MonasteryQuest™ Pt 1: the twenty richest houses at the dissolution

In lockdown 2020, I came across a list of every monastery dissolved under the government of Henry VIII in 1535-40. My mission, which I chose to accept (because what else was I going to do) was to find the location and condition of every English monastery and its church. This. Is MonasteryQuest™.

This is first instalment of the write-up of my frankly silly partly performative live-tweet thread to find the archaeological knowledge for every monastic site in the 1534/5 survey of potential Crown revenue, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, after the Act of Supremacy was passed by parliament to make the English monarch head of the Church in his kingdom. The Valor is, incredibly, to my knowledge, not available complete online in any form (including scans), but I found a table of all the monasteries’ values, excluding mendicant friaries and obviously non-coventual granges (and mistakes on behalf of the original and the compiler which I corrected as I went through). After slamming it all into a spreadsheet, it seemed COVID-19 quarantine when I wasn’t going anywhere or earning much was a good time to discover a lot of monastic sites that were historically familiar to me but materially a mystery.

This first instalment is the twenty richest monasteries in the Valor, excluding cathedral priories (the Benedictine priories attached to the cathedrals of Worcester, Durham, Winchester and Canterbury, not surprisingly, have a higher income than some of the houses in the list, however I have included them on the map below for a total of 24 monasteries).

The ranking is by the gross general income: essentially the taxable annual return from the monasteries’ land holdings that were worked by tenant farmers. The more accurate net value is the reduction after the wages of the bailiffs and other clerks who managed the monastery’s estates on their behalf, but it is was not recorded for every house, hence my own discretion in ranking. A more detailed post on the economics and course of the dissolution should eventually follow along with the middle-rank, poor, and most interesting houses. But for now, on with the top dogs!

(content warning: this contains graphic descriptions of the executions of the abbots of Reading and Glastonbury. However, it’s what actually happened, and I think it’s important to represent them as fully as history recorded)

20. Priory of St Pancras, Lewes (Sussex)

£1091 gross / £921 net

Cluniac monks – founded 1077 – surrendered 16 Nov 1537 – 24 brethren at dissolution

lewes 3d overlay
Lewes Priory, indicative reconstruction (for instance, the campanile is a facsimile of West Walton in Norfolk, and otherwise Castle Acre is the main reference point) by Andy Gammon, overlaid onto Google Earth 3D

Lewes was the first daughter house in England of Cluny Abbey (Loire), the site of the largest church of the Middle Ages. Initially popular in the early 12th century with secular patrons as a revitalisation of Benedictine monasticism, famed for the high ceremony of their liturgy, Cluniac houses remained subordinate to Cluny rather than independent abbeys. This caused much trouble when England majorly fell out with France in the 14th century for a Hundred Years or so. In the long run, English Cluniac houses seem not to have been very successful financially unlike their rivals the Cistercians: Lewes was around double the wealth of the second richest Cluniac Priory in the Valor (Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire)

Lewes Priory precinct

A lot of Cluniac Priories have been rather unlucky since the dissolution. The chief English house was particularly so as it had the railway line to Brighton ploughed right over the middle of it in 1846. Still there are a few upstanding remains of the dormitory block down to the lavatories. The infirmary chapel, south of the church chevet, is very visible as low walls.

Lewes Priory plan

Lewes Priory, plan of 1884 excavations by St John Hope (before excavation of infirmary/first church)

lewes overlay

Lewes Priory. overlay of Brakspear’s excavation plan, 1904

Lewes Priory church

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Imagination of the nave of Lewes Priory church by Andy Gammon (2008). The decoration draws on later 12thc monuments such as Wymondham Abbey (Norfolk).
Losing the church at Lewes is a major blow to the story of English architecture (but not the last in this list). The first church built at the site after the foundation in the 1070s was quite small, and later became the surviving infirmary chapel. This means the main abbey church would have been built in the early 12th century and would have surely utilised every single bell and whistle that had become popular in Anglo-Norman architecture by then.

Unlike Cistercian churches which were built with unaisled, bluntly squared (quicker and hence cheaper to build) east ends, Lewes had an apsidal east end with five radiating chapels similar to Cluny. The high-quality 12th-century wall painting in the parish churches of the so-called “Lewes Group” around the abbey in the parish churches of Clayton, Coombes, Hardham, Plumpton and Westmeston suggests it also had an unparalleled amount of mural art, perhaps of any English monastery.

