On 29th December 1170 Thomas à Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by three knights loyal to Henry II who had observed how he was undermining the power of the King. It can never be known for sure, but Richard de Luci, who was Henry’s right-hand man, almost certainly played some part in organising an event that shocked the Christian world.
On 11th June 1178, Richard de Luci founded Lesnes Abbey on the land he owned, dedicating it to Saint Mary and Thomas the Martyr, his bid to achieve salvation in the eyes of God for his sins. Nine months later, at the age of 90, he entered the abbey as a canon and died there on the 14th July the same year.
No expense was spared in building the abbey which was constructed on the solid ground just below the wooded escarpment, an expanse of flat marshes extending northwards to the river, all of which it owned. The church was one of the largest in the country, its tower stood 20m high, dominating the area and providing a landmark to ships coming up the Thames. Richard de Lucy also made sure that the abbey was endowed with a good annual income from land that he gave to it.
The abbey was never the great success that its founder would have wished for. Mismanagement by various abbots and the exorbitant cost of repairing the river walls that were breached several times by storms meant that it was always short of money and gradually fell into disrepair. During its entire life it never housed more than 12 canons. Even the addition of holy relics from Thomas a Becket and the construction of The Lady Chapel for pilgrims to visit on their way to Canterbury did not halt the financial decline.
On 13th February 1525 Lesnes Abbey was dissolved on the orders of Cardinal Wolsey who had obtained permission by the pope to close several monasteries that were neither reputable, nor financially viable. Thus Lesnes Abbey was one of the first in the country to be closed and Wolsey, who was Henry VIII’s chief minister, set the wheels in motion for the complete dissolution of England’s monasteries by Henry VIII a few years later.
All the remaining valuables from the abbey, including structural components such as the lead roof, were stripped and the walls were used as a quarry for building new houses in the surrounding area, reputedly Hall Place being one. The only building left untouched was the Abbot’s House which became a manor house since it was quite modern and comfortable. Ironically nothing remains of this today, apart from the mulberry tree, which would have been in its garden.
The manor house and ruins of the abbey were given to Christ Church School by a benefactor in 1633, and were leased out as a farm until 1930 when it became public land. The ruins we see today were originally excavated by William Clapham between 1909 and 1913, but subsequently reburied as the land was still being used as a farm, the nave of the church being a pig sty! When London County Council took ownership, they uncovered and strengthened the ruins to create a feature for the new park and an important historical legacy for the area.
It was during this work that the heart of Roseia of Dover was found and restored to its original resting place in the central northern chapel in 1954. A plaque can be found there, erected to commemorate the only descendant of Richard de Luci to still be buried in his abbey. Her love and care for the abbey, despite living in a time when women had very little power, is a moving story.