We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews [George and Edward Knight] went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay.”
Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra
Monday, 24 October 1808 “
Netley Abbey was founded by monks in 1239. If you find Southampton on the map, you can see why Jane Austen crossed over to it by ferry. Now the distance can be covered by bus. The Abbey is close to the water in a wooded area. There must have been some facility at the ferry landing when Austen visited but not much more. The little town that is near it was not developed until Victorian times. The ruins are quite substantial. One of the windows has the same characteristics of the window in Westminster Abbey and it is believed that the same mason worked on both windows.
Richard John King’s 1876 guidebook, A handbook for travellers in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, offers a close hand look at the history of the Abbey:
Netley Abbey, about 3 m. S. of Southampton, must not be left unvisited. It may be reached by water from the Town Quay, or by rly. (post), or by proceeding to the Itchen floating bridge, and then either walking or taking a fly at the Cliff Hotel (fare to the hospital, abbey, and back, 5s.). The abbey is open every day but Sunday and Thursday. On the latter day it may be seen on written application to W. A. Lomer, Esq., 18, Portland-street, Southampton, the agent of the owner.
The name Netley, which has been called a corruption of Letley (or, de las to loco), is more probably connected with the “Natanleaga” or “leas of Nat-e,” a wooded district, which extended from the Avon to the Test and Itchen (the S. part of the New Forest).—Br. Guest. (There are other Netleys within these bounds, as near Eling, Rte. 26). A Cistercian abbey was founded here temp. Hen. III., either by the king himself, or by Peter de Rupibus, Bp. of Winchester; most probably, however, by the former, since it was dedicated not only to the Virgin, the usual patroness of Cistercian houses, but also to Edward the Confessor, the especial patron of the king.—Moody. The monks were brought here from Beaulieu. Subsequent benefactors much enriched it, though it was by no means wealthy at the Dissolution, when its annual revenue was 160£. The site and manor were granted to the compliant Sir Wm. Paulet, the 1st Marquis of Winchester, from whom they passed to the Earl of Hertford, son of the Protector Duke of Somerset, who entertained Queen Elizabeth here in 1560. By its new owner the abbey was fitted up as a private residence, in which Charles, second Baron Seymour of Trowbridge was born; he was baptized in the church. The abbey afterwards passed to the Earl of Huntingdon, by whom a portion of the church was used as a tennis-court, a small part still retaining its sacred character as a domestic chapel, while the nave became a kitchen and other offices. In 1700 the Abbey became the property of Sir Berkeley Lucy, who sold the materials of the great church (till that time entire) to a builder of Southampton named Taylor. Of this person a remarkable story is told, which Spelman would have inserted with no small pleasure in his ‘ History of Sacrilege.’ After Taylor had concluded his contract with Sir Berkeley Lucy some of his friends warned him against touching the remains of the abbey, saying “that they would themselves never be concerned in the demolition of holy and consecrated places.” Their remarks made a great impression on Taylor, who dreamt that, in taking down the roof of the church, the keystone of the arch, above the window, fell from its place and killed him. He told his dream to Mr. Watts, a schoolmaster in Southampton, and the father of Dr. Isaac Watts, who gave him the somewhat jesuitical advice ” to have no personal concern in pulling down the building.” This advice was not followed; and Taylor’s skull, it is said, was actually fractured by a stone which fell from the window.—Moody. The accident had the good effect of staying the destruction of the abbey, which has since been uninjured except by time and tourists. The ruins are now the property of T. Chamberlayne, Esq., of Cranbury Park, near Winchester, who has done much for their preservation. During the works several interesting discoveries were made, which are described by the Bev. E. Kell, Collect. Archxol, vol. ii., pt. 1, 1863.
