On the edge of the Cotswolds near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire stand the limited but picturesque remains of Hailes Abbey, a Cistercian institution established around 1245 by Richard Earl of Cornwall (died 1272), son of King John. Hailes is one of very few monasteries in the county that survive in a ruinous state, as the majority have either completely disappeared or have been incorporated into later buildings, but like all the others, the place was closed as part of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, given up on 24th December 1539.
Most of the buildings were soon demolished, and even though part of the west cloister range was converted to a manor house, this too has long since been removed, leaving only foundations, as is the case for the abbey church and the other areas. The only significant surviving structures are four lines of walls and arches along each side of the square cloisters, partly overgrown with grass and wildflowers, and all surrounded by the low walls of the other buildings, most of which were only uncovered after 20th century excavations.
Although relatively small, certainly not comparable to spectacular monastic ruins like Tintern or Neath, the site is atmospheric, peaceful and rather beautiful, its appeal in part due to the secluded surroundings, overlooked by ancient trees, and also because of the suitably aged appearance of the richly coloured, yellow brown Cotswold stone used in its construction. The walls include a total of 16 arches, some containing doorways, and display a variety of other interesting architectural features.
Hailes village consists of little more than a farm and a few houses, beside an unnamed tributary of the River Isbourne, flowing from a valley at the edge of the Cotswold Hills, which rise up less than one mile east. The abbey lies along a narrow country lane, part of the Cotswold Way, which forks off the B4632 two miles northeast of Winchcombe; there are two closely-spaced parking areas, also suitable for visiting the old parish church, which is notable for its unrestored medieval wall paintings. Entry to the abbey site is past a modern building containing a gift shop and a museum, this matter including a selection of relics unearthed during excavations. A small exterior courtyard contains some salvaged masonry pieces. The abbey church is to the south, just beyond a line of large trees, with the outbuildings on the far side.
The settlement of Hailes was sufficiently important for the Normans to construct a small castle here, towards the end of 11th century, though it was in use for only a few decades before being deemed surplus to requirements and was demolished around 1240, shortly before construction of the abbey, which occupied part of the same site. Traces of the castle earthworks could until fairly recently be seen in an adjacent field. Hailes was granted to Richard of Cornwall by his brother Henry II, and he founded the abbey in gratitude for the assumed divine intervention that enabled him to survive a shipwreck a few years earlier. The buildings were swiftly constructed, using the local Cotswold stone, and all was complete by 1277. Although relatively small and rather isolated, the monastery became prosperous, largely as a result of acquisition of a supposed sample of Holy Blood, on account of which the place became a popular location for pilgrims; the blood was only shown to be fake shortly before the Dissolution. The west range was converted to a mansion around the end of the 16th century, owned by the Tracy family of Toddington, before being abandoned around one hundred years later.
The abbey church was completely demolished soon after the Dissolution, and the remains lay buried for several centuries, until the foundations were covered by archaeological excavations; now, the base of the walls and columns indicate its position and shape. The church had the usual cruciform layout, with an aisled nave, lined by eight pairs of pillars, leading to the choir between the north and south transepts, and then the presbytery, its east end formed of five, semi-circular bays, each supported by two or three buttresses. Just enough traces of the columns and walls remain to give some idea of the style and craftsmanship of the church. The only taller section of the church is part of the south wall of the nave, also the outer wall of the north cloister. This has an arched doorway at the east end, and then, after a partial gap, three arched alcoves and the remains of a fourth, with plainer masonry extending to the west end.
The outer east wall of the cloister is also mostly complete, only missing its northern section, adjoining the south transept. It contains six arches: the northernmost was the doorway to the vestry, the next three were to the chapter house, and the other two led to lesser rooms. On the far side are walls or ditches that indicate the position of these enclosures. The south cloister backed on to the kitchen, the frater (monks' dining hall) and the warming house, the only heated section of the monastery. Entrances to the latter two survive, separated by a full height wall. Further southeast are the site of a fish pond and the faint remains of the infirmary, beside a walled ditch that extends to tunnels at either end and still contains flowing water, formerly used as a latrine. The outer west cloister wall rises only to ground level, though a short section of the inner wall survives, with three adjacent arches, somewhat thinner than the others. Buildings on the west side included the abbot's lodging, and all the western structures were adapted for the late Tudor mansion, the remains of which resemble all the other outlying structures, mostly just foundations.