Preface and Introduction


A short description of Torre Abbey, Torquay, Devonshire:

With illustrations and revised ground plan


Hugh R. Watkin

Torquay: Fleet Printing Works. Third Edition (1912) illus. pp. 62 pp.

Prepared by Michael Steer

This copiously illustrated handbook has neither index nor table of contents. Its subject, Torre Abbey, comprises two Grade I listed buildings in Torquay. The Abbey was founded in 1196 as a monastery for Premonstratensian canons when William Brewer, lord of the manor of Torre, gave them the land. By 1536 it had an annual income of £396, making it the wealthiest of all the Premonstratensian houses in England. The monks surrendered to King Henry VIII's commissioner in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This resulted in a widescale demolition of the church and east range, and all items of value, including the lead from the roofs, were taken. An original copy of the text is held at the Institute of Medieval Studies Library, Toronto and a complete electronic copy may be accessed at: https://archive.org/details/shortdescription00watkuoft
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The cost of a third edition of this book has again been defrayed by the owner of Torre Abbey, in order that the entire proceeds of sale may benefit the Torbay Hospital. Further excavation in 1911, following suggestions made by the Rev. D. H. S. Cranage and others, which the author cordially acknowledges, resulted in the discovery of another entrance into the nave of the Church from the Garth, the foundation of the rood screen and Canons' stalls, and an interment, with niche for effigy in the wall of north aisle.

The examination of the ditch on the north side of the Church was completed, and a building adjoining the northwest corner of the Church located. The foundations of the dorter forming the east wing were traced and the level of the chapter-house floor definitely established by the discovery of two tiles in situ at a greater depth than had hitherto been suspected. The foundation of the north cloister was found at one spot which gave the width of the covering of this side of the garth, which hitherto it had been found impossible to trace. The sites of the missing gate-houses were also examined.

All these details have been inserted in the revised plan, the explanatory text corrected and added to; and the author once more acknowledges with gratitude the debt the public owes to Colonel Cary for his zealous care of and interest in the site of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Torre.

FIRST EDITION                 AUGUST 1907.

July, 1912.


Torre Abbey, Devonshire, was founded by William Brewer, in the year 1196, for Canons of the Premonstratensian Order. The Abbey was surrendered to King Henry VIII on the 25th April, 1539, when the revenue was returned as £396 0s. 11d. net, (approximating £8,000 present value), the largest income of any of the thirty-one Abbeys and two Nunneries owned by the Premonstratensian Order in England and Wales at the time of the Dissolution.

In 1543, Henry VIII granted the Abbey to his favourite John St. Ledger, who sold it the same year to Sir Hugh Pollard.

In 1580, Sir Hugh Pollard's grandson conveyed the property by deed to Sir Edward Seymour, of Berry Pomeroy.

In 1599, Thomas Ridgeway, ancestor of the Earls of Londonderry, bought the whole estate.

In 1653, Sir John Stowell, of Bovey Tracey, bought part of the estate, including Torre Abbey.

In 1662, the Abbey ruins were purchased by Sir George Cary of New Parke, Hants, in the hands of whose descendants it has remained.

William Brewer was descended from Radulphus de Brueria, who held six Manors as one of the followers of Baldwin, of Exeter, one of William the Conqueror's generals; he had one son, William Brewer the younger (who died childless, and was buried in the chancel of Torre Abbey Church), and five daughters.

The Founder of Torre Abbey was the trusted supporter of four English Kings, Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III, and after taking a prominent part in the history of England, retired to the Cistercian Abbey of Dunkeswell, founded by himself five years after Torre, and in 1227 was buried before the high altar. The Premonstratensian Order was founded by Norbert, son of Heribert, Count of Geneppe, in 1120. The first house was established near Laon, 75 miles north-east of Paris, on a spot fore-shown by the Virgin Mary, in a vision to Norbert ; from the French prémontré and Latin praemonstratum the name of the Order is derived. St. Norbert died in 1134/and was buried at Magdeburg, which bishopric he had held for 14 years. In the year 1582 St. Norbert was canonised by Pope Gregory XIII. In 1627 his remains were translated to the Premonstratensian Abbey of Strahow, near Prague.

At the end of the 15th century it was computed that no less than 2,000 Abbeys and Nunneries in Europe acknowledged the head of the Order at Prémontré.

There were twenty-one Abbats of Torre. In the year 1500 the community numbered, besides the Abbat, eleven Priests, two Deacons, and four Novitiates. The present Abbat-General is Norbert Martin Schaginger, Abbat of Schlagl Abbey, in Higher Austria. There are nine Abbeys in Austria, seven in Belgium, and one in Holland.

In England there are at present three houses founded by the Belgian Abbey of Tongerloo; at Crowle and Spalding in Lincolnshire, and in Varley Street, Manchester, where the English Head of the Order, Abbat Peter Francis Geudens, resides : there are also two smaller establishments at Storrington, in Sussex, and at Bedworth, in Warwickshire, founded by Canons expelled from France.

The first Abbey established in England in 1146 was at Newhouse in Lincolnshire, of which not even the name remains. Welbeck Abbey was the recognised chief house of the Order in England ; Torre Abbey was colonised from this House by the first Abbat Adam and six Canons, and was the twenty-third Premonstratensian Abbey built in England.

With the possible exception of Wendling, in Norfolk, all the thirty-three houses were built within a period of eighty-five years (1146-1231); during the subsequent 300 years preceding the Dissolution, none was added.

The 716 years during which this site has been known as Torre Abbey may be divided into two periods : the 343 years during which the buildings were occupied by the Premonstratensian Canons, and the subsequent 373 years as a private residence.