Much of the wood which formerly closed in the ruins has been felled; but the scene is still one of extreme beauty, and justifies Walpole’s raptures. “How,” he writes to Bentley, September, 1755, “shall I describe Netley to you? I can only by telling you it is the spot in the world which I and Mr. Chute wish. The ruins are vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roof pendent in the air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and round with ivy. Many trees are sprouted up among the walls, and only want to be increased with cypresses. A hill rises above the abbey, encircled with wood. The fort, in which we would build a tower for habitation, remains, with 2 small platforms. This little castle is buried from the abbey in a wood, in the very centre, on the edge of the hill. On each side breaks in the view of the Southampton sea, deep blue, glistening with silver and vessels; on one side terminated by Southampton, on the other by Calsliot Castle; and the Isle of Wight rising above the opposite hills. In short, they are not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise. Oh! the purple abbots! what a spot had they chosen to slumber in! The scene is so beautifully tranquil, yet so lively, that they seem only to have retired into the world.”
The situation, among woods, is the favourite one for Cistercian abbeys, and 30 years ago was quite solitary. A road now passes close to the ruins, and the vicinity of the military hospital brings great traffic under the old walls. Villas have been built, rows of ill-favoured small houses have sprung up all round, and the charm of the place is lost. There are many so-called “hotels,” and an abundance of “neat flys” offer themselves for hire. Until 1860 the ruins were utterly neglected, and the vicinity of Southampton brought crowds of visitors, by whom the place was horribly desecrated. Feasts of tea and shrimps were in constant operation: and the archaeologist,—
“Exceedingly angry, and very much scandalized,
Finding these beautiful ruins so vandalized,”
might well have followed the example of Thomas Ingoldsby,—
“And say to the person who drove his shay (A very intelligent man by the way), ‘This don’t suit my humour—so take me away.'”
Since the ruins came into the possession of Mr. Chamberlayne they have been most carefully kept. An admission fee of 2d. has been established, which, however unromantic, has operated beneficially in promoting quiet and order. By Mr. Chamberlayne’s directions also, extensive excavations have been made in the ruins; tons of rubbish have been carted away, and the floors laid bare; and trees, which threatened the stability of the walls, have been felled, for a while depriving the ruins of some of their picturesque beauty, but time is repairing this, as young trees also have been planted. Many windows which had been blocked up have been opened, and much of the brick-work, introduced by its lay occupants, removed. The immediate result was a trimness, which contrasted unfavourably with its former romantic wildness, but the general improvement is undeniable, and will be thankfully appreciated by the archaeological visitor.
The ruins consist of the outer walls of the church with the exception of the N. transept, which has entirely disappeared, but its outline is marked; the cloister court, with the chapter-house, day-room, and other monastic offices to the E. and S., and the shell of the abbot’s house. The whole are in the same style, E. E., verging upon Dec, but not of one date. The visitor enters at the S., and crossing the greensward, which conceals the foundations of the refectory (here, as at the mother house of Beaulieu, projecting southwards from the centre of the S. walk of the cloister), and passing through some modernised buildings, with the site of the monastic kitchen to the rt. and the porter’s lodge (modern) to the 1., deposits his 2d. and is admitted into the Cloister, or, as it is often called, from a conduit formerly existing in the centre, the Fountain Court, 114 ft. square, shaded by noble trees. The entrance is by the old refectory door; one of the E. E. shafts may be seen peeping out of the later work. The view here is most striking. To the N. is the wall of the S. aisle of the ch., with E. E. triplets. To the E., the S. transept, with its ivy-clad gable, and the 3 exquisite arches between the cloister and chapterhouse, and the adjacent buildings form a most picturesque group. The narrow slits between the larger windows of the later occupants, mark the monks’ dormitory, which ran over the buildings on this side. On the S. wall the remains of the lavatory may be traced. The weatherings of the cloister roofs, and the corbels that