The tiny settlement of Mulchelney in south-central Somerset is built on a slight hill, one of many 'islands' in the Somerset Levels, surrounded by flat farmland that is often partially flooded in the winter. This relatively remote place has a surprisingly long history, since a church is believed to have been built here as far back as the 7th century, while a Benedictine monastery had been established around 300 years later.
Like all similar Catholic institutions in the country, Mulchelney Abbey was abruptly closed by order of Henry VIII, in 1538, but unlike some others for which a significant part of the structure has survived, such as Glastonbury Abbey, at Mulchelney nearly all was completely demolished, the only exceptions being the abbot's house, which continued to be inhabited (together with part of the cloisters), and the reredorter, or monks' lavatory. The foundations of the remainder of the buildings are evident only after early 20th century excavations.
The site, which is peaceful and not much visited, is managed by English Heritage as a paid attraction, open daily between April and the start of November. The foundations and the reredorter can be viewed in just a few minutes but there is much more to see in the abbot's house, with around a dozen intact rooms complete with such original features as stone carvings, vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and assorted artifacts from the monastic era, some unearthed during excavations.
Mulchelney is reached by a minor road south of Langport along the River Parrett. The road divides in front of the parish church, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and this backs on to the monastery; part of the foundations of the north transept of the abbey church extend into the present-day churchyard. Parking for visitors is at the east side of the site, and from here a short path leads along the south part of the foundations to the entrance station, in one room of the abbot's house. The foundations can be seen without payment, all year; but the fee allows entry to the house and the reredorter, this latter a detached, two-storey building with thatched roof, apparently the only surviving structure of its type in the country.
The exact foundation date of the monastery at Mulchelney is not known but is believed to be around 733, possibly by King Aethelstan. It was certainly well established by the time of the Norman conquest, and is recorded in the 1086 Doomesday Book, when the monastery also controlled two neighbouring settlements to the south, Thorney and Midelney. The original buildings were largely replaced during the 12th century; the largest components now were the abbey church, nearly 200 feet long, and the cloisters to the southwest, while further alterations were carried out in the early 1500s. At its peak, besides the monastery itself, which contained over 20 rooms and buildings, the monks also controlled an almonry barn, a parish church and a separate priest's residence, all of which are still intact, the latter managed by the National Trust though still inhabited as a private house. The majority of the main buildings were completely removed soon after the 1538 Dissolution, the exceptions being the abbot's lodging and the south wing of the cloisters, and these continued to be occupied, by a succession of farm tenants, until 1927 when ownership was transferred to the state.
All of the monastery church is clearly evident from its foundations, including five pairs of columns lining the nave, the north and south transepts with their semi-circular chantry chapels, and the larger lady chapel at the east end. The tallest remaining wall is about 2 feet, but most do not rise above ground level. The majority of the subsidiary rooms were arranged along the east side of the cloisters, extending to the reredorter, but there are also a few on the west side, connecting with the abbot's house. Most (six bays) of the south cloister corridor survives, including an elegantly decorated external wall on its south side, formerly adjoining the refectory. Entry to the house is via an ante room, which now contains the English Heritage kiosk and a small gift shop. One door leads to the south cloister, which retains blind arches along the inner walls, some window tracery along the outer wall, and fluted columns from the fan-vaulted ceiling. Another door is to the kitchen which in turn links to several other ground floor rooms. There are two stairways, one to the room above the cloister, which has its original, wooden, barrel-vaulted ceiling, and faded paintings on one part of the walls. The other staircase rises to the great chamber or hall, above the kitchen, its features including a grand fireplace, wood panelling, stone carvings at roof level, and panels of stained glass in the windows. One has the arms of Abbot Thomas Broke, who oversaw the last phase of building, in the early 16th century. The chamber connects to several smaller rooms, a used for residential purposes.