Netley Abbey in Hampshire was founded in 1239, relatively late compared with many other English monasteries, though its history is similar; a grand cruciform church was constructed, adjoining square cloisters flanked by other buildings including the chapter house, warming house and living quarters, and the place flourished for several centuries, until 1536, when it was sequestrated by Henry VIII during the first phase of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. But unlike many other Catholic religious centres the buildings were not abandoned or demolished; instead they were given to one of the king's ministers, Sir William Paulet, who converted them into a grand country residence. Not until the start of the 18th century, after several changes of ownership, was the abbey finally abandoned, then partly demolished and left to became a ruin.
Following renewed interest by artists and authors from the Romantic Movement, most of the additions made by William Paulet were removed from the abbey in the 19th century, in order to create an idealised example of a medieval ruin, though traces are still readily apparent since this later work used red bricks, which are still bright in colour, and make a pleasing contrast with the austere greys of the original sandstone. The whole complex is large, and most sections have a good state of preservation; the walls are largely complete up to the original roof levels, and the high standard of masonry craftsmanship is still much in evidence.
The abbey stands amidst wooded surrounds 700 feet from the eastern shore of Southampton Water, just north of the village of Netley, and 4 miles by road from Southampton city centre. This land is flat and the abbey is lined by trees on all sides, so the setting is less dramatic than for some similarly-sized monasteries in more remote locations such as Tintern Abbey or Llanthony Priory, yet the buildings themselves are equal in grandeur, size, and state of preservation. A quiet street, Victoria Road, runs past the west side of the abbey, and the designated parking area is through a gate in the enclosing wall. More parking is available at short distance west along the road, in a clearing in the forest, from where paths lead to and along the coastline. Also of interest in the vicinity is the Parish Church of Edward the Confessor, a relatively recent building (1886), which contains two decorative stones from the abbey. The ruins site is unstaffed, and free to enter, open weekends during the winter and all days at other times of the year. About an hour could be spent exploring the various buildings, rooms and passageways. A limited number of notices give information about the most important areas.
The first view of the abbey is the south facing aspect, with a two story building to the right (the infirmary, reredorter and buttery), and, set back by 65 feet, the main frontage of the Tudor mansion, which was originally the kitchen and warming house of the abbey, and formed the south range of the cloisters. Entrance to the mansion was through an arched corridor between these two rooms, on the site of the southwards-projecting fratery, or monks refectory, which was demolished by William Paulet. Walls of the former warming house include large areas of deep red Tudor bricks, installed soon after the dissolution when the abbey was converted to a residence. Rooms along the west side of the cloister, including the lay brothers accommodation, are somewhat incomplete though they still have several interesting architectural features including the original monastery entrance, while the north side of the cloister has no rooms, and instead adjoins the south wall of the abbey nave.
The grandest buildings are on the east side of the cloisters, centred on the ornate chapter house, which has three large arches at the front (a doorway and two open windows) and three traceried windows at the rear. This adjoins the library and sacristy to the north, which in turn border the south transept of the church, while to the south is an undecorated passageway, originally the parlour, and then the misericord, a room where monks were permitted respite from the usual strict monastic rules. The final building on the east side of complex is orientated east to west; the infirmary occupies the lower level, while above was the reredorter, or lavatorium, which connected to a subterranean stream that is still visible today, flowing through a vaulted tunnel. The room just to the west was the buttery, where food and drinks were stored. There is one detached building, to the east; this was the abbot's lodging house, a generally less decorated structure than those in the main group.
The abbey church has the familiar layout used by most cathedrals of the time; a nave, choir, and presbytery along the long (east-west) axis, with north and south transepts at either side. Only the north transept is completely missing, having been removed around 1760 by local landowner Thomas Dummer; it partially survives as a folly in Cranbury Park near Winchester. Both nave and presbytery were lined by aisles along their whole length, while the choir was centered between four great pillars, supporting the main tower. Only the foundation stones of these towers remain. The high, vaulted roof of the south transept was still intact in the late 18th century, at which time all of the ruins were heavily overgrown with ivy and other plants, but no trace remains today. The church is early Gothic in design, generally quite decorative, with many carvings and extensive use of window tracery. The degree of ornateness seems to have increased during the building period; construction began with the presbytery to the east and ended with the nave in the west. The masonry of the great east window is complete, but all the inner structures of the similarly-sized west window collapsed in the 18th century.
Plans for the abbey at Netley were put in place by the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, at the start of the 13th century, though the foundation was not until a year after his demise, in 1239. A group of Cistercian monks was recruited from nearby Beaulieu Abbey, on the far side of Southampton Water, but for at least a decade they inhabited only wooden buildings, until the settlement found favour with Henry III; he provided funds for construction in stone, and became the official patron in 1251. The church took at least 50 years to complete, and was fully furnished and decorated towards the start of the 14th century, while all the other monastic buildings were finished a few decades later. Despite some problems with shortage of revenues, the subsequent history of the abbey was relatively uneventful, up until the abrupt closure in 1536. Once transferred to William Paulet (who was later made Marquis of Worcester) a busy period of alterations began, including demolition of the refectory and part of the south range, and reconfiguration of the church - the nave became a great hall, the transepts were apartments, and the presbytery was a chapel. The abbey was sold by the Paulet family in 1607, and it changed hands several more times over the next century, until such large dwellings fell out of favour, and the buildings were partly demolished and then abandoned.