Berkhamsted Castle | Hailes Abbey

Berkhamsted Castle

Hailes Abbey

Hailes Abbey
Hailes, Nr Winchcombe, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
GL54 5PB

Hailes Abbey is a former Cistercian abbey, two miles northeast of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. It was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, as a daughter establishment of Beaulieu Abbey.

Richard was an important figure in the history of Berkhamsted Castle. His brother, King Henry III, granted Berkhamsted to Richard in 1231 and he carried out extensive renovations and extensions to the Castle. Richard was also a hugely important figure in Europe, being elected King of the Romans in 1257, and he might have become Holy Roman Emperor if politics has taken a different turn.

It was a brush with death that brought Hailes Abbey into existence. In 1242, Richard survived a shipwreck, and vowed to found a monastery in thanksgiving to God. Henry granted him the lands at Hailes in 1245, and Richard drew up plans to build his monastery here in the Cotswold Hills. Richard was the richest man in England and he contributed generously to the project from his personal fortune, giving over 10,000 marks to the project. Hailes Abbey was consecrated in November 1251.

It was Richard’s son, Edmund, who truly put Hailes on the map. Born in Berkhamsted Castle in 1249, Edmund became a deeply religious young man. He participated in the Crusades and went on pilgrimages to the holy sites of Europe. On one such pilgrimage to Trifels castle in Franconia in 1269, Edmund acquired a relic of the Holy Blood of Christ – a phial of liquid purporting to be the True Blood of Jesus. Such relics were highly sought after in medieval Europe; the Gospel of Nicodemus, one of the apocryphal gospels, contains a legend that, after the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea preserved a sample of the Precious Blood. This mystical tale gained popularity among pious 13th-century pilgrims, along with the ever-popular legend of the Holy Grail.

Edmund brought the relic back to England and presented it to the Cistercian monks at Hailes Abbey in 1270. This prompted a project to build a new shrine at the east end of the abbey church to house this holiest of all relics. The work was completed in 1277 and the Holy Blood of Hailes became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in medieval England. Richard of Cornwall did not live to see the completed shrine; he died at Berkhamsted Castle on 2 April 1272, and was buried in Hailes Abbey church.

Another act of piety by Edmund was to found his own monastic house — which brings us back to Berkhamsted. In 1283 Edmund founded a priory for the Augustinian order of Bonhommes (or Blue Friars) at Ashridge near Berkhamsted, and presented them with part of the Holy Blood relic. Ashridge also became a pilgrimage destination, attracting thousands of devotees from all over Europe.

Nearly 300 years later, in the reign of King Henry VIII, England was in the grip of religious turmoil. Religious relics fell out of favour and the Holy Blood of Hailes was denounced as a fake, said to be nothing more than the blood of a duck. In the 1530s, both Hailes Abbey and Ashridge Priory were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Today, where once the faithful flocked in their thousands in adoration, Hailes Abbey stands in ruins. The site is now in the care of English Heritage and is open to visitors. A museum on the site has many ancient artefacts from the Abbey on display, inducing exquisite sculptures and a 16th-century seal depicting the Holy Blood of Hailes.


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