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Conjectural cross section of Lewes Priory church and dormitory range from the St John Hope plan, 1884

19. Abbey of St Werburgh, Chester

£1104 gross / £1030 net

Benedictine monks – founded 907 – surrendered 20 Jan 1540 – 29 brethren at dissolution

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Chester Abbey church (now Cathedral) from NE, axial chapel de-Perped and remodelled as E.E. under G.G. Scott, and his clerk of works James Frater, 1868. N chapel extension of aisle, 16thc (S counterpart demolished by Scott). Presbytery clerestory completed c.1320s, crossing tower probably 1380s.

The minster church in the walled Roman town of Chester was given prominence in 875 with its receipt of the corpus of Mercian royal nun St Werburgh (d. 699), moved here from Hanbury to escape the ravagings of the Great Heathen Army. The church was rededicated as a prayerful community in her honour and refounded as a Benedictine monastery in 1092. After dissolution the site was held by the Crown and refounded in August 1541 as a cathedral, with remarkable continuity in both the community (ten monks as canons and the abbot as the new dean) and architecture.

Chester Abbey precinct

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Chester Abbey, refectory, pulpit and stair 1290s, fenestration mid-14thc

Chester Cathedral is often unfairly overlooked for its architecture, when it arguably possesses the most complete set of roofed monastic buildings in the country. With the exception of the dormitory that would have been the floor above the east range, the claustral ranges are remarkably intact, and the thirteenth-century refectory with its preserved pulpit particularly impressive (and still serving food to this day!)

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Abbot’s chapel, later the cathedral’s dean’s house, engraving before demolition

A plan was made of what was then the Cathedral’s precinct in the first half of the 17th century by a Chester antiquarian, showing some medieval buildings of the monastic outer court now lost, mostly in use as kitchens in his time. Those to the east were likely the monastic infirmary. The abbot’s lodgings, now covered by Georgian piles, lay to the north of the inner court, and until it was demolished in 1788, the abbot’s chapel of St Thomas was in use as the dean’s house.

chester precinct

chester overlay
For this overlay, I used a modified version of the schematic 17thc drawing which, for instance, represents the former parish church of St Nicholas at its correct size. However the west and north outer ranges I manipulated separately to fit something like their actual position

Chester Abbey church

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Chester abbey church (now Cathedral), presbytery, S elevation, c.1270-1320

The Abbey church, Chester Cathedral since 1541 (so the building’s been a cathedral for about as long as it wasn’t), also gets a fair bit of stick by aesthetic commentators. Yes, much of its appearance is Victorian (consequence of soft red sandstone and being bang in the middle of Civil War), but it is a wonderful survival of a great abbey church. Most of it dates from an unusual period of great church architecture, the later 13th and 14th century: when most cathedrals were largely complete. The narrow triforium passage in the choir with trefoil heads can only really be paralleled with work at St Albans, and hints at the sort of architecture that might have been more common in English great churches than we get from the surviving cathedrals.

18. Abbey of St Mary, Fountains, Skelldale (North Riding of Yorkshire)

£1104 gross / £1004 net

Cistercian monks – founded 27 Dec 1132 – surrendered 26 Nov 1539 – 31 brethren at dissolution

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Fountains, complex looking N from over the River Skell. In the foreground, receding towards the church and Abbot Huby’s bell tower, are the piers of the undercroft of the first-floor dormitory with the footings of the toilet block to the R. L is the refectory.

Fountains, a World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved abandoned monasteries in England has perhaps the most colourful, detailed, not to mention actually historical, origin story.

At the Abbey of St Mary, York (see below)  a group of thirteen monks (the magic number for monasteries, as Christ and the Apostles, of course), led by the Abbey’s prior, Richard, were inspired by the success of the stricter rule of the new Cistercian house at Rievaulx, but could not convince their abbot, Geoffrey, either to change or let them leave the convent. The Archbishop of York, Thurstan, sympathised, and on 17 October 1132 went the short distance to the abbey from his episcopal palace north of York Minster to discuss the matter with the abbot. However the Archbishop was refused entry to the chapter house with his entourage of clerics and met with active threats from the conservative brethren convent bitter towards the splitters. The Archbishop responded by placing an interdict upon the Abbey, meaning it could no longer celebrate the Mass. It is then attested that a monk at the back said “everyone attack” and it turned into a claustral blitz. And the novice in corner said “boy I wanna warn ya” no but really the letter of Archbishop Thurstan to Archbishop Corbeil at Canterbury, included in the Fountains Chronicle, does say an actual physical confrontation broke out, and because the servants had barred up the precinct gates, the archbishop and the reformist monks grasping onto his cloak were forced to flee north up the cloister walk into the abbey church, barring the south door behind them until things died down and they could return to the episcopal palace.

