Milton Abbey History

History of the School and Abbey

The original collegiate church was founded c.933 AD by King Athelstan of Wessex, to commemorate the death at sea of his brother Edwin, for which he was said to have been responsible. To support the church, Athelstan granted it sixteen manors in Dorset. In 964, King Edgar dismissed the secular priests and replaced them with Benedictine monks from Glastonbury, who sustained the monastic life for several centuries. After lightning struck the spire during a violent storm in 1309, the church was consumed by a fire in which the Abbey's documents, books and relics were all destroyed. A new abbey church was soon begun; although never fully completed, it reached its present size principally under the guidance of Abbot William Middleton at the turn of the 15th century. Building at the Abbey continued until its six centuries of monasticism came to an abrupt halt with the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. The monks were dispersed and within a year the monastery's manors and other properties had been sold off.

Sir John Tregonwell, a lawyer who helped arrange Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and at the Dissolution acted as commissioner taking the surrender of monasteries, bought the Abbey and estate in 1540 for £1,000. He died in 1565 but the Tregonwell family lived at Milton Abbey for a century afterwards. However, after several legal wrangles concerning who was to inherit the mansion, the estate was sold in 1752 to Joseph Damer.

Damer was a wealthy and ambitious man whose fortune had descended from a great-uncle. In 1742, he married Caroline Sackville, daughter of the first Duke of Dorset; on Caroline's death in 1755, Damer commissioned the Italian sculptor Carlini to make a monument to mourn her, which today stands in the north transept of the Abbey.

Damer's influence on Milton Abbey was considerable. On buying the estate he set about a grand scheme to reshape the valley in which it lay. He planned to remove the old town south of the Abbey and to replace the decaying abbey buildings with a great house suited to its surroundings and his position. After Damer was created Baron Milton in 1764, he enlisted the great landscaper Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to design the grounds, and in 1765, the famed architect Sir William Chambers to create an appropriate house in the Gothic style, much against Chambers' tastes. Following frequent quarrels with his client Chambers resigned, leaving the completion of the interior to James Wyatt, who also 'restored' the Abbey Church. The result is the impressive Gothic mansion in its valley setting, which in time attracted three royal visits.

Even as Lord Milton, Damer found that his removal of the town, house by house as the leases fell in or the occupants moved, did not go unopposed, but by 1779 Damer had razed the entire town of Middleton and created a new model village on a site half a mile to the southeast.

In 1852 the estate was sold to Charles Joachim, Baron Hambro, a merchant banker. Hambro commissioned Sir George Gilbert Scott to restore the Abbey Church in 1865, saving the church from potential ruin. Through their eighty years at Milton Abbey the Hambros saw the trees and shrubs planted by Capability Brown grow to their full maturity, especially under the loving care of Sir Everard Hambro. In 1932 the estate was sold and divided up. The mansion was, for a time, a healing centre.

In 1953 the mansion and grounds were bought by a trust to establish Milton Abbey School. The school has five houses - fittingly named Athelstan, Damer, Hambro, Hodgkinson and Tregonwell. 

The Abbey is the dominant feature of the school buildings. Described by the Bishop of Salisbury as ‘the most beautiful Church in Wessex’, and often featuring in the top 100 ecclesiastical buildings in Britain, the School is most fortunate to have it as its chapel.

The importance of the Abbey cannot be underestimated on present or past Miltonians. A haven of peace, the Chapel allows pupils to sit quietly at the start of a school day. Designed to hone and develop moral compasses, the Abbey is very much the beating heart of this extraordinary school.