The first Abbot of Beaulieu was Hugh, who stood high in the king's favour, often served in important diplomatic missions and was later to become Bishop of Carlisle. The king granted the new abbey a rich endowment, including numerous manors spread across southern England (particularly in Berkshire), land in the New Forest, corn, large amounts of money, building materials, 120 cows, 12 bulls, a golden chalice, and an annual tun of wine. John's son and successor, King Henry III was equally generous to Beaulieu, with the result that the abbey became very wealthy, though it was far from the richest English Cistercian house.
Monks from Beaulieu founded four daughter houses, Netley Abbey (1239), Hailes Abbey (1246), Newenham Abbey (1247) and St Mary Graces Abbey (1350).
The surviving wall and groundplan of the abbey church.
The abbey's buildings were of a scale and magnificence reflecting its status as an important royal foundation. The church was a vast cruciform structure in early gothic style and heavily influenced by French churches of the order, especially those of Cîteaux,
Bonport and Clairvaux. The church was 102-metre (335 ft) long and had a semi-circular apse with 11 radiating chapels. The building took more than four decades to complete and was finally dedicated in 1246, in the presence of King Henry III and his queen, of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and of many prelates and nobles.
South of the church stood a cloister, ranged around which were the chapter house, refectory, kitchens, storehouse and quarters for the monks, lay brothers and the abbot. A separate infirmary complex lay to the east of the main buildings, connected to them by a passage. The abbey was surrounded by workshops, farm buildings, guesthouses, a mill, and extensive gardens and fishponds. Strongly fortified gatehouses controlled entry to the monastic enclosure, which was defended by a wall. A water gate allowed access to ships in the river.
Exemption and sanctuary
Pope Innocent III constituted Beaulieu an "exempt abbey", meaning that the abbot had to answer to no local bishop but only to the Pope himself. Beaulieu was also invested by the same Pope with special privileges of sanctuary, much stronger than usual and covering not only the abbey itself but all the 23.5 hectare precinct around as included in the original grant made by King John. As Beaulieu was the only abbey in its region with such large and strongly enforced sanctuary rights, it soon became a refuge for fugitives, both ordinary criminals and debtors and also political enemies of the government. Among these latter were Anne Neville, wife of Warwick the Kingmaker, who sought sanctuary after the Battle of Barnet (1471). Twenty-six years later, Perkin Warbeck fled to Beaulieu from the pursuing armies of Henry VII.
The cloister at Beaulieu Abbey seen from the door to the church. On the left can be seen the refectory - now the Parish church of Beaulieu - on the right the west range, home of the abbey's lay brothers.
In 1535 the abbey's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's general survey of church finances prior to the plunder, at £428 gross, £326 net. According to the terms of the first Suppression Act, Henry's initial move in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, this meant that it escaped immediate confiscation, though the clouds were gathering.
The last abbot of Beaulieu was Abbot Thomas Stevens, elected in 1536, who had formerly been abbot of the recently dissolved abbey of Netley, across Southampton Water. Though Beaulieu managed to survive until April 1538, at that point it was finally forced to surrender to the government. Many of the monks were granted pensions, the abbot receiving 100 marks per year. Abbot Thomas ended his days as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. He died in 1550.
At the dissolution of the monastery in 1538, the Commissioners for the Dissolution reported to the government that thirty-two sanctuary-men, who were here for debt, felony, or murder, were living in houses in the monastic precincts with their wives and families. When the abbey was dissolved there was some debate about what to do with them, however, in the end it was decided, after pleading by the former abbot and certain government officials, to allow the debtors to live in their houses on the abbey grounds permanently. Pardons were given to some of the criminals too, including one Thomas Jeynes, a murderer.