supported them, will be noticed. Two doors in the N. walk admit to the church, 211 ft. long by 58 wide. This is throughout E. E., but of more than one date. The choir and transept are the earliest. Then come the S. aisle, the N. aisle, and W. front. The E. window, not unlike those of the chapter-house of Salis. bury, was of 4 lights, with an 8-foiled circle in the head, the arch 5 times recessed. The caps and bases of 4 shafts remain in each of the jambs. The shafts themselves, and the secondary mullions, are gone. The side windows of the choir and transepts are of 2 lancet lights, with a common arch within, having E. E. shafts in the jambs. Those of the S. aisle are triplets, the centre light foliated. In the N. aisle the detached lights have developed into a 3-light window with real tracery. The W. window, fatal to Mr. Taylor, is the latest in the church. It has lost its mullions and tracery, but the arch remains. Of the arcade nothing remains but the stumps of the piers of the crossing, and one or two in the nave. The clerestory came down to the spring above the arches, and there was no distinct triforium. The church was vaulted throughout. In the S. transept the springing of a rich roof of late character, which was perfect up to a recent period, is still conspicuous. The nave was of 8 bays, the choir of 4, the transept of 3. The bases of the 3 chief altars remain, with piscina and aumbry. The E. aisle of the S. transept retains its plain quadripartite vaulting. The S. bay is said to have been the Lady Chapel. The clerestory here is perfect, and access is obtained to it by a spiral staircase at the S.E. angle of the choir. This is worth ascending for the sake of the view of the ruins it affords. The central tower is said to have served as a sea-mark.
Leaving the transept, we enter the Sacristy (with the Munimentroom above), plainly vaulted, where remark the altar-steps, the piscina, and aumbry, laid bare by Mr. Chamberlayne. Further S. is the Chapterhouse, 33 feet square, with its 3 beautiful open arches and clustered shafts, and 3 fine E. E. windows of 2 lancet lights, with foliated circles in the heads, “The arches are richly moulded with the round and fillet, deep hollows, and the scroll moulding.”—J. H. P. The bases of the 4 pillars which supported its vaulted roof are to be seen. Beyond this is the passage to the abbot’s house, which is succeeded by what is usually shown as the refectory, but was really the Monies’ Day Room, or locutorium, 70 ft. by 25. This was a vaulted room of 5 bays, divided down the centre by a row of pillars (a usual Cistercian arrangement, as at Furness and Beaulieu). One lancet remains to the E.; the other windows have been altered, and are 2-light square-headed Dee. with transoms. Proceeding still to the S., we are shown the buttery and kitchen, which, though they may have filled that character in the post-reformation days (when the buttery-hatches were opened), had a far different designation originally. The so-called kitchen, it is evident from the fireplace of domestic, not culinary character, the long drain which traverses it, and the small colls crossing the channel, was the monks’ calefactory and garderobe, a portion of the monastery always arranged with scrupulous care. It is a noble room, 48 ft. by 18, with windows that deserve notice, and vaulted roof peeled to the grouting. The fireplace is a good example of 13th-century work. “It is partly destroyed; but the trusses, part of the shafts, and a bracket remain, the chimney of which is carried up in the thickness of the wall to the corbel table, and terminates between 2 of the corbels,” a mode of contriving the chimney, of which many examples occur in Norman castles. The brickwork observed in the walls of the domestic buildings, which some authorities are disposed to regard as original, certainly belongs to the period after the Dissolution.
The abbey garden is on the E. of the cloister court, and commands the best general view of the ruins. The Abbot’s House adjoins. The vaulted substructures are lighted by E. E. lancets.
The Abbey was entirely surrounded by a moat, part of which may still be traced; and beyond it, E. are the hollows of two large fish-ponds.
The Cattle to which Walpole alludes, originally the gate-house of the Abbey, is now occupied as a private residence. It is close to the water’s edge, and was, at the Dissolution, strengthened from the materials of the Abbey and converted into one of the many small forts built by Henry VIII. for the protection of the southern coast. The tower was added in 1826, when it was altered into a dwelling-house.
Current construction may hinder some visitors from getting a close look at the ruins.