Story of over a Thousand Years


Story of over a Thousand Years

FOUNDED in the tenth century, Tavistock Abbey lasted for more than 650 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. The buildings then gradually decayed, but some have remained, one of the most complete being now known as " the Abbey Chapel."

in the tenth century, Tavistock Abbey lasted for more than 650 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. The buildings then gradually decayed, but some have remained, one of the most complete being now known as " the Abbey Chapel."

In the year 968AD the old monastery at Exeter was revived to be Devon's chief religious house, and at about the same time a new abbey was built to serve Cornwall, located not in Cornwall itself but just across the river Tamar, at Tavistock.

Thus the recorded story of Tavistock takes us half way back to the time of Christ, to the century before William the Conqueror; and its monastery was built a hundred years before Westminster Abbey.

The Royal Charter which marked the foundation of the abbey was dated 981, during the reign of Ethelred. Among the properties in the endowment were Milton Abbot, Hatherleigh, Rame, and Stoke Climsland.

At that period the Danes were frequently raiding the English coasts and sometimes they ravaged the countryside for many miles inland. In 997AD they sailed up the Tamar and went as far as Lydford. On their way back they discovered the abbey at Tavistock which they plundered and burnt down; it was rebuilt during the next few years.


"The Abbey Chapel," as it is now called, was built adjacent to the monastic infirmary and was the dining-hall for the use of the sick. The earliest mention of the building is in the Exeter Episcopal Register, 1348; the bishop urged the abbot of Tavistock to dine with the brethren in the refectory, "or at least in the adjoining building commonly called the misericord." This Latin term meaning " pity " was applied to various relaxations of strict monastic rule. It is best known as the name of a ledge under the hinged seat in a choir stall; when the seat was turned up, the ledge formed a support against which the monks could rest while standing. Similarly, indulgences as to food and drink were granted to sick monks in their dining-hall.

In the course of time the abbot and most of the community dined in the misericord far more often than in the frater (or refectory), which was used only on high festivals. The frater was pulled down in the eighteenth century and rebuilt as a dwelling house-now the Bedford Hotel.

The misericord was reported to be in bad condition in 1390, so repairs done in 1961-2 were merely the latest stage in work which has been spread over six centuries. The structure as it exists today dates mainly from the fifteenth century, with portions from the twelfth.


When John Peryn became the thirty-ninth abbot in 1523 it could hardly have seemed possible that he was to be the last. On Monday, the third of March 1539, twenty monks assembled for the last time in their beautiful octagonal chapter-house; the deed of surrender was signed, sealed, and delivered to the royal commissioner. The abbey treasures of gold, silver, and jewelled ornaments were taken to the Tower of London. Most of the properties were granted by the king to John, first baron Russell, whose descendants became dukes of Bedford.


Ten years after the Dissolution the people of Devon and Cornwall rose in spontaneous revolt demanding re-establishment of the chief monasteries. Yet within a century Devon had become one of the most firmly Protestant counties in England, and a puritan stronghold. Francis Russell, second earl of Bedford, threw all his influence into the puritan scale. About the middle of the seventeenth century a presbyterian provincial assembly for the county of Devon was set up on the initiative of George Hughes, formerly vicar of Tavistock. (By 1715 there were 76 meeting-houses in the county of which 52 were presbyterian).

Royalist troops occupied Tavistock towards the close of 1642; this was the cause of Hughes's departure; two years later he was appointed vicar of St. Andrew's, Plymouth. The name of his immediate successor as vicar of Tavistock is unrecorded, but at the next vacancy the earl of Bedford allowed the inhabitants to make their own choice. They chose Thomas Larkham, a colourful character with a barbed tongue. He was neither presbyterian nor puritan, but a boisterous independent.

