Built on the west bank of the
River Boyne, Bective Abbey is one
of the oldest Cistercian Abbeys in
Ireland, dating from about 1146 and
dedicated to the Blessed Virgin
Mary. Rebuilt in the late 12th/early
13th century, it was further altered
in the 15th century, when it adopted
much of its fortified character. The
monastery was suppressed in 1536.
The abbey and land were leased to
Thomas Agarde in 1537 and bought by Andrew Wyse in 1552. It later passed to the Dillon’s and then to the Bolton’s.
The south-west tower at Bective is particularly massive and has three storeys over a barrel-vaulted basement. It was designed as a fortified residence, probably for the Abbot and reflects the uncertain state of the country at the time. The Abbey was converted into a Tudor mansion after 1537. It was designed as a fortified residence, probably for the Abbot and reflects the uncertain state of the country at the time. The Abbey was converted into a Tudor mansion after 1537.
On an overcast Sunday afternoon on the 12th October 1980 a group of people led by Bishop of Meath, Dr. John McCormack and Dom Finian Power, the Cistercian Abbot of Mellifont Abbey, left Robinstown and headed for Bective Abbey. They were on their way to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict who had inspired the Cistercians.
As they walked towards Bective, they must have realised that they may well have been walking in the footsteps of the twelve grey-cowled Cistercian monks and an Abbot who had travelled from the great Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont over eight hundred years earlier in 1145. They had been on their way to a place called Sean Droichead or Old Bridge to establish a daughter house of Mellifont. Those medieval travellers in their habits of white un-dyed wool could soon see the crowd who had gathered at the spot. Among them was Muircheartach O Maoilsheachlainn, King of Meath who had donated the land and had invited them to build the Abbey. Mass was celebrated and the first sod was turned.
With the help of the French architect, who was a member of the original party, the abbey was built and officially opened on January 14th 1147. It was said that Greek architects designed part of the abbey though there is no proof of this. It was called Monasterium de Beatitudine or Beatitudo Dei and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Some sources claim that the name Bective is derived from Beatitudine, though others suggest that it comes from Beag Teach, the name that was given to the nearby retirement residence of King Cormac in the third century AD. There was also a chapelry in connection with Bective at Clady. In the old records Bective is variously called Bectiff, Begty, the Betty and Beckedy.
The Cistercians trace their history to a French monastery founded in 1098 at Citeaux (Cistercium) in France by the Abbot Saint Robert of Molesme. By 1200 there were thirty Cistercian Abbeys in Ireland. Eventually this figure was to rise to forty. They introduced Gothic architecture to Ireland and combined it with the existing Roman style. The Cistercians were noted for the construction of fine drainage systems and stone lined sewers. This might be one explanation for the many stories that circulate around the sites of Cistercian Monasteries, including Bective about secret passages and tunnels.
The Abbey became a centre of prayer, a refuge for weary travellers, a medical centre, a library, a school, a source of alms for the poor and a publishing house for religious books. It exerted a great influence on the life of the locality.
Prayer, reading and work marked the professed monks’ and lay brothers’ long day. They rose at 2.00 a.m. and went to bed at 8.00 p.m. They took vows of poverty and obedience and praised God in three ways. Firstly they lauded him with hymns and prayers. Secondly they did farm work, worked with their hands and involved themselves in reading and writing. Finally they practised self-denial, wore simple clothes, fasted and remained silent for long periods. They had 245 acres of the finest land at this time. They also had a mill and a fishing weir. Soon their abbey was a self-sufficient community.
While the King or Taoiseach of Meath had a direct input into the foundation of Bective Abbey, he also had a more oblique connection with its later difficulties. His sister Dervorgilla was married to Tiernan O’Rourke of Breffney, but she ran away with Dermot McMurrough, the King of Leinster. This gain contributed in part to the loss of his Kingdom and he journeyed to France and Wales in a successful attempt to get assistance from the Normans.
The Anglo-Norman conquests began in 1169 and great changes were underway. Hugh de Lacy was given the Kingdom of Meath and it appears the Irish monks were gradually removed and replaced with French speaking monks from England, Wales and France. De Lacy was an active agent of this policy. In the “Annals of the Four Masters”, de Lacy is described as “the profaner and destroyer of many Churches”. In the new political correctness, to be civilised and cultured meant to be familiar with French learning and manners. It was strongly suggested that the Irish who now wanted to become monks should travel to the grammar schools of Oxford or Paris or other famous places of learning. The abbey environment was now to reflect French culture. A process of reform was now embarked upon in the monasteries and the Irish monks felt that their status and way of life was under serious threat. There was a period of disagreement and turmoil that was particularly acute up until 1235 and continued to a lesser degree thereafter.
