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Hailes Abbey Revealed: New Museum at Cotswold Beauty Spot Reveals Monastery’s Hidden Stories

Fig. 1 Hailes Abbey ruins
Fig. 1 Hailes Abbey ruins

Fig. 1 Hailes Abbey ruins

English Heritage’s new museum telling the dramatic story of the Cotswold abbey that was once one of England’s most important pilgrim destinations will open to the public on 30 June.

Hailes Abbey, near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, was founded by Earl Richard of Cornwall, son of King John and brother of Henry III, in the 1240s. For nearly 300 years, pilgrims from across England flocked to Hailes to visit a shrine said to contain blood shed by Christ on the cross, before the abbey dramatically suppressed by Henry VIII’s commissioners on Christmas Eve 1539 (fig. 1).

The new museum provides fascinating new insights into the history of the abbey and the lives of the monks who worshipped and lived at Hailes for nearly three centuries, drawing pilgrims over long distances to visit the Blood of Hailes, a phial believed to contain blood shed by Christ on the Cross. Miracles were attributed to this holiest of a relic, which was mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it was later denounced as a fake during Henry VIII’s Reformation and its shrine destroyed. The monks were cast out, and the church was rapidly reduced to ruins and then plundered by locals.

Fig. 2. Interior of the new museum at Hailes

Fig. 2. Interior of the new museum at Hailes

The new museum stunningly redisplays the abbey’s medieval collection, and vividly brings to life 300 years of piety, culture and tradition at Hailes (fig. 2). Visitors will be greeted by an imposing 13th-century stone sculpture of Old Testament figure Sampson fighting a lion. Symbolising Christ’s defeat of death, the sculpture was once a boss in the ceiling in the abbey’s chapter house.

Among the other treasures inside the museum, visitors will find an exceptionally rare fragment of 14th-century monk’s spectacles, lost for centuries on the site of the monks’ choir-stalls (fig. 3). A new invention in the 14th century, it is easy to imagine the frustration of the monk who misplaced them. The museum also holds the metal seal of the abbey’s Confraternity or brotherhood, depicting a monk holding the Holy Blood of Hailes. Membership enabled lay people to benefit from the prayers of the monks and included some of the richest and most powerful individuals in late medieval England.

Fig. 3 The remains of a 14th-century monk’s spectacles found at Hailes

Fig. 3 The remains of a 14th-century monk’s spectacles found at Hailes

Whilst there is no stained glass in the new museum, the parish church at Hailes, which was originally the capellea ante portas to the abbey, retains the remains of an early 14th-century stained glass scheme, and an extraordinarily rich set of wall-paintings, associated with the abbey’s founder, Richard of Cornwall.

Dr Michael Carter, Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, said: “Hailes Abbey was one of the last and greatest Cistercian abbeys to be founded in England. Thanks to the relic of the Holy Blood, the name of Hailes was familiar to popes and kings. Modern day visitors are following in the footsteps of the pilgrims who made long and arduous journeys to Hailes. Just like their medieval predecessors, they will be struck by the beauty of the abbey’s settings in the foothills of the Cotswolds.

“The new museum contains artefacts of international significance and provides fascinating new insights into the abbey’s royal founder, medieval belief and piety and the daily routine of the generations of Cistercian monks who lived here, their way of life brought to a sudden end by Henry VIII in 1539.”

To accompany the reopening, a new 48 page guidebook researched and written by historian Dr Michael Carter – Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage and an expert in Cistercian monasteries – has also been published by English Heritage Guidebooks (ISBN 978-1-91-090720-7, price £4), and will be on sale at the abbey.

For further information, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/hailes