Close by the Thames near Marlow, Bisham Abbey has witnessed a rich slice of English history. But Bisham (the name of the Abbey, like the village, should properly be pronounced as ‘Bizum’) was a Priory, not an Abbey, for much of its life, and most of what we now see is, in fact, a Tudor mansion. It was originally built around 1260 as a preceptory of the immensely powerful Knights Templar. On the suppression of that Order, it passed into the hands of William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, who then built a priory here for Austin Canons in 1337. The nearness of this Priory to Windsor Castle would have led to heavy claims on this community’s hospitality.
In July 1536, Bisham Priory was surrendered to Henry VIII on the suppression of the monasteries. Uniquely among all the monasteries of England, it was then selected by the fickle King to be re-established on a grander scale as an abbey. In December 1537, a charter was granted to this new abbey of the Holy Trinity. It lasted, however, for only six months before the Abbot, John Cordrey, and his monks were again forced to surrender Bisham Abbey to the King’s appointees.
During its complex history, Edward II used this establishment to imprison Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, the wife of King Robert the Bruce, and her female relatives in 1310. Following the dissolution, it served for about two hundred years as the main residence of the Montacutes, who became Earls of Salisbury. One of that line of illustrious Earls, who merits mention by Shakespeare, was Richard Neville, known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker, the wealthiest and most powerful English peer of his age. A principal protagonist in the Wars of the Roses, he lies buried somewhere in the grounds of Bisham Abbey. It was probably also a virtual gaol for Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, who was imprisoned by her sister, Queen Mary, around the period 1555 and 1558. An ancient holy well close by still bears Elizabeth’s name.
After its dissolution, Bisham Abbey was given by King Henry VIII to his former Queen, Anne of Cleves. Following Anne’s death, Bisham Abbey passed onto Sir Thomas Hoby, the man who was responsible for the custody of Princess Elizabeth during the reign of Mary Tudor. It was the Hobys who demolished the monastic church on the site while adding the fine bay window to the northern end (see photo) and, in 1560, an imposing brick tower. After her accession, Queen Elizabeth I appointed Sir Thomas as Ambassador to France. It is his wife, Dame Elizabeth, who is purportedly the tormented ghost who haunts the Abbey. A son, curiously named Thomas Posthumous from being born after his father’s death, is believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comic figure of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.
When the Hoby line ran out, the Abbey passed into the hands of the Vansittarts, the first member of that family to live there, George, having made his fortune in India. Adding Neale to the family name in due course, this family and its descendants held the Abbey, the estate and village, up until 1965 when death duties necessitated their sale. The Abbey, which had been let to the Central Council for Physical Recreation as a memorial to two brothers in the family who were killed in the Second World War, was then purchased as the CCPR’s first residential site. Bisham Abbey still remains in the hands of a successor body, Sport England.
Stonor House in the Chilterns, a few miles outside Henley, now provides a home for furniture, portraits, china and other objects of interest which came from Bisham Abbey, the families of these two houses having had links. A comprehensive history The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was published in 1973.