inscribed signed with initials and dated "St Bernard Abbey Liecestershire , E.T.L. 1877"
Mount St Bernard Abbey is a Roman Catholic, Trappist monastery near Coalville, Leicestershire, England, founded in 1835 in the parish of Whitwick and now in that of Charley. The abbey was the first permanent monastery to be founded in England since the Reformation and is the sole Trappist house in England. The monks brew the only Trappist beer in Britain.
The early history of Mount St Bernard Abbey is linked with an earlier, short-lived foundation of Cistercian monks in Lulworth, Dorset and the Abbey of Mount Melleray in Ireland. Following the suppression of monasteries in France, a small colony of dispossessed Trappist monks had arrived in London in 1794, with the intention of moving on to found a monastery in Canada. They came to the attention of Thomas Weld (of Lulworth), a Catholic recusant and philanthropist who distinguished himself in relieving the misfortunes of refugees of the French Revolution and who provided them with land on which to establish a monastic community on his estate in East Lulworth.
The monks remained at Lulworth until 1817, when they returned to France to re-establish the ancient Melleray Abbey in Brittany, following the Bourbon Restoration. This was short-lived as, following the July Revolution of 1830, the monks were again persecuted and left to found Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland (1833). It was from the Irish monastery of Mount Melleray that a small colony of monks was dispatched to found the monastery of Mount St Bernard in 1835.
The Cistercian order dates back to the 12th century and the Trappists to the mid-17th century. Mount St Bernard is the only abbey belonging to this order in England.
Mount St Bernard Abbey was founded in 1835 on 227 acres (0.92 km2) of land purchased from Thomas Gisborne MP, by Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps, a local landowner and Catholic convert who wanted to re-introduce monastic life to the country. After his father died in 1862, Ambrose took the additional name of de Lisle, becoming Ambrose Charles Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle. He was attracted to the Trappists because his family mansion, Garendon Hall, had replaced the Cistercian Garendon Abbey.
The land that the monks took possession of in September 1835 was largely uncultivated, but it contained an ancient enclosure known as Tynt Meadow. The monks made their home in the near-derelict Tynt Meadow House, a four-roomed cottage. The first monks were Augustine, Luke, Xavier, Cyprian, Placid, Simeon and Fr Odilo Woolfrey.
Work began on a temporary monastery, opened in 1837, to the designs of William Railton, known today for having designed Nelson's Column in London. Railton carried out several commissions for Ambrose March Phillipps including Grace Dieu Manor. The monastic buildings were neo-Tudor. The church was consecrated by Thomas Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District, on 11 October 1837. Railton's buildings were soon replaced by a more ambitious monastic complex.
In 1844, a new, permanent monastery opened, through donations from John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, and other benefactors. It was designed by Augustus Pugin, who offered his services free of charge. "The whole of the buildings", wrote Pugin, "are erected in the greatest severity of the lancet style, with massive walls and buttresses, long and narrow windows, high gables and roofs, with deeply arched doorways. Solemnity and simplicity are the characteristics of the monastery, and every portion of the architecture and fittings corresponds to the austerity of the order for whom it has been raised."
The church was consecrated on 20 August 1844, the feast day of Saint Bernard, but was to remain unfinished for more than ninety years. Only the nave of Pugin's monastery church was built due to a lack of funds. It was then walled off at the point where Pugin had planned a crossing tower with spire, and eastern chancel. A makeshift two-bell turret was fashioned over the eastern end of the unfinished church so that the monks could be called to office, and a small quatrefoil window of the Virgin and child by William Warrington, a medieval-revival stained-glass artist, was inserted under the gable.
The monastery is sheltered on the north side by a large outcrop, which was known as Kite Hill.According to an early publication with a foreword by Abbot Burder (1852), this site would have been the preferred location for the original monastery designed by Railton, but soon after the purchase of the land, there had been some dispute as to whether the rock belonged to the monastic grounds or to the parish of Whitwick. Huge opposition to the founding of the monastery had been mounted by Francis Merewether, Vicar of Whitwick, who preached and wrote prolifically against the revival of 'Romanism' and parish authorities had apparently "spoke of holding parties of pleasure upon the rock and of over looking the monks". The county constable was called in to resolve the dispute and gave a decision in favour of the monks, whereafter opponents were obliged to refrain "from any further molestation of the religious in the erection of their new monastery". A calvary was erected upon the summit of the rock. This is open to the public, reached by a winding footpath with an ascent aided by stone steps fashioned by the monks.