After two months of bunking at the Archbishop’s palace, at Christmas 1132 (when presumably he had the family coming round and couldn’t have a bunch of monks sleeping on the sofa), Thurstan packed the lads off to a piece of real estate he held at Skelldale near Ripon to found a new Abbey. However all that was there was one tree, which they slept under. Somehow they survived the winter, but they really needed some help with this running your own monastery malarkey. In 1135 their application to join the Cistercian order was accepted, and Geoffrey of Ainai arrived from Clairvaux to sort them out with something a bit more substantial than a tree. Later that year the dean and two canons of York Minster joined the abbey, bringing with them assets that helped fund the first timber buildings, discovered in 1979/80 excavations in the current south transept, and then subsequently a small masonry church. Fountains then got into a disagreement with the new archbishop of York and a gang of his supporters burnt this church and the other early monastic buildings in 1146.

Fountains Abbey precinct

The shape of the final monastic precinct is dictated by the great nave and transepts of the church built from the early 1150s onwards, and subsequently extended and beautified in subsequent centuries. If you want to learn about monasteries: slypes, dormitories, warming chambers, and all that jazz then Fountains is the best place to go, because it’s all there. Except the infirmary hall, which did seem to get quarried for the post-dissolution mansion.

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Fountains Abbey church

The Romanesque nave and crossing at Fountains is essentially complete, but the 13th-century presbytery and the “Nine Altars” less so. Although enough remains to reconstruct the elevation accurately, the arcades of the presbytery have gone leaving only the bases.

However the notion of whether a church survived the dissolution “complete” is complicated by the fact that the high vaults were taken off in the 1480s and replaced with open roofs when the huge east window was added.

17. Abbey of St Mary and St Ecgwin, Evesham (Worcestershire)

£1313 net / £1138 gross

Benedictine monks – founded 701 – surrendered 17 Nov, suppressed 30 Jan 1540 – 67 brethren in late 11thc

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Evesham Abbey, campanile (detached bell tower), 1520s

Evesham had a good case for an exceedingly long continuous monastic occupation, being founded at the beginning of the 8th century by St Ecgwin, Bishop of Worcester. It had sizeable building projects before the Conquest. This preeminence meant it retained its wealth and power in the West Country right up until the dissolution. Its surrender was helped along by the weaselly Abbey cellarer Phillip Hawford, who on becoming the final patsy Abbot of Evesham, immediately surrendered the house for his pension of £240; although the convent would seem to have kept the Divine Office running for over two months until the commissioners arrived to break it up for scrap. The two sizeable parish churches next to it meant there was no question of the abbey church being retained for parochial worship, however the town did support petitions to get it turned into an educational college with the argument that it was ‘”situated in wholesome air in the town of Evesham, through which there is a great thoroughfare into Wales”. As hard as that is to dispute, it had no avail. Imagine though, it could have been the third university in England 300 years earlier. With great thoroughfare into Wales!

Evesham Abbey precinct

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Evesham Abbey, chapter house portal from the E cloister walk, late 13thc

The main surviving monument of Evesham Abbey is its campanile, constructed in the 1520s on the perimeter wall between the parish churchyards and the Abbey’s outer precinct. There is also the easy-to-miss portal to the chapter house preserved in-situ within the line of the outer wall of the east cloister walk, and the simple vernacular buildings at the extreme west edge of the precinct including the almonry that served as the main point of communication with the town, now appropriately a museum.

EaAa8Y3X0Ag-Sir[1]evesham overlay

Evesham Abbey church

evesham overlay2The church at Evesham was essentially completely destroyed almost immediately, even though the wholesale price for its stone ashlar cladding couldn’t have been great round here (unlike East Anglia, where it was at a premium). The area of the presbytery and crossing is a public park, the nave is currently occupied by allotments, but moves are currently being made to open it into public gardens. The wall on the north side of these allotment gardens that separates them from the parish church graveyard stands on the foundation of the north nave wall, but although it contains medieval masonry, it is not the actual wall of the abbey church. The church would have been the familiar story: a huge Romanesque church with Gothic additions after a central tower failure. The presbytery was remodelled 1395, presumably a refined version of the famous work at Gloucester.

