MEDMENHAM ABBEY

1910: Medmenham Abbey in Thames Villages by Charles Harper.

1201:  Cistercian foundation from the Mother abbey of Woburn (King John)
1245:  King Henry III instructed his officer in charge of the works at Windsor Castle to allow the Abbot of Medmenham to have one or two boats carrying stone along the river for his own works;  and not to hinder him or allow him to be hindered.
1256: Abbot Roger
1295: Abbot Peter
1308: Abbot John de Medmenham
1416: Abbot Henry
1521: Abbot Richard
1536: Abbot John Talbot (the last Abbot)
1536: The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII

1712: Browne Willis -

The walls of the north isle of the Abbey church are still standing; it is in length sixteen, and in breadth four, yards.
The church, therefore, must have been a neat stately building, well wrought with Ashler work, and the windows lofty and spacious: it appears to have consisted of a body, two side isles, and chancels, with a tower at the west end.

1746: Home of the rather pathetic “Hell fire Club” where various aristocrats had themed parties involving pseudo devil worship.  When one member dressed a monkey as the devil the others were so scared it ceased.

1790s: Medmenham Abbey by Louis Belanger


Medmenham Abbey, 1790s, Louis Belanger

1811:


Medmenham Abbey 1811

1826: Medmenham in the Henley Guide.

MEDMENHAM ... is situated on the Marlow road, about four miles distant from Henley. At the time of Edward the Confessor, the manor was held by Westan, a Thane of that Monarch. At the conquest it belonged to Hugh de Bolebeck, whose son having founded the abbey of Wooburn, in the county of Bedford, gave this manor of Medmenham to found a cell to it.
The abbey was founded January 3, 1200, for Cisterian Monks, as appears from the charter granted by King John. In 1536, it was annexed to Bisham. John Talbot was the last Abbot, At the dissolution there were but two Monks, and a yery short catalogue of effects. The clear value was £20. 6s. 2d.
After the dissolution of Bisham, in 1539, the abbey estates were given to Robert Mone and others. The family of Duffield succeeded soon afterwards ; they possessed the estate till 1779, when it was purchased by J. Morton, Esq. whose widow in 1786, sold it, together with Danesfield, to R. Scott, Esq. The manor of Broch, or Medmenham, was retained by the founder, and descended through the families of Vere, Warren, Fitz-Allen, Beauchamp, Pole, and Rice, to John Borlase, Esq. from whom it passed to Sir John Borlase Warren, and in 1781, was sold to W. Lee Antonie, Esq.
Brown Willis visited the abbey in 1718, when part of the church was remaining; it then appeared to have been a neat and stately building. The shaft of one clustered pillar of chalk is the only remain of the church to be seen at present.

Medmenham Abbey, 1826
Medmenham Abbey in the Henley Guide, 1826

In the last century, some men of wit and fashion, under the title of Monks of Saint Francis, took possession of the house, and assumed the habit, but not the strict rules of that order. Their motto, "FAY CE QUE VOUDRAS", still remains over the door.
The abbey occupies a very pleasant spot on the banks of the river, and forms a favourite resort for a day of pleasure to many parties during the summer. After passing the banks of Fawley Court, the Island, and the part of the Thames, under Culham Court, dotted with numerous islands, and shaded with willows, you arrive at the abbey, which in its present state, with its ivy-mantled roof and walls, forms a very picturesque object. A ruined tower and cloister have been added with much effect and propriety, and within the cloister a room (in which accommodation is afforded to the visitors) is fitted up with the same good taste, and the glare of light excluded by stained glass.

1834: Tombleson -


Medmenham Abbey, Tombleson, 1834

1875:  Medmenham Abbey, Henry Taunt -

Medmenham Abbey, Henry Taunt, 1875
Medmenham Abbey, Henry Taunt, 1875
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT2115

1881: George Leslie -

As to Medmenham Abbey, it can be landed at and seen in a very few minutes, and Murray’s “Handbook for Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire” gives every information that is required. 
The new Hotel is a great accommodation as a half-way house between Marlow and Henley, and if you go ashore, by all means pay a visit to the church and the little duck-pond;  there is too a very curious old forsaken house up the hill, said to have been visited by Charles II and Nell Gwynne.

