Burnham Abbey

The Society of the Precious Blood

an Anglican Contemplative Community


History of the Abbey and Community

Burnham Abbey

Burnham Abbey was founded for a community of Augustinian Canonesses in 1266 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, reputedly in thanksgiving for his release from captivity after the Battle of Lewes in 1265.

The Abbey was built around a cloister garth, with a frater, church, guest house, kitchen and two storey quarters for the nuns. The infirmary was a separate building connected by a passage to the east range.

It continued to operate until it was suppressed at the Reformation and the Abbess and nine nuns, who formed the community in 1539, dispersed. 

After the dissolution, the Abbey was leased to William Tyldesley and subsequently came into the possession of the Wentworth family. The church was demolished and a private house formed from much of the remaining buildings. In due course it became a farm and the buildings gradually fell into disrepair. In 1913 it was purchased by James Lawrence Bissley, an architect and surveyor, who restored the remaining buildings and converted the original pre-reformation chapter house into a chapel.

In 1916 James Bissley sold the property to the Society of the Precious Blood who, in 1952, enlarged the chapel without spoiling its simplicity.

There is still a piece of the north wall of the ancient church in the present refectory. Most of the east range still has medieval walls. Further sections of the original abbey are in the Sisters' garden.

Grade 1 listed, Burnham Abbey is one of the best surviving medieval religious houses in Buckinghamshire.


Click to enlarge pictures

Further images here courtesy of Thames Pilot.

The Community

"The reason you have come together is that you may have one heart and one mind entirely centred upon God". So wrote St Augustine, in the 5th century, to a group of Christians who had come together for just that reason.

Down the centuries God has called some people to come aside, away from the business of the world, to worship him and to seek him in spirit and truth - a truth which gradually opens our hearts to embrace the needs of the whole world in prayer. It is good to have companions on the way and that is what a Christian Community is: a group of friends travelling on the spiritual journey together. As the group expands so the need is felt for some sort of structure to hold it together and that is why St Augustine wrote the letter which has become known as the Rule of St Augustine.

The Society of the Precious Blood (SPB) began as an active Community. It dates from 1905 when Mother Millicent Mary SPB (formerly Millicent Taylor) took vows in the parish of St Jude, Birmingham.

Mother Millicent

The Community which formed around her adopted the early monastic Rule of St Augustine on which to base its spirituality and chose as its motto the words of St Paul “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls’ sake”. At their abode in a house in Birmingham they lived a strenuous and extremely penitential life. The Sisters were in direct contact with the outer world, involving daily parish visiting, Sunday school teaching and the running every night of a factory girls’ club.

SPB grew and from late 1908 began to be drawn to a stricter life of prayer. On St Luke’s Day 1909 the Community migrated from the slums of central Birmingham to an old farm house in the parish of King’s Heath, south of Birmingham, where poverty and hardship were endured, greater than ever faced before.

In 1914 the Community moved to Hendon, increased in numbers and felt more and more drawn to deeper prayer and less active involvement outside the Community. Burnham Abbey happened to be on the market so Mother Millicent went to have a look at it and, in her words, “We came, we saw and it conquered! I shall never forget the welcome the place gave us and the irresistible atmosphere of calm quiet peace that surrounded it”.

The Community moved to Burnham Abbey in 1916, 650 years after the first dedication of the Abbey, at last becoming a fully Contemplative Community.

For a fuller account of the history of SPB, a publication entitled "Mother Millicent" is available from the Community.