Ramsey Abbey was founded in 969 by Saint Oswald, Bishop of Worcester through the gift of the aeldorman of East Anglia, Æthelwine.
At Oswald’s suggestion, Æthelwine founded a small wooden chapel, reputedly after a vision of St Benedict appeared to his fisherman in Ramsey Mere. A bull was to indicate the position of the church
Oswald sent 12 monks and a prior from the Benedictine house at Westbury to form the abbey. He himself made the journey to inspect Ramsey and described it as an island ‘surrounded by marsh and bogs; with meadow, woods, and ponds; with all kinds of fish and a wide variety of birds; and cut off from the outside world’. The Abbey itself was situated on a peninsula of gravel, known as Bodsey Island, with the impassable fen to three sides.
The wooden chapel was replaced by a large, stone-built church over the next five years and thus remained until the Norman Abbot created a much grander project in the 12th century. It paid 4000 eels a year to Peterborough Abbey for access to the quarries of Barnack limestone.
In 985 AD Abbo, the renowned scholar of his time, was invited by Oswald to come to Ramsey from Fleury in France to set up a School inside the walls of the Abbey and to instruct the Monks in the arts.
A series of substantial endowments made the house one of the richest in the fens — Ramsey the Golden. Its wealth enabled it to acquire an extensive library and the abbey rapidly developed a reputation for learning that continued until the Dissolution.
In the order of precedence for abbots in Parliament, Ramsey was third after Glastonbury and St Alban’s. At the time of the Doomsday Book Ramsey was the 4th wealthiest religious house in England.
In Stephen’s reign, the house suffered severely . Booth’s Hill, an Anarchy fortification, lies to the south, it is usually interpreted as a defensive work dating to 1143 when Geoffrey de Mandeville’s forces occupied and fortified the abbey, expelling the monks. It was no doubt located to command the seasonally dry land to the south, across which an ancient routeway to its former mother parish church at Bury is believed to have existed. The abbey was badly damaged and impoverished.
After De Mandeville’s death his son returned the abbey to the monks and paid them compensation after the intervention of Archbishop Thomas Becket
The late 13th and 14th centuries saw a succession of costly building programmes. A new refectory, a water conduit to the abbey, a new cistern in the abbey court, the abbot’s hall and the south gate in the court and a monumental brass tomb of Earl Ailwin were built. The lady chapel was built or rebuilt about the middle of the 13th century.
Extensive rebuilding was continued into the 14th century, a new presbytery and other new work is referenced. The Black Death added to these financial problems and by 1349 the house owed 2,500 marks (£1,666/13/4d).
The visitation returns at the end of the 14th century suggest that the abbey was both financially and morally decayed
The 15th century saw the abbey revive, the gatehouse being built in the latter half, about 1475
In 1535 Thomas Bedyll visited and valued the property at £1,715/12/3d. He reported to Thomas Cromwell that the monks would acknowledge the Supremacy and in 1538 they surrendered without complaint, receiving high pensions as a reward.
There were 34 Monks in the abbey at this time.
The Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Thomas Cromwell’s nephew Richard Williams (alias Cromwell) was granted the Abbey and saw to its destruction. The stone was sold, several Cambridge Colleges (Kings, Trinity, Gonville and Caius), the tower of Thomas a’Becket church and Spire of St Mary’s Church at Godmanchester, all used the abbey stone. The lead from the roof was turned into ingots and sold.
Thomas Cromwell, Richard Williams’ son used the Abbey as a summer house and built the first Tudor house on the site. The majority of the gateway was removed and reconstructed at their main residence, Hinchingbrooke House. The Cromwells later fell on lean times and had to sell Hinchingbrooke House and in 1627 Abbey House became the permanent residence of Sir Oliver Cromwell (uncle of the Protector).
This Cromwell line died out in the 1670’s and the estate was bought by Colonel Titus in 1675. In 1732 the Titus family left the estates to their servants who sold them to the Coulson Fellowes family in 1737. The Tudor house was extended and revamped in 1804 and then again in 1839. The Fellowes family became the Barons de Ramsey in 1887
In 1932 the house was purchased by Lady Diana Broughton and her husband, the 2nd Baron Fairhaven from her brother, the 3rd Baron de Ramsey. Upon her death in 1937 The house was leased to the local grammar school and was used as part of the school until 2015.
The house is open on heritage Sundays ( 1st Sunday in April – October).