Downside Abbey

Downside Abbey

Abbey monastic basilica and library (left)
Location within Somerset
Monastery information
Full name Abbey of St Gregory the Great at Downside
Order Benedictine
Established 1605
Mother house Valladolid
Dedicated to Gregory the Great
Diocese Clifton
Controlled churches Basilica of St Gregory the Great
Founder(s) St John Roberts OSB
Prior Dom Leo Maidlow Davis, OSB
Important associated figures Architects Archibald Matthias Dunn and Edward Joseph Hansom
Location Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset, England
Coordinates 51°15′16″N 2°29′39″W / 51.2544°N 2.4943°W / 51.2544; -2.4943
Grid reference ST6550950840
Other information

Relics of St. Oliver Plunkett and

St. Thomas de Cantilupe

The Basilica of St Gregory the Great at Downside, commonly known as Downside Abbey, is a Benedictine monastery in England and the senior community of the English Benedictine Congregation. One of its main apostolates is the Downside School, for the education of children aged eleven to eighteen. Alumni of the school are known as Old Gregorians.

Both the abbey and the school are located at Stratton-on-the-Fosse between Westfield and Shepton Mallet in Somerset, South West England.

Downside Abbey has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building.[1] Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the Abbey as "the most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England".[2]


Foundation and development

The community was founded in 1605 at Douai in Flanders, then part the Spanish Netherlands, under the patronage of St Gregory the Great, (who had sent the monk, St Augustine of Canterbury, as head of a mission to England in 597). The founder was the Welshman St John Roberts, who became the first prior and established the new community with other monks from Britain who had entered various monasteries within the Spanish Benedictine Congregation, notably the principal monastery at Valladolid. In 1611 Dom Philippe de Caverel, abbot of St. Vaast's Abbey at Arras, built and endowed a monastery for the community.[3]

The Priory of St. Gregory was therefore the first English Benedictine house to renew conventual life after the Reformation. For nearly 200 years the monastery trained monks for the English mission and six of these men were beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929. Two of them, Saints John Roberts and Ambrose Barlow, were among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.[4]

French troops invaded Flanders during the French Revolution. The monastic community was expelled by them, after a period of imprisonment, and in March 1795 the community was permitted to proceed to England. They settled for some 20 years as guests of Sir Edward Smythe at Acton Burnell, Shropshire, before finally settling at Mount Pleasant, Downside, in Somerset, in 1814.[5]

The monastery was completed in 1876 and the abbey church in 1925, being raised to the rank of a minor basilica in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.[6][7]

Abbey church

Perspective view of Downside Abbey from 1873.
The Abbey church

The building of Downside abbey church was begun in the 19th century, and ended with completion of the nave after World War I. The church houses the relics of St. Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Armagh, Irish martyr, executed at Tyburn in 1681, who entrusted the disposal of his body to the care of a Benedictine monk of the English Benedictine Congregation.[8] The church is one of only three in the United Kingdom to be designated a minor basilica by the Roman Catholic Church, the others being St. Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham and Corpus Christi Priory, Manchester.[9]

The church is built in the Gothic Revival style, and is designed to rival in size the medieval cathedrals of England that were lost to the Catholic Church through the Reformation. The earliest part is the decorated transepts by Archibald Matthias Dunn and Edward Joseph Hansom, dating from 1882.[10] The choir is the work of Thomas Garner (who is buried there), dedicated in 1905.[11] The nave by Giles Gilbert Scott (c. 1923–25) remains unfinished,[12] with its western wall in crude Lias stone standing bare and undecorated. The Lady chapel is acknowledged as one of the most complete and successful schemes of Sir Ninian Comper,[13] with a reredos and altar furnishings incorporating medieval fragments and a reliquary containing the skull of St Thomas de Cantilupe.[14] The tower, completed in 1938, at 166 feet (55 m), is the second highest in Somerset. The choir stalls are modeled on the stalls in Chester Cathedral.[15]

The Abbey Cemetery, primarily a burial ground for the community, also contains two war graves of World War II, a Lieutenant of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and a Sub-Lieutenant of the Royal New Zealand Navy.[16]

Following a grant of £856,000 in 2013 the archive of the abbey have opened to the public and much of the collection of rare books and manuscripts have been digitised.[17]


G. P. England organ

The first pipe organ at Downside was built in 1805 by George Pike England[18] of Tottenham Court Road[19] for the Music Room in Brighton Pavilion: when removed in 1882 to the South Transept gallery of the new church, it consisted of 16 stops over 2 manuals and pedals.[20] Removed to the parish church of Saint Vigor in nearby Stratton-on-the-Fosse in 1907, it survives today somewhere in America, having been sold following water damage sustained in Stratton in 1969.[21]

Garrard organ

The England organ was to be replaced in 1905[22] with a new instrument by Garrard of Lechlade,[23] consisting of three manuals and 55 speaking stops: it was supplied two years later by the renamed firm of Garrard, Spooner & Amphlett, but was never completed satisfactorily.[24]

Compton organ

The current organ in the abbey church was built by John Compton in 1931 to replace the Garrard organ: it has 142 speaking stops over four manuals and pedals.[24] This extraordinarily large number of stops is derived from a mere 38 ranks of pipes by means of extension and transmission. The whole instrument is enclosed within three stone and concrete chambers with swell shutters facing upwards, except the Tuba box which speaks down into the transept.[24] Unusually, the casework (designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and carved by Ferdinand Stuflesser of Ortesei in the Italian Tyrol)[24] has no pipefronts: it is of solid oak with fretwork, but has no roof: consequently, the whole organ speaks up into the transept vaults and projects itself down the nave remarkably well. The console, a typical Compton luminous stop button affair which faces West from near the crossing down the North side of the Nave, is made from timber from the HMS Bellerophon, which transported Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo.[24]

Downside School

Main article: Downside School

Downside School, attached to the monastery, is a Roman Catholic public school for boys and girls from the age of 11 to 18 years. As in most Roman Catholic schools in the 21st century, non-Catholic students are accepted.[25]

During the nineteenth century Downside remained a small monastic school. Dom Leander Ramsay who was the founder of modern Downside. He planned the new buildings that opened in 1912 and now form two sides of the Quad.