Little of the original abbey now exists. It was largely rebuilt in the late twelfth century or in the early part of the thirteenth century. The stone would have come from Moynalvey or Lismullin. The ornamental carving was done in Caen (French) stone. Around a lawn, they built a sheltered cloister for the monks to walk; to the north they built a church. On the eastern side they constructed a sacristy and a chapter house on the ground floor with a dormitory on top. They erected a library, kitchen and a sitting room on the south with a refectory above it. To the west they built a storeroom on the ground floor with the guest rooms and lay brothers apartments above. It was also a fortified building for the country was in a state of war. It was soon to become a great monastic seat and the Lord Abbot of Bective sat as a spiritual peer in the parliament in Dublin.
Hugh de Lacy was killed in 1186 at Durrow on the site of a castle he was building. It is said that as he was stooping down to explain his orders, an irate Irishman named O’Meyey drew out his battle-axe and cut off his head. For some reason de Lacy’s body remained undiscovered for a number of years. Then, according to Sir James Ware in his annals, we are told that in 1195 Matthew O’Henry, Archbishop of Cashel and John Cumin, Archbishop of Dublin interred his body with great ceremony in Bective Abbey. According to Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar) in his book “Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater”, he is supposed to have been buried under the arches on the south side of the cloisters. But his head was carried to Dublin and buried in the Abbey of St. Thomas the Martyr in the tomb of his wife, Rosa de Monmouth.
The scene was now set for a most undignified ecclesiastical quarrel. Both Bective and St. Thomas, which had also been greatly endowed by deLacy, claimed the complete body. This argument resulted in an appeal to the Pope. Pope Innocent the Third appointed Simon Rochfort, Bishop of Meath and Gilebert, Prior of Duleek as arbitrators and their decision saw deLacy being reunited in the Abbey of St. Thomas in Dublin. The motivating force behind this controversy was not necessarily inspired by love for the man, but rather by an appreciation of the steady income the visitors to the tomb of this famous statesman and soldier would generate by way of alms and offerings. The possession of the complete remains would also result in certain lands accruing to the Church of St. Thomas. Though Bective lost out on this occasion, its lands were to increase considerably in the following years, rising from the original 245 acres to teach almost 4000 acres at one time.
Mellifont Abbey in Louth was in an area of active warfare and this unremitting struggle for power and land between the Irish and the Anglo-Normans was felt in the abbeys and especially Bective Abbey, near as it was to Trim which was such an important centre of Norman power. Indeed, later at various times in the 1300’s and the 1400’s Trim castle was the residence of the Lord Lieutenant or Lord Deputy who was the King’s representative in Ireland. In an early example of de-centralisation Trim was in effect the capital of Anglo-Norman Ireland. The political and military upheavals when combined with the efforts at monastic reform caused great tensions.
The Abbot of Bective was involved in the riot at Jerpoint Abbey, Kilkenny in 1217 when he joined the Jerpoint Monks in opposing the visitation by a foreign Abbot. The ill feeling between the newly arrived monks from England, Wales and the continent and the native Irish monks resulted in murder on this occasion. The Abbot of Bective was charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until he died. He was sent to Clairvaux in France to stand trial. As a result the reform of Bective was given an added urgency. In 1227 the Prior of Beaubec in Normandy was appointed Abbot of Bective. Bective was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of Mellifont and affiliated to Clairvaux. At the same time it was decided that the Abbey at Shrule in Co. Mayo would become subject to Bective. In 1228 the Abbot of Buildwas was appointed “visitor” to conduct visitations and keep an eye on the situation. The same year a monk from Clairvaux was ordained Abbot of Mellifont, but he soon resigned when he learned of plans to murder him. In many abbeys the deposed abbot and excluded monks kept up a very rigorous opposition. Bective is described at this time as a strongly fortified place to which “visitors” could come in security and which could assist its mother-house, Clairvaux in subduing and reforming Mellifont and the Abbey at Boyle.