During cultivation of the monastery estate, on 2 June 1840, Lay Brother John Patrick McDanell, together with labourers William Hickin and Charles Lott, unearthed an urn with their plough, which contained approximately 2000 Roman coins, "conglomerated together, and covered with the green oxide of copper". The coins were identified as being from the time of Gallienus and Tetricus I in the third century AD, and the find led to speculation that the land may have been inhabited during Roman times. Writing in 1852, Father Robert Smith noted that, "Besides the coins, there was discovered a small arrow or spear-head, three inches long. Also a small round article, having the appearance of a Roman lamp, and composed of terra-cotta. Pieces of Roman vases, and pottery, were found in great abundance". Father Robert believed that these finds and the presence of "several ancient mounds" in the immediate vicinity indicated that there had been a Roman military post here. That the site of the hoard's discovery occupied "one of the highest spots in the forest, [commanding] a very extensive view of the surrounding country" was felt to lend credence to this theory. More recent historians have tended to the idea that the hoard may have been placed here 'in hiding' and forgotten about. The remaining coins are housed at the Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester.
The new monastery soon attracted sightseers. Amongst the visitors to the infant monastery were William Wordsworth and Florence Nightingale. Many illustrious English clergymen came, such as Nicholas Wiseman, John Henry Newman, Henry Edward Manning, William Bernard Ullathorne and George Stanley Faber and the monastery also drew writers and men of affairs from abroad, including Charles Forbes René de Montalembert, Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, Ignaz von Döllinger and Henri, Count of Chambord.
Wordsworth, who visited in 1841, wrote: "[We] drove to a part of Charnwood Forest where they are erecting a monastery for Trappists. The situation is chosen with admirable judgment, a plain almost surrounded with wild rocks, not lofty but irregularly broken, and in one quarter is an opening to a most extensive prospect of cultivated country. The building is austere and massy, and when the whole shall be completed, the chapel is not yet begun, the effect will be most striking in the midst of that solitude. Several monks were at work in the adjoining Hayfields, working most industriously in their grey woollen gowns, one with his cowl up, and others, Lay brethren I believe, clothed in black".
As a youth, in 1851, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones visited the fledgling monastery while staying with relatives close by. The experience was to have a profound impact on him and forty-five years later he wrote: "I get no time to myself - not five minutes ever in the day- and I am growing angry. ... More and more my heart is pining for that monastery in the Charnwood Forest. Why there? I don't know, only that I saw it when I was little and have hankered after it ever since". After his death in 1898, his widow wrote: "Though it is doubtful whether he ever saw the place again with his bodily eyes, the thought of it accompanied him throughout his whole life. Friends, wife, and children all knew the undercurrent of longing for the rest and peace which he thought he had seen there that day; he did not disguise it from them, and in his later years often spoke of the dream which had walked step by step with him ever since, of somehow leaving every one and everything and entering its doors and closing them behind him."
Charles Dickens is reputed to have spent some time in retreat at the abbey, though he is not enumerated amongst the list of celebrated visitors in the monastery's 'Brief Historical Sketch'. He is known to have sent two of his employees, Edmund Yates and Thomas Speight there, to write articles about the monastery for publication in his weekly magazines, All the Year Round and Household Words.
A number of eminent architects found inspiration in Pugin's work at Mount St Bernard. Joseph Hansom visited the monastery twice during the 1850s; one of his grandsons was to join the community, taking the name Brother Alban, where he died from influenza in 1919. Another architect, the Anglican George Frederick Bodley, was so stimulated by Pugin's monastery that he is said to have kept a description of the abbey at his bedside.
The monastery has throughout its history been a place of refuge for the poor and hungry. Luigi Gentili, a priest associated with De Lisle's mission, wrote that there were extremes of rural poverty to be found in Leicestershire that could not be matched, even in the most poverty-stricken parts of his native Italy. This number was increased by the influx of many Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine of the 1840s. So great was the scale of the poverty during this period that the monks were feeding many thousands of people each year. In 1845, 2,788 people were given lodgings at the monastery and 18,887 were given food. In 1847, "36,000 people received charity and hospitality from the hands of the monks".