1885: Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames -

... chiefly notorious from its connection with the Medmenham monks of Francis Dashwood and John Wilkes, There seems to be no doubt that considerable "high jinks" were indulged in by this fraternity, and that they were not altogether what is generally known as respectable society. But it is probable that exaggeration has had much to do with the records, or rather the legends, of its proceedings, as is always the case where an affectation of mystery and secrecy is maintained.
The monks of Medmenham, sometimes politely called the Hell Fire Club, lived at a time when drunkenness and profanity were considered to be among the gentlemanly virtues, and probably, as a matter of fact, they were not very much worse than other people. The audacious motto of the club may, perhaps, have had something to do with the holy horror which it excited. "Fay ce que voudras" was not a good motto at a time when doing as you pleased was about the last thing that good old-fashioned Toryism was likely to tolerate; and when amongst the people who were to do as they liked was the hated Wilkes, the prejudices of respectability were certain to be even further outraged.
"Fay ce que voudras" as it appears over a doorway at the abbey, has, in these times quite a hospitable look, and the invitation is regularly accepted by the scores and scores of picnic parties who resort to Medmenham in the summer, and whose innocent merrymaking is, at all events, an improvement on Wilkes and his monks, however much they may have been libelled.
Medmenham Abbey as it stands at present, is, architecturally, but a bogus affair, and except an ancient archway and a single pillar of the church, there is little of the ancient Abbey to be found in the present edifice. But it stands in so beautiful a position, and commands such lovely views, that its artificial appearance will be readily forgiven.
Once upon a time there was indeed a very important monastery here ...
Their rules certainly would not have suited Wilkes and his friends. "They neither wore skins, nor shirts, nor even eat flesh, except in sickness; and abstained from fish, eggs, mlk and cheese; they lay upon straw beds in tunics and cowls; they rose at midnight to prayers; they spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and in all their exercises observed a continual silence."
This cheerful community held possession of the abbey for several hundred years. ...

1886:  Julia Isham Taylor, Down the Thames -

Late in the afternoon we passed Medmenham Abbey.  That bête noir of self-restrained respectability in the 18th century is now a strikingly neat reformed appearing ruin and is probably trying to atone for the wildly defiant orgies of its past.

1889: Jerome K Jerome,  Three Men in a Boat -

... nestling by a sweet corner of the stream, is what is left of Medmenham Abbey.  The famous Medmenham monks, or "Hell Fire Club," as they were commonly called, and of whom the notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was "Do as you please," and that invitation still stands over the ruined doorway of the abbey.
Many years before this bogus abbey, with its congregation of irreverent jesters, was founded, there stood upon this same spot a monastery of a sterner kind, whose monks were of a somewhat different type to the revellers that were to follow them, five hundred years afterwards. 
The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs.  They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass.  They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.  A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! 
Strange that Nature's voices all around them - the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind - should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. 
They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.

[ Jerome obviously has read, and quotes, Dickens. He perhaps takes his clue from the word "cheerful" - "this cheerful community" which Dickens, in his restrained humour uses. One cannot help thinking that somehow Jerome has, without thinking, sacrificed any appreciation of silent spirituality in order to gain contrast for his comic moments.  The silence was not repressive but purposive. Why does he think the monks were drawn to that spot if not to hear the voice of God speaking to them in the silence?
Walk, paddle, row, or punt alone and you will soon have to decide whether silence is grim, or, as I strongly believe, healing.
There are pressures in our modern way to make anyone spending some time alone, feel as if they are, or ought to feel, lonely and somehow pathetic. But everyone ought to spend some time alone. It is an antidote to the busy-ness of life. It gets you back in touch with what matters. The river is a great way to do this!
]


"Poor soul, 'e do look lonely all by 'isself!
Ain't you glad you've got us with you 'Enry?"

Punch

1890:  Medmenham Abbey, Francis Frith -

1890: Medmenham Abbey, Francis Frith
1890: Medmenham Abbey, Francis Frith

1891: The Stream of Pleasure, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell-

Medmenham Abbey 1891, Pennell
Medmenham Abbey 1891, Pennell

We dropped down to the Abbey towards noon ... just as the first picnic party was landing in the near meadows.
For this place, where for centuries men worked in silence and knew not pleasure; where later those who wore the brown robes obeyed no law but the "Fay ce que voudras" carved above their doorway, is now but a popular picnicing ground.
Even in its degeneracy, however it is true to its traditions. Medmenham monks, of the Cistercian order and of the Hell-fire Club, were alike in this: whatsoever their hands found to do, they did it with their might; they were no less great in vice than in virtue.
And so to-day, those who come there, picnic with all their might, and are great in the lunches they spread upon the grass and the games of tennis they play on the lawn of the big new hotel, where we saw a Gentleman Gipsy's van in the shade and a Gentleman Waterman's boat by the shore.
We, too, have lunched at Medmenham. We had been but a few weeks in England then, and I remember how we wondered at the energy of the young girls in fresh muslins who unpacked the hampers, laid the cloth, and washed the dishes; and how we thought nothing prettier than the old Abbey turned into a farmhouse, with its cloisters and ivy-grown ruined tower.
That was four years ago, and in the interval we have seen much of England's loveliness. Now, we were not so much impressed, though the Abbey makes a pleasant enough picture, with its grey ivied arches and red roof and tall chimneys, and the beautiful trees on either side. Even the tower, if it be but a sham ruin, is effective.

Lantern Slide (1883-1908) - Medmenham Abbey
Pictures by W.C.Hughes. Thanks to Pat Furley, research by Dr Wilson.

1906:  Mortimer Menpes, Watercolour -

Medmenham Abbey, Mortimer Menpes, 1906
Medmenham Abbey, Mortimer Menpes, 1906

Medmenham Abbey 2006
Medmenham Abbey, 2006