The school is controlled by trustees who are the Abbot and six monks from Downside Abbey.[26]


Notable monks

Child abuse

In January 2012, Father Richard White, a Downside Abbey monk who formerly taught at its school, was jailed for five years for gross indecency and indecent assault against a pupil in the late 1980s. White, 66, who was known to pupils as Father Nick, had been allowed to continue teaching after he was first caught abusing a child in 1987 and was able to go on to groom and assault another pupil in the junior school. He was placed on a restricted ministry and did not have any contact with the school after the second incident but was not arrested until 2010.[27]

Two other monks with connections to Downside, also former teachers, received police cautions during an 18-month criminal investigation.[28] One of the cautioned monks has been named as Brother Anselm (Michael Hurt),[28][29][30] brother of actor John Hurt, who decided to transfer his monastic stability to Glenstal Abbey in Ireland in the 1980s.[31]

Department for Education officials were said to be taking an urgent interest in child protection arrangements at the school. Inspection reports referred specifically to seven monks who had worked at the school at different times and whose behaviour had been "a cause for concern". The Independent Schools Inspectorate had previously criticised a lack of urgency in making improvements to child protection. The Charity Commission also sent a compliance team to work with the school on this, which it treated as "a high-risk case".[30] The Abbot responded by apologising to parents and reported that 50 years of confidential school records indicated that four of the monks had faced police action, two had restrictions imposed on them, and one was cleared and returned to monastic life. A review of school governance was already taking place.[26][32]

The Independent Schools Inspectorate's most recent report, 2013, states: 'The arrangements for welfare, health and safety are excellent. The school’s safeguarding arrangements are much improved since the November 2010 inspection and, as in the advisory visit in November 2011, policies and practice meet the requirements in full. Thorough procedures ensure the safe recruitment of staff, and all the necessary checks are carried out...The quality of the pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural education is excellent. This fulfils the school’s aim of developing high personal standards in each pupil in the light of the school’s Christian context. By the time they leave, their personal development is excellent...The quality of the school's arrangements for pastoral care is excellent.'[33]


  1. "Abbey Church of St Gregory The Great, Downside Abbey and School". Images of England. English Heritage. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  2. Amery, Colin (3 December 2011). "Amazing grace". The Spectator.
  3. Zeller, Dom.Hubert Van (1954). Downside By and Large. London: Sheed and Ward. p. 3.
  4. Wuerl, Donald W. "The Priest Martyrs of England". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  5. "Downside Abbey Archives" (PDF). National Archives. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  6. "Downside". Benedictine Congregation. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  7. "Downside Abbey church consecrated Benedictine Cardinal Comes From Hungary". Catholic Herald. 20 September 1935. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  8. "Downside Abbey, Somerset, England". Drogheda Borough Council & St. Peter's Church, Drogheda. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  9. "Basilicas Great Britain and Ireland". GCatholic. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  10. "Abbey Church of St Gregory the Great, Downside Abbey". British Listed Buildings. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  11. "Downside Abbey Church". Skyscraper News. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  12. "1873 – St.Gregory's Church & Monastery, Downside, Somerset". Archiseek. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  13. Homan, Roger (2006). The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art and Architecture. Ashgate Publishing Limited. p. 132. ISBN 978-0754650737.
  14. "Saint Thomas of Hereford". Saints.SQPN. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  15. Little, Bryan (July 1987). "Cheshire's holy sites". Catholic Herald. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  16. CWGC Cemetery Report, details from casualty record.
  17. "Downside Abbey: Library and archives open to public". BBC. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  18. "The National Pipe Organ Register — The Music Room, Brighton Pavilion". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  19. "The National Pipe Organ Register — George Pike England". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  20. "The National Pipe Organ Register — Downside Abbey's G. P. England organ". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  21. "The National Pipe Organ Register — St. Vigor's Church, Stratton-on-the-Fosse". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  22. "The National Pipe Organ Register — Downside Abbey: The Garrard organ". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  23. "The National Pipe Organ Register — Garrard of Lechlade". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 "The National Pipe Organ Register — Downside Abbey — The Compton Organ". The British Institute of Organ Studies. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  25. "Downside". Guide to Independent Schools. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  26. 1 2 Will Heaven (20 January 2012). "Downside can emerge renewed from this crisis". Catholic Herald. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  27. "Richard White, Paedophile Monk Who Abused Boys At Downside School, Jailed For Five Years". Press Association. Huffington Post. 3 January 2012. Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  28. 1 2 "Downside Abbey reputation suffers after monks abuse scandal". Western Daily Press. 19 January 2012. Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  29. M. and J. Hurt
  30. 1 2 Department of Education and Downside School
  31. Brady, Tom (14 January 2012). "John Hurt's brother in monastery here after UK child-abuse caution". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  32. "Catholic monks faced child abuse investigation, school admits". Press Association. The Guardian. 14 January 2012. Retrieved 17 January 2012.
  33. Downside School ISI Report 2013


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Coordinates: 51°15′18″N 2°29′37″W / 51.2549°N 2.4936°W / 51.2549; -2.4936

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