16. Abbey of St Mary and St Edward, Shaftesbury (Dorset)

£1324 gross /  £1149 net

Benedictine nuns – founded 888 – surrendered 2 March 1539 – 57 sistren at dissolution

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Like buttresses used t’be
Shaftesbury was by far the wealthiest English monastery female religious (next was Barking at £862 gross), at least until the foundation of the Bridgettine double house at Twickenham in 1415 (q.v.). Founded by Alfred the Great after his defeat of the Great Heathen Army at Edington, it received even stronger ties to the royal House of Wessex and the later English monarchy when it received the corpus of King Edward the Martyr, which was its main dedication (but St Mary is also occasionally recorded).

Shaftesbury Abbey precinct

shaftesbury precinct

The monastery is not well preserved, but an impressive section of precinct wall survives (just out of shot in the famous 1973 Hovis advert filmed on Gold Hill) and the size of the site can be ascertained from the street plan. Aggressive excavation (which was often more concerned with finding relics of King Edward than anything else) and landscaping have damaged the site of the cloistral buildings, but recent archaeology should prove helpful in better understanding the abbey layout.

Shaftesbury Abbey church

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Plan of Shaftesbury Abbey church and conjecture of cloistral range, RCHME Dorset, 1972

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PRO 23/335A, seal impression of Shaftesbury Abbey from its document of surrender, 2/03/1539, probably designed 2nd half of 13th century
The site of the eastern end and eastern half of the nave of the church was cleared 1902-5 and is open to the public, although it is little more than rubble footings of the walls. The exquisite seal of the Abbey, with a highly stylised church facade but  suggests that the church had two western towers standing outside the aisles. This is arguably upheld by an unusual drawing c.1553 from a catalogue of post-dissolution landholdings of the Earl of Arundel, showing a nave arcade still upstanding with at least one western tower on the south. However the western part of the church (perhaps built on the north west front tower) is covered by the partly 17th-century property of Abbey House. It is interesting how the property cuts just where the west walk of the cloister would be, hence the non-conventual part of the Abbey church. Anyway this has all probably been rendered completely wrong by the extensive excavations last year (2019) so I’ll stop trying now.

shaftesbury sketch
Shaftesbury Abbey nave, with the parish church of Holy Trinity, Terrier of Sir Thomas Arundel, 1548, held by the Pembroke estate

15. Abbey of St Mary, Cirencester (Gloucestershire)

value £1325 gross / £1045 net

Augustinian Canons – founded 1117 – surrendered 19 December 1539 – 20 brethren at dissolution

cirencester gate
The Google car goes past the last sad remnant of Cirencester Abbey

Cirencester is significant for being the wealthiest house of Augustinian Canons in the Valor, founded by the king of England, Henry I. Austin Canons were not monks in the strict sense, for their rule was not as strictly conventual. Unlike fully secular canons, who had private individual residences, Austin Canons still lived communally in a dormitory block and took meals together in a refectory, and did not have the option to pay vicars choral to take their place singing at the daily offices (as became normal in secular cathedral chapters). However, their rule permitted them to have secular (i.e. worldly) interests such as owning personal property and permission to meet with the laity.

Because of this, the Austins were a natural choice for King Henry to choose to install at the former minster church at Cirencester, as they inherited not just the property, but the parochial duties, something which Benedictines would have had more of a problem with fulfilling. Even after the parish church of St John the Baptist was built, probably in the mid-twelfth century, the parishioners of Cirencester still relied on the Abbey for their pastoral care (if not directly by a canon, by a stipendiary chaplain rather than a vicar with a proper living).