Mellifont practically lost all of its daughter houses in 1227-28. As the century wore on, Mellifont fell more into line with the new order. Affairs improved to such an extent that it was decreed by a statute on the authority of the General Chapter in 1274 that the abbeys of Ireland were to be restored to their former parentage. Bective once again came under the jurisdiction of Mellifont. Father Abbots would be able to visit the abbeys as in the days of old. So the momentous decisions taken by the General Chapter in 1227 were reversed. However any celebrations planned for Bective were soon to be dampened by a worrying proposal.
In 1274 it was planned to found a new house from Bective at Cashel, Co. Tipperary. It’s also possible the plan was to transfer the monastery of Bective to Cashel. So important was this project deemed that the Abbots of Mellifont and Dublin were commissioned to go and inspect the site. The words of the decree suggest that they planned to abandon the old abbey at Bective with its lands and possessions. As the scheme eventually came to nothing we can conclude that the proposed site was unsuitable or the Abbot of Bective objected to the proposed transfer. It is most likely that it was the latter. But the possible transfer of Bective to Cashel would indicate that Bective was a fairly small community. From reading the records of similar sized abbeys we can surmise that there would have been between sixty to eighty monks and lay brothers there. In spite of the efforts at change and reform in the abbeys, they were still closely bound to the countryside and the monks were deeply involved in the concerns of their kinsfolk. To counteract this, King Richard 111 in 1380 ordered that “no mere Irishman or King’s enemy should be admitted to any religious house”.
The warfare of the 14th and 15th centuries weakened the abbeys. The Black Death exerted its toll. The once lofty Cistercian standards began to slip. A laxity gradually crept in and standards and discipline fell alarmingly. In these unsettled times, the Abbot had to plan for falling vocations and the necessity of much needed renovation. This work was carried out in the 15th century. Many of the old buildings were largely demolished and a more compact institution was created. It was around this time that Ardbraccan stone was first used on the building.
A few of the monks’ names have lived on for one reason or another. We know about John Englishe. He was the Abbot when the abbey was dissolved and though he was granted a pension of £15, it is alleged that he made off with a self-granted gratuity in the form of goods, including two bells to the value of £35 .11s. 0d. He was forced to return the items, but only one bell was accounted for, giving rise to the legend of the lost bell. We know of Thomas Prowd, the prior, John Byrell, the cellarer, Edmund Fyne and the famous William Walsh. He was twenty six when the abbey closed. He was persecuted and spent years in prison under Elizabeth 1. He spent his years as Bishop of Meath from 1554 until his death in Alcala in Spain in 1577 on the run. The Cistercian order proposed him for beatification in 1915. A meeting of people interested in furthering his right to sainthood was held in Mullingar a few years ago. Some day Bective Abbey may have its own saint.
On the 25th of July 1485 a relieved Lord Abbot of Bective, James of Castlemartin took the oath of allegiance to King Henry VII’s Lord Deputy. Prior to that he had attempted to put his considerably power and influence to the test in the cause of one Lambert Simnel. He was the Yorkist pretender to the throne of the Lancastrian Tudor Henry, father of Henry the VIII who was to have a devastating effect on Bective years later. Lambert was crowned King of England and Ireland in Dublin in the presence of a large gathering of Irish nobles, prelates and the Lord Abbot of Bective, James of Castlemartin. Lambert’s army was defected and to temper his pomposity with a sprinkling of humility, he was sentenced to work as a servant in Henry’s kitchen. Henry’s mood of forgiveness saw James receiving a pardon and some words of rebuke
By now the abbey owned twenty messuages (dwelling house with out -buildings and land)and 1200 acres of land. The Cistercians were skilled farmers. In a sense they became victims of their own success. They produced excess crops, sold them and became wealthy. There was a temptation to live an easier life and forget the teachings of St. Benedict. Men were employed to do the hard work and some of the land was set out to tenants as in an ordinary manor.
The Abbot of Bective attended the General Chapter of the order in Citeaux, France in 1512. He would have travelled by boat or barge to the bustling port of Drogheda. There he boarded a ship for France. The Boyne was a busy and efficient route for the transport of people and goods. Building materials would also have been transported to the abbey by barge. Indeed it is possible that the pioneering party of 1145 travelled to Sean Droichead by boat.
In 1514, the Lord Abbot was one of four Abbots appointed to investigate the affairs of the Cistercian Nunnery in Derry in 1514. An ecclesiastical court was set up in 1534 to decide which of two claimants was entitled to the Abbacy of Mellifont. The Lord Abbot of Bective, John Englishe was one of the judges and the court sat in Bective on the 6th and 7th of February.