In 1848, the monastery was granted the status of an abbey by Pope Pius IX and its first abbot, Dom Bernard Palmer, was consecrated on 18 February 1849. It was united with the Cistercian congregation by a papal brief in 1849.
In 1862 John Rogers Herbert painted Laborare est Orare (To labour is to pray), which depicted "the monks of Saint Bernard's Abbey, Leicestershire, gathering in the harvest of 1861, assisted by some of the boys from a neighbouring reformatory in their care". This painting was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1972. As this painting depicts a church building with a tower and spire, it has been argued that Herbert's portrait does not represent Mount St Bernard, as the abbey was without a tower until the twentieth century and has never had a spire. However, the catalogue entry at the Tate Gallery explains that Herbert used Pugin's original designs to depict the church in line with the architect's vision. Herbert was a close friend of Pugin and had painted him in 1845. The abbey guest book confirms that "Mr. Herbert, an artist from London" visited the abbey on 22 July 1861. Herbert depicted himself in the extreme foreground.
In 1878, the Leicestershire coalfield suffered a severe depression in trade, resulting in much distress being caused to the miners and their families. Large numbers of the unemployed made their way to the monastery on a daily basis, where soup in large quantities was gratuitously supplied. This practice was repeated on a similar scale during the General Strike of 1926.
The abbey suffered from financial problems and a lack of monks joining the community through the 19th century. This improved in the 20th century and the church was extended between 1935 and 1939 from the designs of Albert Herbert of Leicester, although it was not consecrated until 1945, by the Bishop of Nottingham. However, the church was not completed in accordance with the designs of Pugin, who had planned a conventional ecclesiastical arrangement, with a chancel at the east end, containing the high altar. The new design, overseen by Abbot Malachy Brasil, saw the altar placed centrally, under the crossing tower, with a second nave for the public placed at the east end, where Pugin's chancel would have been. This design attracted significant criticism at the time, but Abbott Malachy is now recognized as having been many years ahead of his time in having conceptualized such a scheme.
In the First World War, members of the monastic profession were initially exempt from military service, but as the pool of potential recruits diminished, the War Office altered its ruling, which resulted in the conscription of six of the brothers from Mount St Bernard in 1917. Three of them were passed as fit for foreign service, whilst the other three undertook service at home. This represented a considerable loss to the monastery as it had only twenty monks in residence - the smallest number since its foundation.
It was reported that Leslie Hore-Belisha, the former Secretary of State for War, had stayed at the abbey in 1942. He subsequently explained to the Evening Standard that he felt it was important "to have an occasional period of retirement and reflection on the ultimate reasons behind existence". Hore-Belisha's private papers show that he stayed at the abbey regularly - once for a period of nine weeks.
Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was a monk at the abbey from 1950 until his death in 1964. He was buried at the abbey but his remains were moved to his native Nigeria, where he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 22 March 1998. A wall sculpture by Leicester Thomas, commemorating the life of Father Cyprian, has been erected in the public nave of the abbey church.
In 1957, the actor Sir Alec Guinness made the first of many retreats to Mount St Bernard following his conversion to Catholicism the year previously. Guinness mentions his first stay at the abbey in his 1986 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, in which he describes attending a dawn mass:
Arriving at the large, draughty, austere white chapel, I was amazed at the sights and sounds that greeted me. The great doors to the East were wide open and the sun, a fiery red ball, was rising over the distant farmland; at each of the dozen or so side-altars a monk, finely vested but wearing heavy farmer's boots to which cow dung still adhered, was saying his private Mass. Voices were low, almost whispers, but each Mass was at a different stage of development, so that the Sanctus would tinkle from one altar to be followed ... other tinkles from far away. For perhaps five minutes little bells sounded from all over and the sun grew whiter as it steadily rose. There was an awe-inspiring sense of God expanding, as if to fill every corner of the church and the whole world. The regularity of life at the abbey, the happy faces that shone through whatever they had suffered, the strong yet delicate singing, the early hours and hard work. All made a deep impression on me; the atmosphere was one of prayer without frills; it was easy to imagine oneself at the centre of some spiritual powerhouse, or at least being privileged to look over the rails, so to speak, at the working of a great turbine.
