Land to build Rushen Abbey was gifted by King Olaf I in 1134, who believed this would enhance his spiritual standing and reputation as a good Christian ruler (and also short track his progress to Heaven after his death). The abbey was founded by monks from Furness Abbey in Cumbria and its layout is typical of all Cistercian Abbeys. Being close to Castle Rushen, it offered some protection in times of trouble. It was a target of raids during the C13th and C14th and the monks built a boundary wall with towers around the abbey. All that remains is an ivy covered tower.
The earliest buildings would have been made of wood to be replaced later by stone. Monks and lay brothers helped build the abbey as part of their daily labour. The abbey was completed by 1257. Many of the abbots became Bishops of Sodor (the Isle of Man and the Hebrides). They were also the deputy governor of the island, holding considerable political and economic power.
The abbey also housed the main body of knowledge and literacy for the Island. The Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles, recording Manx history from 1066-1316, was probably written by the monks at Rushen Abbey during the 13th and early 14th centuries. A copy is in the House of Manannan.
The Abbey held extensive estates from Derbyhaven to South Barrule, which included most of the productive agricultural land on the island. The abbey was exempt from all tolls and taxes and was responsible for much of the trade within the island, as well as export trade. It had warehouses in both Castletown and Derbyhaven. All roads led to Ballasalla. Monk’s Bridge was built around 1350 to cross the Silverburn. It is the only surviving medieval bridge on the island.
Monks grew crops for their own use as well as for guests and as charity for the poor. They caught fish and kept livestock. They were good sheep farmers, exporting wool across Europe. They controlled grazing, fishing and mineral rights for lead, silver and iron ore.
The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 undwer the orders of Henry VIII and the abbot and monks were expelled. Not only did this give Henry control over the church, selling assets also helped fund expenditure on his military campaigns. The buildings were stripped of everything of value and the stone was used as building material. Only fragments of the abbot's lodgings and a single tower survive. The site was eventually taken over and run by a local family as a working farm.
Much of the stone appears to have been used in the construction of a nearby house, which was the home of Deemster Moore, who held his court here twice a week.
The house became a boarding school for girls in 1847, when the redoubtable Stowell sisters moved their school here from Douglas. They felt that a country residence was ‘preferable for the purposes of education’. The school closed twenty years later and became a hotel.
Around that time a jam factory and fruit bottling business began in the abbey grounds using fruit grown there.
By the 1900s, the grounds with their fruit bushes, apple trees and flowers became a popular tourist attraction. Visitors were charged 6d to enter and enjoy such attractions as putting and bowling green, a dance floor with live music, peacocks as well as strawberry and cream teas.
By the 1980's the hotel had closed and a steakhouse cafe and a nightclub were built. These closed in the 1990s, by which time the grounds were described as a 'national disgrace'. A private developer announced plans for a big hotel complex but, after local furore, the site was bought by the Manx Government and Manx National Heritage. Deemster Moore’s house reopened as a restaurant.
The site has been excavated, conserved and landscaped and is now run as a heritage attraction by Manx National Heritage.