Launde Abbey was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1119 by Richard Basset, a royal official of Henry I. During the first century of its life the community buildings, cloister and garth were built, including an imposing church (of which one side chapel still survives, now used as the Chapel at the present-day Abbey). The original priory was surrounded by a minor royal forest centred on the valley of the River Chater. In the mid thirteenth century the Abbot requested permission to create a deer park, since this forest was contracting in size; the land around Launde continued to be used as a park until the dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century.
Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries, found Launde’s location very desirable. After visiting the priory in April 1540 he wrote in his Remembrances (a kind of personal journal) “Myself for Launde,” although he never occupied the house as he was executed just three months later for treason. His son Gregory, however, had kept royal favour – no doubt helped by his marriage to Elizabeth Seymour, sister to Henry VIII’s beloved wife Jane – and lived at Launde Abbey with Elizabeth for ten years; during this time he had some of the dilapidated monastic buildings restored or rebuilt. Gregory was buried at Launde and a monument erected by his wife remains in the Chapel to this day; Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “one of the purest monuments of the early Renaissance in England.”
The Cromwell family lived at Launde until the end of the 16th century and then, for the next three centuries, the house passed through the hands of various owners: the Smiths (who probably began the process of dismantling the original monastery and building the present manor house), followed by the Halfords, Clarkes, Simpsons and Dawsons. This latter family engaged Thomas Rickman to embark on an extensive restoration of the house in the mid nineteenth century.
In 1957 the prominent Leicestershire businessman Cecil Coleman, together with his wife Lilian, purchased the abbey and presented it to the Diocese of Leicester. They also paid for the conversion works to make it into a retreat house.
The Chapel is the only part left of the original Priory Church and dates mainly to the 12th and 13th centuries. The original Priory Church was three and a half times the width and extended a chapel’s length into the gardens and then along the side of the house and half way up the drive.
The stained glass windows are particularly notable — the three large windows above the altar and the small windows on the south side wall date to about 1435. The monument to Gregory Cromwell, which is to the left of the altar, dates to 1551. The paintings to the back of the chapel are very fine examples of English cubism and date to the 1950’s.
This part of the house dates at least to the 1550’s although the bay window was added in the 1630’s. When the room was renewed by Thomas Rickman in the nineteenth century he took the panelling from another house and installed it here. There are three fire places that he has used to create the present fireplace — two stone and then the wooden surround. There are three dates in the room. The carvings of the figures attached to the panelling are from north Germany and were brought to Launde following someone’s holiday and installed in the 19th century.
The sitting room, which has such elegant proportions, is a delightful place to relax on a sunny afternoon. If you look at the windows from outside you will notice that one has been blocked up so that internally it has the right proportions; his was done during the nineteenth century renovations when the room was used as a library. The windows have also been lengthened — and this is best seen from outside — as have all the downstairs windows. This can seen by a darker coloured stone being used after the original window sill was removed and a new, lower window sill was installed. There is a small painting of Thomas Cromwell on the wall.
This is used as one of the meeting rooms for those who come to stay at Launde. It would have been used in the Victorian period as the Drawing Room by the family of the house. They would have sat in here during the day or in the evening. Occasionally the room is returned to this use when this suits the needs of those staying at Launde.