Cirencester Abbey precinct

I have, regrettably, never been to Cirencester (only driven round it, at least twice). The grand parish church with its towering porch is nationally famous, but it still would have been dwarfed by the abbey that lay just behind it. However nearly all of the monastery has gone, with a few scant remains such a partial survival of a minor northern gatehouse and almonry buildings. However, the two houses and formal gardens that occupied the site have been and gone, and the archaeology is significant (the publication is available available in full here)

Cirencester precinct plan

Cirencester overlay

Cirencester Abbey church

cirencester apse
check out that apse

The Abbey church plan is laid out on the grass, as understood from the 1965-6 excavations with symmetrical extrapolation from what was observed. It was a standard Anglo-Norman 12th-century church with a nave of around eight bays, originally with en-échelon apsidal east arm, so not especially ambitious for its time. It was squared off probably in the 14th century with a similarly modestly-length extension. Parts of the wall footings with buttresses survive in the late medieval presbytery, but the foundations were largely dug out towards the west end.

cirencester plan

14.  Abbey of St Mary, Tewkesbury (Gloucestershire)

£1478 / £1319

Benedictine monks – founded 980 – surrendered 9 Jan 1540 – 37 brethren at dissolution

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Tewkesbury Abbey church from the SE

The Chronicle of Tewkesbury Abbey speaks of its founding by two legendary Mercian lords, which I only mention because they were called Oddo and Dodo. It gets better: if Oddo is synonymous with the earl who built the stone chapel at Deerhurst in the mid 11th century long after the time of the Kingdom of Mercia, then it really it should be Dodo and Oddo. However, Tewkesbury really only became an important monastery after the benefaction of Robert Fitzhamon (d. 1107), Baron of Gloucester and the conquering Lord of Glamorgan.

Tewkesbury seems to have been a worldly place for a Benedictine abbey, for its great patronage from families such as the de Clares, Despensers, Beauchamps and Warwicks, and loathed in equal measure by the Bishops of Worcester for lax adherence to the Benedictine rule. It is no surprise then, that the church was bought from the Crown in June 1543 by the parishioners for £453, which, as you can see, really was a lot of money back then. But at least they were allowed to pay in installments (not a joke).

Tewkesbury Abbey precinct

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Panelled north cloister range of Tewkesbury Abbey church nave with void for fan vault cells, 19thc reconstruction of fan-vaulted bay to right

The cloistral ranges of Tewkesbury are almost entirely disappeared, and the scar of the N walk of the cloister – evidently an imitation of Gloucester’s famous traceried tunnels – is all that is visible. The inner gatehouse and some timber-framed buildings represent the threshold of the outer court.

cgp_monasterytewkesbury overlay

Tewkesbury Abbey church

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Tewkesbury Abbey church, presbytery, completed mid 1330s

The abbey church survives nearly in its entirety: due to it having a relatively short east end, only the eastern axial lady chapel was demolished. The superstructure of the east arm above the piers was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style in the 1320s, surmounted by an eccentrically complex vault that would have made a Frenchman faint. The nave, with its excessively leggy arcades, was also retrofitted with a high vault in the 1330s. The abbey being co-opted as a bourgeois Westminster as the Despensers’ and other families necropolises probably aided its preservation, and possibly where the parish managed to wangle a good deal of that £100 they needed to find by Easter 1544.

13. Abbey of St Augustine, Canterbury (Kent)

£1684 gross / £1431 net

Benedictine monks – founded 598 – surrendered 30 July 1538 – 31 brethren at dissolution

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The amazing gatehouse of Canterbury Abbey c.1300-10 I am obliged to say is by Michael of Canterbury because contrasting modes

Very plausibly the longest-occupied monastery in England (mainly because the Kingdom of Kent suffered less from the Danish invasion than most) and holder of the corpus of the saint who revitalised Christianity in Britain. St Augustine is the moniker which the house is usually referred to under, as perpetual rival to Christchurch Cathedral Priory just to the west.

Canterbury Abbey precinct

The site at Canterbury is a strange one, partly because it was partly taken over as a royal palace, rented out, then purposed as a college in the 19th century. Also I’ve only visited it when I hoofed over a fence at like 6 AM. Shh! It was and has remained my only chance to see this thing. Anyway, here’s a plan and overlay.

Canterbury St Augustines planCanterbury St Augustines

Canterbury Abbey church

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The early churches of Peter and Paul were joined together by a great rotunda built in 1050 by Abbot Wulfric (q.v. the Canute rotunda at Bury St Edmunds below), which was incorporated into the later Norman crypt.

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NW tower part collapsed as drawn by W. Stukeley 6 Oct 1722 (engrav. J. Van der Gucht 1723)

The Abbey started its great rebuilding the same year as the cathedral priory a stone’s throw away: 1070. The north wall of the nave, much patched up, is the testament of this, with its muscular Anglo-Norman Romanesque forms.

