Thomas de Cuckney founded the religious house in 1140
It was an abbey of Premonstratensian canons, dedicated to St James the Great.
The abbey was enriched by gifts from the Goushills, D’Eyncourts, Bassets, and other families from Nottinghamshire and it received a considerable grant from King Edward I.
With so much wealth at his disposal, the Abbot of Welbeck was an influential man, and in 1512 all the houses of the order in England were placed under his care.
In 1538, the abbot, Richard Bentley was awarded a pension of £50 (£27,276 as of 2014), and the 17 canons received pensions of between £40 and £4 (£21,821 as of 2014) and (£2,182 as of 2014), a year.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site was granted by Henry VIII to Richard Whalley, of Screveton.
After being owned by a City of London clothier, the abbey was purchased by Gilbert, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury for the sum of £555 6s 6d (£107,976 as of 2014) in 1599, and sold to Sir Charles Cavendish, son of Bess of Hardwick in 1607.
It passed to his son William Cavendish, later first Duke of Newcastle.
Members of the Cavendish family converted it into a country house and added a riding house in the 17th century to the design of Robert Smythson and his son John. Only basements and inner walls were retained from the original fabric of the old abbey buildings.
In the 18th century, it passed through an heiress into the Bentinck family and became the seat of the Earls and Dukes of Portland.
The charitable Harley Foundation have converted some estate buildings to new uses, including the Dukeries Garden Centre, School of Artisan Food and Harley Gallery.