In 1193 at the instigation of Affreca, the wife of John de Courcy, work was commenced on the building of a Cistercian Abbey at what is now known as Greyabbey in County Down. Tradition tells us that Affreca founded the abbey to give thanks for a safe landing after a perilous journey at sea. When founded the Abbey was known as Iugem Dei or the Yoke of God. It is believed the abbey and subsequently the village eventually became commonly know as Grey Abbey due to the unbleached colour of the monks’ greyish-white habits.
The Abbey was completed in 1230 and is of great architectural importance as the first fully gothic style building in Ulster. It remained virtually unchanged until the 15th century when the tower and chancel were raised in height.
The Abbey may have been damaged in the wars of 1315-18 when Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward tried to establish himself as king of Ireland.
Dissolved in 1541 by order of Henry VIII, the Abbey was partially destroyed by Sir Brian O’Neill in 1572, to prevent the Crown garrisoning troops there.
The estates surrounding the Abbey were granted to the Montgomery family in 1607 and the nave of the Abbey was re-roofed and used as a parish church until 1778.
In the early 1900’s conservation work was carried out by the then Ministry of Public Works, which included adding buttresses to the south side of the nave. These have prevented the nave from collapse.
The Abbey is now in the care of by The Department for Communities and a Visitor Centre was added a few years ago which provides an insight into the life of the Abbey and its monks. For younger visitors there are monks’ costumes to try on and puzzles to complete.
The Abbey is also now home to a reconstructed Physic Garden where visitors can learn about the healing (and sometime magical) powers of the 40 or so herbs and their use in medieval times.
More recently a small kitchen garden has been established where local primary school children can take their first steps in growing vegetables & flowers.