Rufford Abbey is an estate in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire close to Ollerton. It contains the ruins of an abbey and Rufford Water which is a wildlife sanctuary.
The abbey was founded by Gilbert de Gant in, or around, 1147 and populated with Cistercian monks from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. He apparently made the gift to seek forgiveness for his past wrongdoings, which had included the burning down of Pontefract Priory during the civil war of 1139-53 between Stephen and Mathilda. Monks from Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, who originally came from the Cistercian abbey at Citeaux in France, made Rufford their fifth and final "daughter house". Led by a monk called Gamellus, the first of 17 Rufford abbots, they traveled to Nottinghamshire and immediately started building work.
The English Pope, Adrian IV gave the blessing for the abbey in 1156 and following this the abbey' lands expanded and the villagers of Cratley, Rufford, Grimston and Inkersall were evicted. A new village of Wellow, just outside the estate housed some of the displaced people. The construction of permanent stone buildings of Rufford Abbey was well underway by the 1160s, although work may well have continued on and off for almost a century. Local stone was also used; easily carved red sandstone for the outer walls and fine-textured white sandstone to line the vaulting, all of which came from the Mansfield area.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Rufford Abbey founded 21 outlying granges or farms, the most important crop was wool from sheep. Although it was never as large or prosperous an abbey as Rievaulx or Fountains in Yorkshire, like them, Rufford made most of its income from wool. The value of the fleece was far more than meat. The wool was traded with Flemish merchants at markets in Nottingham and Newark, and by 1315, Rufford's wool was worth 10½ Marks per sack - a very good price and many times the average weekly wage. Rufford's standing was greatly increased from gifts of new land, rents and the rights to use the timber and grazing in Sherwood Forest. In 1252 a charter from Henry III allowed them to cut down 7,000 oak trees and 1,000 saplings create more pasture for their sheep and cattle. By the reign of Edward I, a Royal licence in 1304 gave permission for another 40 acres of forest to be cleared. The Combined effects of the Black Death of 1348 - 1349, the stretching of the abbey's finances from buying too much land, and reduced profits in the wool trade meant that Rufford started a long period of decline. Throughout the 15th century, Rufford Abbey was often excused from paying a tenth of its income as a tax to the king, because of its poverty.
When Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome in 1530 he appointed Richard Cromwell as head of a Royal Commission to examine all the smaller houses such as Rufford, and in 1536 found sufficient evidence to close down the abbey. Among the disgraceful offences found at Rufford was the claim that the abbey possessed some of the Virgin Mary's milk. It was also alleged that the Abbott, Thomas of Doncaster, had broken his vows of chastity with at least two married and four single women. Six of the fifteen monks at the abbey were said to want to be released from their vows to take up other careers. The days of the abbey were clearly numbered, and the monks were dispersed, with the allegedly immoral Abbot granted a pension of £25 a year - later withdrawn when he became vicar of Rotherham.
The abbey and its lands were granted to George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1537. Neither George Talbot nor his son Francis, later the 5th Earl, ever lived at Rufford nor showed much interest in it, possibly only using it only as a lodge when they were hunting in Sherwood Forest. It was while owned by the 6th Earl, another George Talbot, that the transformation of the old abbey into a fine country house first began, Talbot was the confidante of Elizabeth I, and trusted custodian of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, and as the husband of the ambitious and legendary Bess of Hardwick.
In 1626, Sir William Savile, then only 14, inherited Rufford as the 3rd Baronet. An ardent Royalist, William Savile sided with the King at the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, living up to a family motto to "Fear God and Honour the King". Charles I visited Rufford in July 1642, shortly before raising his standard at Nottingham on August 22, which signaled the start of the war. Later that year, William was involved in skirmishes against Parliamentarian forces at Wakefield and Leeds, and was the main Royalist commander in an unsuccessful attack on Bradford. The following year he was in Leeds when it was attacked and he only escaped by swimming across the River Aire. He was also involved in the Battle of Winceby and made Governor of both York and Sheffield. He died in York at the age of 32 in 1644. The young Sir George who succeeded Sir William, was destined to become perhaps the most famous and distinguished of the Saviles, rising under Charles II after the restoration to become successively Viscount, Earl, then Marquess of Halifax. His nickname became "The Trimmer" because throughout his career he cleverly managed to steer a prudent course between all extremes, always putting patriotism before politics. Among his many other achievements was being keeper of the Privy Seal and it was largely through his efforts that the fundamental human right of "Habeas Corpus" the right to a fair trial or hearing before sentence, was passed by parliament. In 1660 he had the stable block built, and in1680 turned the abbey into a magnificent country house by pulling down the remaining old monastery and building a new north wing, with large reception rooms and a splendid long gallery on the former site of the Abbey Church entrance. The east front was also redesigned but unfortunately nothing of this grandeur survives today. The Marques's died in 1695 and was buried with honours in Westminster Abbey.
Between 1729 and c.1845 many improvements were made to the Rufford estate. For example; the addition of the bath house, the creation of the lake and mill buildings, the construction of the brewhouse, water tower and coach house and also the addition of five icehouses. Rufford Abbey once gave home to five ice houses, however, only two still remain today. All were constructed c1820, when the estate was owned by John Lumley-Savile, 8th Earl of Scarbrough 1788 – 1856. The five ice houses are located near Rufford lake, created c1750; this means that the ice houses were built in close to the lake purposely, for the simple reason that the movement of ice from its source was easier. Not all of Rufford’s Ice Houses faced north, as accessibility and the logistics of the ice may have meant that the builders found it easier to place the doorways facing the lake rather than northerly. It is believed that ice was mainly taken from Blackwalk Pond, which was drained to make way for housing in the 20th century. Blackwalk Pond was used to serve the abbey in Rufford's monastic era, later it fed Rufford's water tower and brew house, still on the site today.
In 1851, a gang of forty or so poachers assembled in Rufford Park as a mass action against what was perceived to be the unfair monopolisation of game-hunting rights by wealthily landowners. The poachers were attacked by ten gamekeepers and, in the ensuing battle, one of the gamekeepers was badly injured and later died of a fractured skull. Four of the poachers' ringleaders were arrested and each subsequently sentenced to deportation and fourteen years of penal servitude for manslaughter.
During the Second World War, the Abbey was taken over by the Army in 1939, and the Leicestershire Yeomanry, 6th Cavalry Brigade were stationed there, arriving as horse mounted troops and leaving as motorised artillery. Later the 4th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards moved in with their Churchill tanks and about 20 army huts were constructed. They left in 1944 to become part of the D-Day allied invasion of France. The huts later housed Italian prisoners of war, and after the war were used by the Forestry Commission, and by the Nottinghamshire branch of the Civil Defence.
By 1949, the house where the army headquarters staff had been billeted was in a poor state of repair and a Rufford Abbey trust was founded by local writer and historian, Robert Innes-Smith, in order to try to save it. In the meantime the house continued to decay and the Government announced that in the event of demolition, the 12th century parts of the abbey, including the crypt, must be preserved. In 1952, Nottinghamshire County Council decided to purchase the Abbey and about 130 acres of land around the house, while attempts to find funding or a new use for it continued. Dry rot, rising damp, a damaged roof, mining subsidence and bulging walls were a taking their toll, and in 1956, despite some public outcry, a necessary controlled demolition of the Abbey's upper floors, the 17th century north wing and the 18th century east wing was started, but not completed until two years later. The responsibility for the care of the ancient building then came under the Ministry of Works and later English Heritage. After the Civil Defence had moved out of Rufford, the Abbey and its grounds were finally designated a Country Park by Nottinghamshire County Council in 1969, and a park ranger service set up.