By Nathen Amin
Merevale Abbey is situated in the heart of England and located just a few miles away from where the Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on a hot summer’s day in August 1485. It was recorded that Henry Tudor and part of his army encamped on the abbey grounds the night before the battle.
The small abbey was founded on the site in 1148 by Robert de Ferrers, 2nd Earl of Derby. The early history of the Cistercian abbey was uneventful and it appears to have been only played a moderate role in the locality as opposed to some of the larger, wealthier abbeys of the period. It seems that the abbey rarely houses more than ten monks. Nonetheless Edward I stayed at the abbey in August 1275 whilst Edward III was recorded as being at Merevale in March 1322.
In August 1485 the abbey played a significant part in English history when the army of Henry Tudor approached the gatehouse. Henry had landed in Wales after a fourteen year exile abroad and had come with the intention to usurp the English crown from Richard III, who in turn had taken the crown from his young nephew Edward V. Henry’s army had travelled down Watling Street from Shrewsbury and with a requirement for refreshment and recuperation targeted Merevale’s Cistercian abbey as the ideal resting spot.
It is possible that it was at Merevale that Henry Tudor fatefully met with his stepfather Thomas Stanley. The Stanleys intervention the following day on the side of Tudor rather than Richard III is often seen as the decisive moment of the battle. Was a plan hatched by the men whilst they were in the abbey grounds? A later observer remarked ‘it was a goodly sight to see the meeting of them’ whilst Tudor’s biographer Polydore Vergil would later write that Tudor and Stanley took each other by the hand ‘and yielding mutual salutation’ entered into ‘counsel in what sort to arraigne battle with King Richard’.
Later evidence hasbeen used to support the theory that Henry’s army stayed at Merevale Abbey. As king Henry issued a warrant reimbursing the abbey with 100 marks having ‘sustained great hurts, charges and losses, by occasion of the great repair and resort that our people coming towards our late field made, as well unto the house of Merevale aforesaid as in going over his ground, to the destruction of his corns and pastures’. Payments were also made to other settlements in the region, including £24 20s 4d to Atherstone, £20 to Fenny Drayton and £13 to Witherley amongst other townships.
Furthermore in September 1503 the king returned to Merevale whilst on progress and visited the abbey. He commemorated his great victory by sanctioning a new stained glass window depicting his favoured saint, Armel. The decision to use a saint that was very personal to him as opposed to a national symbol like George suggests Henry felt a deep connection with Merevale and wanted to convey his appreciation for the role the abbey played in his victory. The small figure of Armel can still be viewed in the South Aisle of the Gate Chapel, a rare depiction of this saint in England. Another place the saint can be viewed is in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey where a statue of Armel is located close to the magnificent tomb of the king. On 30 October 1511 Henry Tudor’s son and successor Henry VIII paid a visit to the abbey with his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon.
Despite this close connection with the Tudor dynasty Merevale Abbey was nonetheless dissolved on 13 October 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII and gradually fell into ruin. The surrender of the house was signed by Abbot William Arnold who was compensated with a pension of £40. Sub-abbot John Ownsbe and four of the monks received £5 6s 8d with three other monks received £5 and one other monk receiving only 3s 4d. The monastery and the lands were put into the possession of the Lord Ferrers two days later.
Today the only remaining part of the Abbey still used for religious service is the former Gate Chapel, which is now utilised as the parish church. This church contains a sizable degree of stained glass of historical significance, including a Jesse window often considered to amongst the most important in Britain. The window has been dated to around 1330 and was presumably original positioned inside the abbey proper. It contains a tree linking ten kings and prophets. Elsewhere is the aforementioned stained glass window depicting St Armel, placed there by Henry Tudor after he had become king.
The remainder of the abbey ruins can be found on private land, namely grounds owned by the Abbey Farm Bed & Breakfast. The remains are thought to primarily be those connected to the north and south walls of the Refectory, including a full moulded doorway.