Warden Abbey was founded in 1135 as a daughter house to the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, a religious order whose wealth and prosperity would only grow. By 1300 the monastery was already extensively made up of fine buildings and by 1320 work had also started on an abbey church of cathedral-like proportions. A magnificent mosaic tile floor, which embellished this church, was unearthed in 1961 and is now housed in Bedford Museum.
It was here that the Warden pear was cultivated. A small pear used for cooking, this horticultural enterprise gave way to the Warden pie. Hot Warden pies were still sold in Bedford in the nineteenth century, and earlier references can be found in Elizabethan and Stuart literature. The abbey seal displays three pears surrounding a crozier.
In 1537, during the reign of Henry VIII, the abbey was dissolved. The Gostwick family acquired the land and demolished the buildings. By 1552 a new red brick mansion was built on the site, incorporating some of the former Abbot's lodging. In about 1790, the main part of the Tudor house was pulled down by its new owners, the Whitbreads of Southill, leaving only a partial fragment still standing. This is the building known today as Warden Abbey, which is all that is left to us, above ground, of both monastery and house.
The surrounding village of Old Warden grew up under the Abbey's protection. Even today the legacy of the Warden pear is still evident, and the vineyards of the past now produce locally-made, award-winning white wines each year. The Cistercian monks planted two original vineyards: "the ten acre Greate Vineyard and the four acre Lyttel Vineyard." The modern vineyard that remains was planted on the site of the Lyttel Vineyard by the Whitbread family.
Warden Abbey is all that is left of this once great settlement, now a curious fragment left stranded in quiet fields. These surrounding meadows, grazed by livestock, are virtually unexplored and may still prove to be a fascinating archaeological site, the landscape of ridges and bumps burying secrets of past Cistercian wealth.