Another notable actor remembered for his periods of retreat at the abbey was Ian Bannen, who had been educated at Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire.
In the late 1950s, public outcry was generated by the proposed route of the M1 motorway through Charnwood Forest. On 15 November 1957, the Leicester Evening Mail wrote: "The Trappist monks went to Charnwood for peace and built the beautiful St. Bernard's Monastery. The proposed route would pass their door step if allowed to go on". Through the Evening Mail, a petition was organised and two months later the newspaper reported: "Many of the monks at Mount St. Bernard Monastery, in Charnwood, have taken a lifelong vow of silence, and therefore they are unable to speak their views on the proposed Forest motorway, which would pass within half a mile of their peaceful home. This has not prevented them from reading of the protest petition and signing it, however. Seventeen have put their names on a form sent to the monastery this week, including the Father Abbot". The petition was presented to the Ministry of Transport, which led to the rerouting of the road on to its present course.
In 1978, the Abbey was visited by the New York-based artist, Stanley Roseman. The abbey was amongst the first of more than sixty monastic communities to be visited by Roseman over a period of several years. Whilst at Mount St Bernard, he painted "Father Benedict: Portrait of a Trappist Monk" and "Father Ian: Portrait of a Trappist Monk in Meditation". The latter hangs in the Musée Ingres in Montauban.
The buildings were listed as Grade II in 1989, though in an architectural and historical review of more than 140 churches prepared for English Heritage and the Catholic Diocese of Nottingham, April 2011, it was noted in the case of St Bernard's: "There is a strong case for upgrading the complex, or at least the abbey church, from II to II* both on grounds of architectural significance and for its historic importance in the Catholic Revival".
The role of acceptance that the abbey has played in offering succour to the troubled and those in need of friendship was emphasised by reports in 1998 that the footballer Justin Fashanu had sought solace there in the final days of his life.
In 2009, the skeletons of more than 600 medieval Trappist monks from Stratford Langthorne Abbey were re-buried in the grounds of Mount St Bernard. The remains had been found by workmen excavating an extension to London Underground's Jubilee line in 1998. Stratford Langthorne had been one of the wealthiest monasteries in England, closed in Henry VIII's dissolution in 1538. After the interment of the bones at a special ceremony on 29 July 2009, a talk was given in the abbey church by the abbot, Dom Joseph Delargy in which he explained: "You notice on the memorial stone is just inscribed, 'St. Mary's Abbey, Stratford Langthorne', and not, 'the remains from'. This is to symbolize the fact that the abbey is the people, not the buildings. Seeing as all the human remains from the abbey are now all here, is not the 'abbey' now here?"
Following the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in 2012, Mount St Bernard Abbey was proposed as a suitable place for his bones to be housed until agreement could be reached on a permanent resting place. Members of the 'Looking For Richard' team, headed by Philippa Langley claimed that the University of Leicester had agreed to release the remains once scientific testing had been finished, so that they might be placed in a "prayerful environment", prior to reburial. A Catholic site was felt to be appropriate since Richard had been a pre-Reformation (and thereby Catholic) monarch, and had initially been laid to rest in the monastic church of Greyfriars, Leicester. In 2014, John Ashdown-Hill, genealogist with Langley's team, told the Leicester Mercury, "The site originally proposed for this was Mount St Bernard's Abbey, which is not far from Leicester. This would be a very suitable place for King Richard to lie in peace, surrounded by the prayers of the monks, pending his reinterment." The University claimed that this agreement had not been legally binding and declined to release the king's remains, which were finally reinterred in the Anglican Leicester Cathedral, on 26 March 2015.
In January 2021, it was reported that the bones of two humans had been discovered when part of a wall was moved during construction work on the chapter house of 1860. The monastery archives held no record of such an interment and police were called in, but were satisfied that the remains were not connected with any crime. The community decided to put back the bones where thay had been found and held a simple religious ceremony.