Martin Luther, the German monk railed against the lapses of the Church. HenryVIII seized the moment to establish the Reformation in England and separate the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. He saw n opening not only to sort out his matrimonial difficulties, but also an opportunity to replenish his diminishing financial resources and caused the suppression of the monasteries by an act of parliament in 1536. Lord Abbot Englishe was told that the abbey was to be dissolved on the 6th May 1536, though a stay was allowed for the sowing and harvesting of some crops. The Fitzgerald’s of Kildare had been the abbey’s overlords. The Lord Deputy was the Earl of Kildare’s brother-in-law, so we can understand why allowances were made. Due to pressure from Henry, the Suppression Bill was finally brought to bear upon the abbey in October 1537. John Englishe, the last state recognised Lord Abbot of Bective, was granted a pension of £15 a year as mentioned earlier. By now there were only about ten to twenty monks, including William Walsh, in the abbey. There were no lay brothers.
A court of jurors was set up to give a semblance of legality to the taking over of the abbey and the lands. The abbey’s possessions were sold and raised
£108.3s .0d. As was the custom, the Abbot and the monks said the final prayer of the day,“The Hail Holy Queen”, for the last time in the abbey: – “and after this our exile”. They were expelled and they retired to some reclusive residence in the neighbourhood. They and the local people tried to come to terms with the tumultuous changes. Their expectations of better times must have been raised when Mary 1st became Queen in 1553 and tried to restore Catholicism to her Kingdom. Her death a few years later and the succession of Elizabeth 1st, who moved quickly to re-establish Protestantism, heaped despair upon their hapless state. However, for the next hundred years Abbots were still appointed to the abbey and some lived nearby. One such hopeful man was Stephen Shortal or Sebastian. He was born in Kilkenny and became a Cistercian monk in the monastery of Nucale in Gallicia in Spain. He had a great reputation as a writer, and was noted for his sharp wit and finely honed debating skills. He was sent as a missionary to Ireland, but he was captured by the Moors and sold into slavery. He escaped and finally returned to Ireland. He was made titular Abbot of Bective and died on the 3rd December 1639.
In 1537 it was recommended to the Lord Lieutenant that he live in Trim and that the castle be sufficiently repaired. The letter suggested that “the timber and stones of the monastery of ….the Betty (Bective)….be drawn thither for the same purpose”. Fortunately, despite the order, Bective was not greatly damaged, though in October 1540 a report stated that“the roofing of the Church and Chancel was thrown down and the timber so detached was used for repairs to the king’s mills at Tryme” There may have been a feeling that a fortified Bective was considered necessary for the defence of the country and it was spared further destruction.
The abbey and its lands which now comprised of over 4,000 acres had been leased to Thomas Agarde in December 1537, who is described in the records as “of Bectiff, gent”. He wrote a long letter to Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal in London regarding the town of Trim and the Lordship of Bective. He got the use of the land, which also included several granges (outlying farms), water mill etc., with a fishing weir and many messuagaes and cottages. In 1552, during the reign Edward VI, the monastery and its possessions were sold to Andrew Wise, the vice-treasurer of Ireland, for £1380.16s.7p. at a rent of £4.5s.4d. The memorandum of the sale makes interesting reading. It included every field, church and building for miles around and it is interesting to see all the places that now comprise Robinstown mentioned in the old English- .” Claidaghe, Balgill, alias Grange of Balgill, Balradaghe, alias Grange of Balradaghe, Douloghe alias Dielogh, Clonecoyllen alias the Grange of Clonecoyllen , the two Balbrios, alias Grange of Balbray…” Some property in Westmeath including the Manor of Revaghe and all that went with it also formed part of the sale.
The abbey was now converted into a lay residence. A large tower was built above the western section of the south range; the frater of the monks became the great hall of the residence and was given an external flight of steps and a new entrance. The chapter house, vaulted upon a central pillar was turned into a central kitchen; the cloister garth became the courtyard of the residence and an old archway to the south transcept gave entrance to it. The result is the picturesque building of many styles and influences, which we see today.
