By Joachim Teigen
Their Tonic Wine has gladdened people’s hearts since 1890. During the 20th century their particular strain of bees came to be favoured by beekeepers all over the world. But the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey can trace their history all the way back to 1018, making this year their millennial anniversary.
The Pope’s representative
On Thursday 24th May, Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Sweden joins the monks at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England for their millennial celebration. Cardinal Arborelius was chosen by Pope Francis as his representative for the occasion, and the entire episcopal hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England has been invited. This is only one of several events scheduled to mark the anniversary of one of England’s most historic monasteries. In so doing, they recall a history intimately intertwined with that of England, the Catholic Church and monasticism.
From Benedictine to Cistercian
The first Benedictine monastery was founded near the site of today’s monastery in 1018, although its precise location has been lost to history. At the time of its foundation, Cnut the Great was king of Denmark, England and Norway, and the Normans had yet to conquer the British Isles. Almost half a century earlier the Council of Winchester had spearheaded the reform of monastic life in England after massive decline.
In 1147 Buckfast became a Cistercian abbey, implementing the austere life of the recently established Order, resulting in a complete transformation of the buildings of the monastery themselves.
From Henry VIII to The Tablet
The abbey increased in size and wealth through subsequent centuries, making it a perfect target for King Henry VIII’s campaigns, resulting in the dissolution of Buckfast in 1539 along with the moving of its wealth to the Tower of London.
After more than three centuries without monks, it would take only an advert in The Tablet for monastic life to return to Buckfast in 1881. Six weeks after the advert appeared, Benedictine monks from France moved in, the forebears of the present-day monks. When the French monks arrived, it was on the basis of the Cistercian foundations that they built the new monastery, effectively reconstructing the Cistercian abbey
The Abbey today
The Buckfast monks live a life rooted in the Benedictine motto of ora et labora. They rise at 5.30 in the morning for the celebration of various liturgies including Mass. During the day, the monks will probably not find work wanting, seeing that they have guest quarters, a retreat centre, a conference centre and a large garden to be attended to.
At midday and in the late afternoon they assemble again for prayer. Daily recitation of Night Prayer allows the monks to pray it from memory, in a dark chapel.
Their prayer and contemplation roots and gives purpose to their work, and although the monks of Buckfast live separated from the world they have demonstrated a capacity of drawing the world to themselves – for 1,000 years.