After Larkham's death in 1669 Tavistock dissenters were encouraged by occasional visits from a presbyterian minister, William Pearse. The names of Larkham and Pearse appear in published lists as first and second in the succession of ministers of the Abbey Chapel, but this is contrary to evidence. It was not until 1687 that the dissenters were numerous enough to require the services of a resident pastor. Taking advantage of the Declaration of Indulgence issued by James II in that year, they invited an elderly Cornish minister, Henry Flamank, to settle in the town. Where he ministered to his people during the next three or four years is uncertain.

About a year after the passing of the Toleration Act (1689) a new lease of the abbey site was granted by the duke of Bedford to Thomas Willesford. The duke, whose personal sympathies were wholly presbyterian, excepted from the lease one building, the misericord, which he placed at the disposal of Flamank's congregation. In 1701 the second duke gave a formal lease of the hall, thenceforth called the Abbey Chapel, to the local presbyterian trustees. There is evidence that the hall was converted into a meeting-house about 1691 - ten years before the granting of the formal lease.

The presbyterian period in the history of the chapel continued for over a hundred years. During that time reconditioning of the fabric included the erection of a new roof over the old trusses (1691) and a plaster ceiling (1755).


By the end of the eighteenth century the "old chapel" of almost every town in England had become Unitarian. At Tavistock in 1794 the presbyterians of the Abbey Chapel suffered division; the more orthodox minority withdrew and formed a Congregationalist society. Doctrinal uncertainty had led those who remained towards unitarianism. In 1840 the Tavistock Unitarian Church was formed and it continued until the building was sold in 1959.


The original entrance to the chapel was through the Tower which still stands at the north-east corner. The lower part of the tower was the porch, above which there is a room formerly connected to the porch by a circular stone stair-case. The groined stone ceiling of the porch with its armorial roof-bosses is one of the most interesting architectural features. in the town. The doorway from porch to chapel was blocked up in 1845 when the present entrance was made. This incorporates a granite arch which was formerly at the Water Gate of the abbey which stood near the site of the present Abbey Bridge.

In 1924 the remains of the abbey were scheduled as ancient monuments under the protection of the then Ministry of Works.

In 1959 the Abbey Chapel was purchased by the trustees of Bannawell Street Chapel. Subsequent reconditioning involved removal of the oak roof trusses because of the ravages of rot and beetle. The trusses probably date from the fifteenth century, so part of one of them has been moved to near Betsy Grimbal's Tower, with a descriptive plaque. In the course of the repairs, traces of earlier features of the building were revealed: a window in the north wall; a doorway in the west wall near the north-west corner; a fire-place under the present floor level in the south wall, the chimney of which may still be seen outside.

It was agreed at the end of 1994 that the Chapel needed some re-decoration as a result of years of use.

This however, turned into a major refurbishment, with plans being drawn up to include toilets being installed. The wooden screen built at the front of the Hall35 years previously, was taken down to enable a better use of space. Movable screens replaced the static screen to cater for small or larger congregations as the need arose.

Work to the upper Tower room was also investigated by the Town Council, who leased this property, the lease stipulating that the upkeep and redecoration of this room being the responsibility of the Council.

English Heritage became involved due to the antiquity of the building and the inability of the council to meet the refurbishment costs. Eventually, in 1998, with all parties working together, work started on the Tower room. This involved major repairs to the roof and walls of the Tower room. As this is the only complete building surviving from the earlier years of the Abbey, it was important that this work was done in a sympathetic way.

The inside of the building is in complete contrast to the outside, and has been refurbished twice since 1960, when it was taken over by the Brethren assembly from Bannawell Street Chapel, Tavistock.

The end result has been a building which can be used to its full potential, and as far as the Trustees of the Abbey Chapel are concerned, to the glory of God.

‚ÄčA very comprehensive blog on Tavistock Abbey and its' remains  from John Stickland is available from this link.
(Thank you John for your permission to have this link) 

Note: Thanks to Mr. Lewis Bond for his investigation of the history of the Abbey Chapel, (Booklet, 'Story of 1000 years', from which extracts have been taken ), and his niece, Miss Heather Bond, for proof reading this article.