On the death of Andrew Wise, the property passed into the hands of Sir Alexander Fitton who had married Wise’s daughter and heiress, Mary. Through the marriage of their daughter, the property passed into the hands of Sir Bartholomew Dillon. In 1622 he repaired the church and it is probable that the remains of the cloisters were brought to Clady. After his visitation of 1622 Bishop Montgomery noted that Dr. Dillon “pretendeth to have an exemption from the Lord Bishop’s jurisdiction and doth prove wills and grant administracons”. From the Dillon’s Bective passed to Sir Richard Bolton, Lord High Chancellor of Ireland in 1639. Sir. Richard’s rural bliss was rudely shattered during the 1641 Rising when Owen Roe O’Neill attacked and took the abbey or castle as it had then become. However the Bolton’s were destined to own it till the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Relics of Bective Abbey can be found in various locations. As we saw earlier, timbers were removed from the abbey to repair the mill in Trim. In 1836 tiles from the floor of the chapel of Bective Abbey, ornamented with Arabesque patterns and the Fitzgerald coat of arms and motto, were brought to Trim Protestant Church and put in the vestry. They are no longer there. By now the Bolton’s no longer lived in the abbey because their Paladin mansion was built around 1830. Johnstown Catholic Church has a couple of carved Bective stones secured to the Church wall outside the side door at the West End. There is a tile from Bective Abbey bearing the Fitzgerald coat of arms in Dublin Castle. The holy water font, which now rests in the Church of the Assumption in Robinstown, very probably came from Bective Abbey. It seems that several stones and a font were taken to Old Clady Graveyard. Sir William Wilde when researching his book “The Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater” visited this site in 1849 and was told that they had been brought there from Bective Abbey. Not long afterwards the landlord, Richard Bolton, removed the font to his garden, possibly in the interests of preservation though probably for the purpose of ornamentation. Upon the celebration of the centenary of the Church’s foundation, Canon Athey installed the font in St. Mary’s Protestant Church in 1951. After the de-consecration of St. Mary’s, Dean J.A.G. Barrett presented it to Fr. Sean Heaney P.P. of Dunderry Parish in 1994.
“The Bective Hours”, a beautifully decorated and painted manuscript is kept in Trinity College Dublin. It is claimed that it belonged to a monk in Bective and contains an obituary for an Alan Hackett dated 11th November 1541, four years after the surrender of the abbey.
Where are the monks buried? Rev. A. Cogan in his history “The Diocese of Meath”, provides a clue when he tells us that “the parish Church of Bective, to which a cemetery was attached, stood in the neighbourhood of the monastery, but both have been, in later years, uprooted and swept away.” The memorandum of the sale to Andrew Wise in 1552 mentioned a cemetery to the north or east of the Church. We also know that in olden times the most venerable such as Hugh de Lacy was buried beneath the arch cloisters.
Richard Bolton, the last of his line, died in 1862. The Rev. George H. Martin, a relative of the Bolton’s got possession of the abbey. He vested the abbey ruins in the Board of Works in 1894. Soon many stones, piers and window ledges enjoyed a change of scenery. The ivy slowly claimed the walls.
In the early 1950’s the film “Captain Lightfoot”, with Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush was filmed there. In 1994 a scene from “Braveheart”, starring Mel Gibson was shot in the building.
The Abbey’s significance and illustrious history was acknowledged when it came into state ownership in 1993 and was listed as a national monument and preservation work commenced on the ruins.
Each extension, contraction and alteration to the abbey mirrors a period in Irish History during the last millennium. The early twelfth century ruins, now barely discernible, bespeak the pioneering missionary zeal of the early Church. The enlargement, fortification and architectural refinements of the late twelfth, early thirteenth century point to the expansionist policies of the new rulers, the Normans. The contractions and modifications of the fifteenth century reflect falling vocations and the insecure state of the Church and the country. After dissolution came the greatest changes of all. The keep or tower was raised and fortified giving us this square-squat brooding presence with its arrow slits and raised doorway. It can appear a puzzling ruin with its mixture of styles or designs. Then it was left to rest for a time, an overlooked abbey-castle, like a near forgotten headstone on an overgrown grave.
When we returned to honour the souls of that “grave” on October 12th 1989 the “Plain Chant” of the monks of New Mellifont which hadn’t been heard at Bective for almost five century’s resonated again. Bishop McCormack said that, “We talk in what was a place of prayer for four hundred years, the home of the living community of Cistercian Monks.”
He led the people in praying “The Hail Holy Queen”, the prayer with which the monks always ended.