The Cistercian monastery at Cleeve, west Somerset, is one of three in the county to have substantial, unaltered remains, the others being at Glastonbury and Muchelney. It was founded in 1198, and while never very large nor prosperous, survived without any major incidents until the abrupt closure in 1537, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries instigated by Henry VIII. The abbey church was quickly demolished, together with a few of the outbuildings, but most of the subsidiary rooms were largely unaffected, undergoing only minor modifications when the complex was converted into a country residence.
The abbey later saw use as a farm, but now most parts are, after relatively limited restorations, in the same condition as when the monks departed, making this site amongst the best preserved examples of monastic buildings in the country. Besides the intact rooms and the low foundations, of the church and a subsidiary cloister, the site also has just a few ruinous sections, the most photogenic being a corridor, or alley, on the west side of the main cloister. The layout of the site was typical of medieval monasteries, with a cruciform church bordered by a square, open courtyard to the south, which was enclosed on the other three sides by the other buildings.
Cleeve Abbey was built in quiet, rural surroundings, little changed today; on the floor of the shallow valley of the Washford River, two miles from the Somerset coast. The nearest major village is Washford, along on the A39. The site is served by a large, free parking area, on the west side of the road; the buildings are on the opposite side, a few minutes walk away. The abbey has been managed by English Heritage since 1984, and is open to the public each day between April and October.
The founder of Cleeve Abbey, originally known as Vallis Florida and later as St Mary's Abbey, was William de Roumare, 1st Earl of Lincoln, and it was initially managed by a group of monks from another of William's monasteries, Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. As was always the case, the buildings at Cleeve took a long time to complete, at least 70 years, the last components being the refectory, part of the south cloister range, and the lay brothers accommodation, in the west range. The place was sufficiently prosperous, in part due to income acquired via orchards, crop fields, herds of sheep and guest lodges, for the monks to undertake several rounds of improvements including re-flooring the abbey church using expensive, decorative tiles, and construction of a new, larger refectory plus several other rooms, replacing most of the existing south range. Following the Dissolution, the abbey passed to Robert Radcliffe (died 1542), the 1st Earl of Sussex, and after conversion to a manor remained with his family for several decades. It was used as a farm from the start of the 17th century to the late 1800s, after which several phases of renovations were carried out.
The monastery was originally encircled by a moat, of which a few traces remain, including to the north, and the east, though most of this section was filled in when the West Somerset Mineral Railway was built through the Washford valley in the 1850s, a line long since abandoned. Entry was through a stand-alone, two-story gatehouse, built in the middle of the 13th century and enhanced around 1515; this survives almost intact and still provides a grand frontage for the site. Approach is through a high arched passageway, linked to several side rooms including an almonry, where alms were collected from visitors, plus a staircase (not open to visitors) accessing the upper floor. The road runs south, alongside a stream, or ditch, to the main group of structures, which include a red-roofed building, originally a barn, built in the 18th century, this the only significant addition after the Dissolution.
The church foundations are on the north side of the cloister - remnants of walls just a few inches high, delineating the familiar layout of a twin-aisled nave, a choir between north and south transepts, and a presbytery at the east end. Each transept originally contained several small chapels. The nave was lined by two rows of seven columns, their position, and that of most of the internal walls, also still quite evident. In the southwest corner of the nave is a four-foot section of the ornate tiled floor that was added in the mid 14th century. The other demolished component of the abbey is to the southeast, where once stood the infirmary, along two sides of a secondary cloister, and a reredorter (communal latrine); only the low walls from the latter are still visible.
Entry to the surviving section of the abbey is through the English Heritage ticket office, which adjoins a museum and exhibition area; all were originally service rooms, including a kitchen and pantry, part of the south range. Doors open to the central cloister, which has the ruins of an alley on the west side, the only surviving section of the church wall to the north, and intact rooms on the other two sides - the sacristy (book store), chapter house, parlour and slype (connecting passage) to the east, and the warming room and bed chambers to the south. On the upper levels are, respectively, the dormitory and the refectory (dining room); the former from the 13th century, though the roof is later, and the latter from the remodelling of the 15th century. The refectory is the most spectacular room in the whole site, with high whitewashed walls, elegant multiple light windows and a complete wooden vaulted ceiling, the joists supported by corbels adorned with carved angels. Projecting at right angles from the south range is the complete tiled floor of the original refectory, protected by a recently installed wooden enclosure. Also of note is the painted chamber, on the upper level of the south range, which has a large wall painting from the 15th century.