More survived until relatively recently, when the north-west tower of the nave, which had already shaled off on its north side, gave way completely on 17 Oct 1822.

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Canterbury Abbey from W, showing north-west tower of nave intact. Engraved c.1650 by D. King

12. Abbey of St Peter, Gloucester

£1744 gross / £1419 net

Benedictine monks – founded 1022 – surrendered 2 Jan 1540 – 36 brethren in 1534

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Gloucester Abbey, north transept and crossing from the cloister garth

Although an ancient monastic site reoccupied, its early history is not terribly eventful. It was only with the appointment of the first Norman abbot Serlo from Mont St. Michel in 1072 that it started to soar in prominence. He shrewdly acquired a large amount of manors to fund the house, and begun the typical ambitious Anglo-Norman church rebuild in 1089. After Serlo’s death in 1104, the royal connections and swell of the property portfolio continued. Henry III was crowned here in the last English coronation outside of Westminster Abbey, and the monastery decided to take in the body of King Edward II after that terrible accident at Berkeley Castle where he fell down the stairs and a red-hot poker somehow ended up in his colon.

Gloucester was chosen by King Henry VIII as the cathedral of a new diocese (more on this sort of thing here), with the last abbot of Tewkesbury, John Wakeman (who probably wangled both positions from Thomas Cromwell) becoming the first bishop of Gloucester in 1541. Two monks from the Gloucester community became cathedral canons in the new chapter.

Doubtless, the best thing about the Abbey of St Peter though, was its buildings. I mean, even more so than usual, as they are often-held as the origin point of the English Perpendicular style. And Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis.

Gloucester Abbey precinct

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HARRY POTTER haha ruined your crawl, Googlebot. hits hit hits. love it

The remains of the precinct other than the church are memorably, the cloister walks, which survive intact despite the loss of the refectory, the west range and even most of the east range other than chapter house. Otherwise, apart from the great gate in the north-west corner of the precinct and the infirmary arcade, medieval remains of the outer precinct are rather too scattered and bitty to itemise here.

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Gloucester Abbey, infirmary hall, mid 13thc, looking E towards site of chapel. “Babylon”, a notoriously squalid set of accommodations for employees of the Cathedral, was built against these remains, which were revealed when Babylon was demolished in 1860.

fig21gloucester overlay

Gloucester Abbey church

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Gloucester Abbey church, nave, 1120s. High vaulting installed by 1242, and nave extended two bays east late 1420s.

Abbot Serlo’s church (not that I’m a fan of attributing buildings to one great man, but he gave this institution such a kick up the arse for him I’ll make an exception) survives pretty much in its entirety, although only with its original appearance in the nave. The leggy columns recall Tewkesbury and reflect the imperial grandeur that was foreseen for the monastery. The retrofitted high vaults of the middle of the first half of the 13th century, replacing a burnt-off flat ceiling, are a marvel of engineering. The south side of the nave, very much the showpiece for a conventual church with the cloister to the north, was rebuilt in the 1310s with literally more ballflower than you can shake a stick at: unless you like to spend the best part of a day in Gloucester shaking a stick at medieval architectural ornament then perhaps you could pull it off.

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Gloucester Abbey church, presbytery, begun 1089, extensively recut and remodelled beginning c.1337, ready for glazing by 1357

The original elevation of the crossing and presbytery was cut back beginning in 1331 into the famously lacy herald of the Perpendicular Style. Most cleverly, the end bays of the apse were rebuilt to cant outwards, opening up the massive east window. The glazing of this window, with the secular great and good attending the Coronation of the Virgin in the court of Heaven, inserted by 1357, takes on extra significance as one of the grandest surviving works of pictorial art for the English Benedictines, especially when you think that if you took all the surviving medieval glass belonging to the other monasteries on this list, you’d struggle to fill a single panel of it.

