in with a solid wall, perhaps because the quire (where the canons worshipped) had been extended to cope with larger numbers. On the west edge is part of an open arcade with early 14th century oak-leaf capitals and moulding. The decoration has been likened to that in Southwell Minster Chapter House.
 
The site is now a scheduled ancient monument in private ownership. Access to the site is permitted by the landowner. You may walk around the perimeter of the abbey precinct (please follow the path markers) and up to the ruins. Please follow the Country Code.


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