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Walter Espec, lord of the manor of Wardone, founded Warden Abbey on top of the Greensand Ridge in 1135, and the monastery was populated by an abbot and 12 monks of the Cistercian Order (the White Monks) from Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire. Warden flourished thanks to the monks’ dedication, and by the middle of the 12th century it had spared 33 of its brethren to colonise daughter houses at Sawtry (Hunts), Sibton (Suffolk) and Tilty (Essex)


Known as St Mary d’Assartis on its foundation, the monastery was popularly referred to as Wardon Abbey by the close of the 1140s. The monks had a sizeable claustral complex built over the following decades, and their impressive stone church was dedicated before the turn of the 13th century. The monks also established a precinct that ultimately extended to 157 acres (the largest in Britain). They used their land carefully, with gardens / orchards, vineyards, a hop yard, fishponds, a lake, and pasture all having a place. (Shown below is one of the medieval fishponds beside the vineyard.)







Thanks to the Warden’s excellent reputation for monastic observance, the monks received substantial grants of land during the 12th century, eventually setting up 22 monastic farms (granges) and 13 mills to support their growing community. Although most of the farms could be reached in a day, others lay at a considerable distance, including West Wardon Grange near Aston le Walls (Northants) and Livermere Grange at Wangford (Suffolk). To these, the monks added urban properties in Bedford, St Neots, Cambridge, Norwich, King’s Lynn, and London..


From the mid-13th century until the early 14th century, the abbey ran a thriving wool business, selling fleeces to merchants from Italy, Flanders and France. It was on the back of this success that the monks started to extend their abbey church, but unfortunately they suffered a reversal of fortunes during the first half of the 14th century. The Great Famine (1315-1317) and challenges to the wool trade were exacerbated by the monks having overreached themselves to pay for the building work. Serious financial difficulties ensued and the abbey took out loans equivalent to nearly £½ million in today’s money. The church extension was probably completed during the 1330s, but it took decades to repay the loans and the monks liquidated some of their capital by disposing of lands in the Ampthill and South Cambridgeshire areas before the end of the century. The Great Plague (1348-50) hit the monasteries even harder than the general populace, and by 1379 the community at Warden had dwindled from around 100 monks and 300 lay brothers in about 1200/1220, to Abbot Walter Clifton, 23 monks and 6 lay brothers.

Walter Espec had given the abbey the right to nominate the local parish priest, but in 1376 the monks took this a step further by paying £26 13s 4d to Edward III for a licence to appropriate the church, thereby taking over the financial responsibilities (along with the income). In 1380/81 Abbot Walter sponsored the installation of a stained glass window in the north wall of the nave (the abbot’s beard was a Victorian addition) and the church may have been dedicated to St Leonard around that time.


The abbey continued to struggle financially during the 15th century due to excessive financial commitments, the impact of the 100 Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. However Warden continued to be well-regarded and in 1429 the abbot was granted the right to wear the mitre, ring and other pontifical insignia. People flocked to the area, and in 1453 the Pope granted the abbot permission to take on a second job to offset the expense of hosting over 2,000 visitors annually. Abbots of Warden were highly influential in managing discipline within the Cistercian Order between the 1450s and 1480s, but this came to an abrupt halt with the election of Abbot John Bright in 1491. Independent investigation showed that the claustral buildings were much in need of repair, the abbot had pawned some of the monastery’s books and plate, and one of the monks had been charged with conspiracy to poison him.

The actions of Henry VIII led to the valuation and dissolution of the monasteries during the 16th century. Warden was back in a relatively strong position and its 1535 taxable income of £389 16s 6¼d was the 8th highest of all the 103 Cistercian houses in England and Wales. The community remained faithful and the monks were deeply distressed by restrictions imposed by the visiting royal commissioners on 16 October 1535, and which were implemented with alacrity by their new abbot, Henry Emery. By summer 1537 Emery had lost control of the monastery and was ousted temporarily in late July. He was only reinstated on 17th August thanks to the influence of the Duke of Norfolk and on 4th December Warden was the first of the greater monasteries to surrender voluntarily. The abbot and 12 monks were granted generous pensions by the Crown in March 1538.


After the surrender, the site was assigned to courtier Sir Francis Bryan, who was granted a 21-year lease by the Crown on 24 January 1539. Terms included annual rent of £13 19s 8d, demolition of the monastic structures, and removal of the stone. By 29 September 1542 Sir Francis had sublet the property to local bailiff, Robert Gostwick. On 16 July 1545 Gostwick acquired the title of the lease for 41 years, and on 10 June 1552 the Privy Council granted 400 cart-loads of stone to Oliver St. John towards the building of Bedford Gaol (formerly on the corner of High Street and Silver Street). Gostwick built a red-brick farmhouse next to the site of the former abbey church, but the building was demolished around 1785 apart from one fragment, which was said to have been left ‘for the sake of its beautiful serpentine chimney’. The remains (above) are now used as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust.


The land was purchased by Samuel Whitbread in 1786 and remains in the family’s hands today.


© M. Roberts 2018

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