The original collegiate church was founded in 934 AD by King Athelstan of Wessex, a grandson of King Alfred, to commemorate the death at sea of his brother Edwin for which he was said to have been responsible. To support the church, Athelstan granted it sixteen manors in Dorset. In 964, King Edgar dismissed the secular priests and replaced them with Benedictine monks from Glastonbury who sustained the monastic life for many centuries.
Over time the abbey grew, as did the large market town outside its gates. The monks made additions to the church, which included a wooden bell tower and spire, reliquaries, and elaborate shrines and tombs.
After lightning struck the spire during a violent storm in September 1309, the church was consumed by a fire in which the abbey’s documents, books and relics were all destroyed.
A new Abbey Church was soon begun, although never fully completed; it reached its present size principally under the guidance of Abbot William Middleton at the turn of the 15th century. Building at the abbey continued until its six centuries of monasticism came to an abrupt halt with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The monks were dispersed and within a year the monastery’s manors and other properties had been sold off.
Sir John Tregonwell, a lawyer who had helped arrange Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and at the Dissolution acted as a commissioner taking the surrender of monasteries, bought the abbey and estate in 1540 for £1000. He died in 1565 but the Tregonwell family lived at Milton Abbey for a century afterwards. Mary Tregonwell inherited in 1680, and in 1696 she married a naturalised Swede, Jacob Bancks, who had previously served in the Royal Navy. They had two children, one of whom, Jacob, inherited the estate in 1724. He had a short life, and when he died in 1737 the Milton estate passed to John Strachan, the son of a female cousin. After several legal wrangles, he was allowed to sell the estate in 1752 to Joseph Damer.
Damer was a wealthy and ambitious man whose fortune had descended from a great-uncle. In 1742 he married Caroline Sackville, daughter of the 1st Duke of Dorset; on Caroline’s death in 1775 Damer commissioned the Italian sculptor Carlini to make a monument to mourn her, which today stands in the north transept of the Abbey.
Damer’s influence on Milton Abbey was considerable. On buying the estate he set about a grand scheme to reshape the valley in which Milton lay. He planned to remove the old town south of the abbey and to replace the decaying claustral buildings with a great house suited to its surroundings and to his position. He first hired John Vardy who had constructed The Horse Guards in London and who worked intermittently on the Dorset project and a house for Damer in Park Lane.
After Damer was created Baron Milton in 1764, he enlisted the great landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to design the grounds, and, following the death of Vardy in 1765, the famed architect Sir William Chambers to create an appropriate house in the Gothic style, much against Chambers’ tastes. Following frequent quarrels with his client Chambers resigned leaving the completion of the interior to James Wyatt, who also restored, the Abbey Church. The result is the impressive Gothic mansion in its valley setting, which in time attracted three royal visits.
Even as Lord Milton, Damer found that his removal of the town, house by house as the leases fell in or the occupants moved away, did not go unopposed; one tenant, a lawyer, stubbornly remained but was flooded out when the sluice-gates of the old abbey fish pond above the town were opened. Whatever Damer’s intentions in the case, the tenant took him to court and won. But by 1779 Damer had razed the entire town of Middleton and created a new model village on a site half a mile to the southeast and out of sight of his mansion and garden.
There he built a new parish church and persuaded the Bishop of Bristol to transfer the parish to the new church as a result of which the Abbey Church became a private chapel attached to the mansion. After Damer’s death in 1798, at the age of 80, the estate passed to his son George and then to George’s sister, Caroline. When she died in 1828 it passed to Henry Dawson who changed his name to Dawson-Damer. His heir sold the estate in 1852 to Charles Joachim, Baron Hambro, a merchant banker from Denmark who made Milton Abbey his country seat.
Hambro commissioned Sir George Gilbert Scott to restore the Abbey Church in 1865, saving the church from potential ruin. In 1867 he permitted the vicar of Milton Abbas once again to hold public services in the Abbey Church.
Through their eighty years at Milton Abbey the Hambros saw the trees and shrubs planted by Capability Brown grow to their full maturity especially under the loving care of Sir Everard Hambro. In 1932 the estate was sold and broken up.
The Ecclesiastical Commissioners bought the Abbey and St Catherine’s Chapel and in 1934 the Diocese of Salisbury bought the Abbey Church and the Chapel while for some time the mansion was a healing centre. In 1953 the mansion and grounds where bought by a trust to establish a school, Milton Abbey, which flourishes today.
The following example features within The Abbey at Milton will give you some idea of the Historic importance of the place, but it’s only when you come to see for yourself that the true Majesty of the Abbey comes to life. We look forward to seeing you soon.
Milton Abbey Church was rebuilt after a fire in 1309 when the previous building was destroyed. It is largely unfinished and as the Benedictine monks left it at the time of the Dissolution, although three chapels at the east end were sold off and the Sacristy and South Porch removed.
The reredos screen behind the high altar is very similar to that in the chapel of New College Oxford. It was substantially restored in plaster by James Wyatt in 1778. Originally built in 1492, it would have been highly coloured in and some of the paint remains on the lowest level. The niches originally homed statues, but these were lost, probably during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660).
The Hanging Pyx
The pyx was originally hung over the high altar and used as a place of safe keeping for the holy sacrament reserved after the Mass. This one is unique in England and dates from the late 15th century. Its survival is attributed to its similarity to the spire of the previous church on this site and to the church pictured in the Athelstan portrait.
Athelstan & Ecgwynna
These two portraits date from the late 15th Century. King Athelstan is seen handing a model church to a monk with a crosier to indicate that Athelstan founded a minster in this place in 934. In 964 the original minster became a Benedictine Monastery with the arrival of 12 monks from Glastonbury.
The second portrait is of Ecgwynna, first wife of King Edward the Elder and Athelstan’s mother.
Sir John Tregonwell was the Commissioner for King Henry Vlll who took the surrender of Milton Abbey in March 1539. Six months later he bought the Abbey and estates from the King. Ownership remained in his family until 1737. The last member of the Tregonwell family, Mary, married Jacob Bancks. The Tregonwell and Bancks family memorials are at the end of the north aisle.
Carl Joachim, Baron Hambro
Carl Joachim, Baron Hambro of Denmark bought the Milton Abbey estate in 1852. He employed Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed this memorial, to restore the Abbey in 1867. The Hambro family remained in possession of the Abbey and estate until 1932 when it was broken up and sold. There are many Hambro memorials in the South Transept.
Jospeh Damer, Baron Milton, Earl of Dorchester bought the estate in 1752. He employed James Wyatt to restore the Abbey and Launcelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the countryside and remove the local town of Middleton away from his mansion to create a new village of Milton Abbas. On the Death of his wife Caroline he commissioned the Italian sculptor Carlini to carve the white marble monument in the North Transept.
The font was commissioned by Carl Joachim Hambro from the Danish sculptor Adolphus Jericho in 1860.
It was originally sited in the south transept but was moved to its current position in 1968. The two angels represent Hope and Victory and the bowl is filled with the water of life flowing from the rock.
The Tree of Jesse Window which purports to show the descent of Jesus from Abraham was designed by Augustus Pugin and made by his son in law John Hardman. It was installed in in 1847. In this area is a collection of stone fragments found while restoring the Abbey and include gravestones from the old town churchyard which had been used as infill under the floor of the north aisle.