In 1142 St Malachy of Armagh was responsible for founding Ireland’s first Cistercian monastery at Mellifont, County Louth. Five years later a small group of this house’s residents walked some 35 miles to establish a second monastery close to the banks of the Boyne river at Bective, County Meath. Built on land granted by Murchadh O’Melaghlin, King of Meath the new monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and quickly grew into a thriving community. Half a century after its foundation, such was the importance of Bective Abbey that in 1196 the body of the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath Hugh de Lacy was interred here; it was later moved to St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. By the start of the following century Irish Cistercians would appear to have slipped into laxness; attempts by the church authorities to initiate a programme were rebuffed, not least by the Abbot of Bective who in 1217 participated in a ‘riot’ at Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny and was further charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until he died. The Abbot was subsequently sent to Clairvaux in France for trial and prior of the Norman Abbey of Beaubec appointed to take responsibility for Bective.
Nothing remains of the original monastic establishment at Bective; the earliest part of the present range of buildings dates from the 12th – 13th century buildings and include there remain the chapter house on the south-east side, a plain rectangular building with central column, also part of the west range and fragments of the aisled cruciform church. By the 15th century a serious decline in numbers had occurred and the premises were reduced in size. The church, for example, was substantially shortened and its south aisles demolished which in turn blocked off the adjoining arcades. Massive fortified towers were erected on the church’s west façade and on the south-west corner of the monastery, giving Bective the appearance more of a castle than a religious establishment. The most striking feature to the modern eye is the cloister that was built at this time, smaller than its predecessor (measuring no more than 33 feet square) and now the best-preserved Cistercian cloister in Ireland. The passages are set not beyond the walls but within them and are thus recessed, with each arcade composed of three miniature arches supported by double-column shafts. In one instance a panel between inner and outer shaft is decorated with the carved figure of an unidentified cleric set into an ogee-headed niche with his arms including three fleur-de-lys (see the top-most picture for a detail of this feature).
Despite having fewer occupants, Bective Abbey remained a considerable land owner; at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, this establishment was recorded as possessing a total of 4,400 acres in Meath. And the land was of high quality, so there was no shortage of lay people eager to acquire it, beginning with the Staffordshire-born Thomas Agard who came to Ireland in the crown service and charged with the task of assessing the country’s mineral resources and the possibility of developing lead mines. He began the process of converting the former monastery into a domestic residence, with the cloister transformed into an internal courtyard and the refectory turned into a Great Hall. Larger openings were inserted to create windows and tall chimneys rose above the roofline. After Agard’s death house and estate were briefly owned by Ireland’s Lord Chancellor John Allen before being bought in 1552 by Andrew Wyse, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland for £1,380 16s 7d. It passed through a couple of generations of his family but already by 1619 the abbey was described as being deserted. Twenty years later the property came into the possession of Sir Richard Bolton, like Agard originally from Staffordshire but by this date Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The estate remained in the possession of the Boltons for the next two centuries although they usually rented it out and by 1800 had built Bective House on the other side of the Boyne. In 1884 Bective was inherited by the Rev. George Martin, Rector of Agher, County Meath and ten years later he vested the abbey ruins to the Board of Public Works. It has remained in state ownership ever since but has recently been made more accessible than hitherto the case. The surrounding flat land and its high towers make Bective Abbey easy to spot and since access to the site has recently been improved exploration of this wondrous relic of late-mediaeval/early modern Irish architecture is a delight.