The first abbot was Simon, formerly novice master at Rievaulx and famous for his piety and learning. With this auspicious start, Warden flourished and grew wealthy. Fine buildings followed and by 1300 the monastery was already extensive. It was to continue growing, because around 1320 work started on an abbey church of cathedral-like proportions. Much of the money to pay for this came in the form of alms, gifts from those who visited the church - the medieval equivalent of the modern fabric appeal. The magnificent mosaic tile pavement with which the church was embellished was discovered in 1961 and has since been taken to Bedford Museum. Another similar pavement which is thought to have decorated the Abbot's Lodging was found in 1974 just north of the present Warden Abbey.
Little is known of the abbey during the four centuries of its existence, but such information as exists points to it being highly respected for its spiritual life and religious discipline. The most famous, or infamous, incident took place in 1217, when after a dispute over property Fawkes de Breaute, the overmighty Sheriff of Bedfordshire, killed one of the monks, wounded others and had thirty of them dragged 'through the mud' to his castle at Bedford. Although he later did full penance in the chapter house at Warden, it must have been some time before harmony was re-established in the abbey.
Warden was widely known for more peaceful activities too, since it was here that the Warden pear was cultivated. A small pear used for cooking, it gave rise to the Warden pie which crops up here and there in Elizabethan and Stuart literature, most notably in Shakespeare's 'Winter's Tale'. Hot Warden Pies were still sold in Bedford in the nineteenth century. So proud was the abbey of this horticultural achievement that they put it on the reverse side of their seal, which displays three pears surrounding a crozier.
In 1537, in the reign of Henry VIII, the abbey was dissolved and its estates, valued at £389 16s 6l/2d, distributed to new owners. The site of the abbey itself went to Robert Gostwick whose family were large landowners in the county. He set about demolishing the buildings and selling the materials: 400 cart loads of stone were taken to Bedford to build the new gaol. This was in 1552 and shortly afterwards a red brick mansion was built just east of the site, possibly incorporating some late additions to the Abbot's Lodging. A view of this house was engraved by S. and N. Buck in 1730, at which time the owner was a 'Rev. Mr. Paris'. Later in the century the property was bought by Samuel Whitbread of Southill Park, to whose family it still belongs, although it has been held on lease since 1974 by the Landmark Trust.
In about 1790, the main part of the Tudor house was pulled down, leaving only a short wing which ran back from its north-west corner. This wing is the building known today as Warden Abbey, which is therefore all that is left to us here, above ground, of both monastery and house. With its red brick walls, ornate chimney, and tall mullioned windows it is recognisably Tudor, but the story is more complicated than first appears. The north-west corner is in fact the stone buttress of a vanished medieval building to the north. Inside, in the main ground floor room, is an arch through which you could once pass into a room beyond; this was later blocked and then turned into a fireplace. The whole of this surviving fragment could even be earlier than the Gostwick house, perhaps built by one of the last abbots who might have used the fine room on the first floor as a sunny south-facing parlour.