Wycombe Abbey is today an independent girls' boarding school in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, housed in a grand, Georgian country house set in grounds of 160 acres on the slopes of the Chiltern Hills rising out of the midst of the town.
The school, which is today one of the United Kingdom’s top schools, was founded in 1896 by Frances Dove, when a syndicate bought the Abbey and 30 acres for the sum of £20,000 from the Third Lord Carrington.
In the thirteenth century the area, with the parish church, was part of the holding of the Abbess of Godstow. Interestingly, the priory at Godstowe was, 600 years later, also refounded as a school by Dame Frances Dove the founder of Wycombe, and today Godstow is a preparatory school acting as a feeder for Wycombe Abbey.
On the site of the present Wycombe Abbey was a large manor house known as 'Loakes House' which until 1700 was the seat of the Archdale family, when Thomas Archdale sold it to Henry Petty, 1st Earl of Shelburne. The first Earl of Shelburne in turn bequeathed the estate to his grand nephew William Petty (for whom the title Earl of Shelburne was created afresh in 1761, and who became Prime Minister in 1782). The Shelburnes, however, had a far larger and grander residence at Bowood House in the Savernake Forest. They spent little time at Loakes House.
Consequently, Lord Shelburne sold his estates in the area. Loakes House was purchased from them at auction by Robert Smith, 1st Baron Carrington in 1798. He then employed the architect James Wyatt to transform Loakes House into the present Wycombe Abbey as we see it today.
The 'new' Wycombe Abbey
As an architect James Wyatt captured the romantic spirit of his era, creating a gothic ecclesiastical style. While building Wycombe, he was also engaged in the building of the greatest gothic extravaganza of the age, Fonthill Abbey, a mansion that was a complete replica of a mediæval cathedral complete with soaring tower; it was supposed to resemble the fictitious Castle of Otranto. Fonthill is now demolished which leaves Wycombe Abbey as one of the most important examples of this type of architecture remaining.
While a far less ambitious project than Fonthill, Wycombe Abbey is a jewel of the romantic gothic style. The castellated three floored central block has turrets on each corner, and is seven bays wide, with sash windows. On the ground floor they are ogee topped in the ecclesiastical manner. There is a slightly incongruous bay oriel window in the centre of the second floor. Attached, by a two floored wing, is a chapel-like block clearly indicating the architect's intention to emulate an abbey; this wing is completed by statues in niches on the external wall in the mediæval manner.
The whole composition is an echo of the house's larger sister at Fonthill. Like Fonthill Abbey, the whole structure was intended to imitate one of the older country houses genuinely converted from an old abbey or monastery. The final stage of the transformation was the renaming of Loakes House to Wycombe Abbey. This suited the mood of the era admirably.
- Elsie Bowerman. Stands there a School – Memories of Dame Frances Dove, D.B.E., Founder of Wycombe Abbey School (1965)
- Wycombe Abbey School 1896–1986: A partial history (1989; ISBN 0950383619)