14 June 2015

Bective Abbey … once a powerful
abbey on the banks of the Boyne

Bective Abbey, on the banks of the River Boyne … the second Cistercian foundation in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

The Station House Hotel in Kilmessan, Co Meath, provided a good base this weekend for exploring the Boyne Valley, and yesterday afternoon I spent an hour or so visiting the ruins of Bective Abbey (Mainistir Bheigthí), a Cistercian abbey on the banks of the River Boyne.

Bective Abbey was founded by the King of Meath, Murchad O Maeil-Sheachlainn, in 1147 as a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey, which had been founded just five years earlier. This was the second Cistercian foundation in Ireland and the new abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Unlike many Cistercian foundations that sought isolation in the wilderness, Bective Abbey was set on prime agricultural land, and quickly rose in importance. The Cistercians were one of the new monastic orders that emerged in the 12th century. Their economy was based on self-sufficiency and relied on arable agriculture.

The cereal cultivated at Bective Abbey, including oat, barley and wheat, fed the monks and any surplus food was sold in Ireland or sent to England and continental Europe. The location of the abbey on the banks of the Boyne and at the fording points on the roads to the north and south made sending these cereals to the port at Drogheda an efficient trade.

Hugh de Lacy, the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath who built Trim Castle, was murdered in Durrow in 1195. The Abbey of Saint Thomas in Dublin and Mellifont Abbey wanted his body to be buried with them. Finally it was decided to bury his body at Bective and his head in Dublin.

The decision caused feuding between the monks of the two abbeys, and ten years later in 1205 the Bishop of Meath and two other judges decreed that the head and body should be reunited and buried together in Dublin.

In 1228, Bective Abbey was fortified and used as a safe haven for the English and visitors from Europe.

It is possible to gauge the importance of the abbey because the Abbot of Bective was a spiritual lord and sat in the mediaeval parliament. The community at Bective Abbey were Anglo-Norman, and in 1386 men of Irish birth were effectively barred from entering the monastery.

Bective Abbey was rebuilt and fortified in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The number of monks at Bective declined significantly in the 15th century and the abbey was substantially reduced in size. The south aisles of the church were demolished, the adjoining arcades were blocked off, the nave was truncated with the construction of a new west facade protected by a fortified tower, and a second tower was built at the south-west corner of the cloisters.

The two towers and the fortified alterations made Bective Abbey the most heavily fortified abbey in Ireland, and by the 16th century, the Cistercians of Bective Abbey had become wealthy from rents, tithes and donations.

The abbey was suppressed in 1536, the roof was removed in 1540, and almost 1,600 acres of abbey lands were confiscated. At the time of the dissolution, it was recorded that the estate of Bective contained 1,580 acres valued at £83 18s 8p.

The lands were first rented to Thomas Asgarde, an English civil servant, and was bought by Andrew Wyse in 1552. Bective then passed to the Dillon family and later to the Bolton family. The complex was converted into a great mansion with the insertion of new fireplaces, chimneys and large stone windows. However, the abbey and the great mansion later fell into ruin.

Later, in 1766, Thomas Taylour (1724-1797), Lord Headfort, who had been MP for Kells, Co Meath, in 1747-1760, was given the title of Earl of Bective, of Bective Castle, in the County of Meath. However, the family lived not at Bective but at Headfort House, near Kells, and the family’s hunting lodge in Virginia, Co Cavan later became the Park Hotel.

Eventually, Bective Abbey was donated to the State in 1894.

The best preserved parts of Bective Abbey are two surviving sections of the 15th century cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The ruins are surrounded by an outer wall, and nothing remains of the earliest 12th century monastic buildings. The earliest stone work dates from 1274 and includes five bays of the south arcade.

The main part of the fortified abbey is built over three floors and includes cloisters and a tower giving it the appearance of a fortress rather than an abbey. The large defensive tower was built above the south range of the abbey in the 15th century.

But the best preserved parts of the building are two surviving sections of the 15th century cloisters, with some beautiful arches that are still intact, including a pillar with the figure of mediaeval bishop or abbot carrying a crozier. Some sources say this is Saint Brendan, but it is difficult to understand why an old Irish saint would be given such prominence in an Anglo-Norman foundation. Perhaps he was the abbot responsible for building the cloisters.

A carving in the 15th century cloisters … is this Saint Brendan or the abbot responsible for building the cloisters? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Bective Abbey was used as a location during the filming of Mel Gibson movie Braveheart in 1995, and the cloisters were used for the scene with the Princess and her maid.

Today the ruins of the abbey are set in the middle of pasture on the banks of the River Boyne. In 2012, the Office of Public Works bought some of the land from the farmer and converted it into a carpark, laying out a footpath leading to the abbey.

In the cloisters in Bective Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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