11. Abbey of St Mary, Benedict and All Virgins, Ramsey (Huntingdonshire)

£1849 gross / £1643 net

Benedictine monks – founded 969 – surrendered 22 Nov 1539 – 30 brethren at dissolution

ramsey gatehouse
Ramsey Abbey, gatehouse, montage of standing fabric (R) with portion re-erected at Hinchingbrooke by Williams alias Cromwell (L)

Ramsey Abbey was one of the great Fenland monasteries, along with Ely (Cathedral), Crowland (parish church with extensive ruins of Abbey church nave) Thorney (nave central vessel remade as parish church, rest lost) and Peterborough (q.v.). It is also the richest house in the Valor of which the site of the church has not yet been established by archaeological excavation. The site was obtained by the weasely bootlicking nephew of Cromwell, Richard Williams, who went by his uncle’s surname, and wreaked havoc on the dissolved houses around Huntingdon for his personal gain. It is now part of a secondary school with academy status for 11 to 18-year-olds, the gatehouse held by the National Trust, and the hospitium by the Church of England.

Ramsey Abbey precinct

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Ramsey Abbey House, mid 13thc core, converted c.1587-1620, heavily remodelled by Soane 1804-6 and Blore 1838-9.
Other than the hospitium (now the fairly spectacular parish church of St Thomas), lengths of the original precinct wall, part of the outer gatehouse (part of which was taken to Williams alias Cromwell’s mansion at the priory of Hinchingbrooke), the only survival of this great Fenland abbey is a rather mysterious but high-quality building incorporated into the post-dissolution mansion. For the longest time this was assumed to be part of the church, generally a detached lady chapel on its north, like at Ely and Peterborough. The mansion itself is so gone over by Soane and Blore it is very difficult to interpret, particularly as there are very few images of it online!

So here, on the Victoria County History plan, I have coloured the original 13th-century buttresses red and correspondingly on the photograph. The part marked blue, at this time thought to be the site of the abbey church’s north transept, is confusingly fitted out with pastiches of the medieval buttresses (of course, even if this was the site of the transept, the external wall would be further out that this)

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On the other side of these buttressed walls are these amazing fragments of thirteenth-century trefoil arcading with stiff-leaf capitals. Now this seems to be a boiler room with junk everywhere, judging by these pictures I pilfered off Google Maps (I particularly like the one with the plastic chair in it)

Ramsey Abbey church

Which monastic building this existing part of Ramsey Abbey house actually was depends on where you site the church. The only argument for where the church might have been is based on the “dog-leg” portion of surviving wall at the south edge, and whether this contained the corner of the north transept or the west front. If the transept is hooked there (diagrams here, including the old model to have the building as a north Lady Chapel), the building is outside the east range and would mostly likely represent the infirmary.

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Typified great-church cloistral plan with N transept tucked in precinct wall dogleg

If the west front is placed in the dog-leg (diagrams here), it makes it possible to have the building as the refectory on the south side of the cloister, which is perhaps most plausible, considering the quality of the work would mean it is more likely to be a main cloistral building rather than the infirmary. While the style of the arcading could work with the record of a refectory begun in the abbacy of Hugh de Sulgrave (1254-67) and completed in 1276, it looks more like 50 years or so earlier. And there’s still quite a big gap between the cloister walk and the supposed south range building.

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Typified great-church cloistral plan with N corner of nave W front tucked in precinct wall dogleg

So Ramsey Abbey is far from solved. The whole dog-leg thing might be a red herring, but regardless more work deserves to be done on this great monastery: ultimately excavations but also more desk-based and art-historical investigation wouldn’t go amiss.

10. Abbey of St Mary, Abingdon (Oxfordshire)

£1876 gross

Benedictine monks – founded 950 – surrendered 9 Feb 1538 – 21 brethren at dissolution

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15/16thc arcades of uncertain origin (infirmary?) re-erected as a picturesque folly in the former precinct of Abingdon Abbey

Abingdon is another great loss and a bit of a mystery. The church and cloistral ranges have all disappeared above ground: all that is left is the gatehouse, the capella extra portas next to it, and some outer court buildings towards the Thames. Bits of carved masonry have been erected as a folly on the site of the inner court but they do not represent any particular building.

Abingdon Abbey precinct

See, the first problem is I had difficulty getting any information on archaeology at Abingdon online, and why the best plan I could find of the precinct is ostensibly for children. Yes, it’s very simplified, often conjectural, but nevertheless, it’s very clear and also demonstrates the extent of irrigation derived from the confluence of the Stert and Thames that supplied the site with freshwater for sanitation, drinking and subsistence farming.

abingdon plan

abingdon overlay

Abingdon Abbey church

abingdon church planFinding plans and archaeology of the church wasn’t very easy either. This rather foreboding looking plan is based on an account of the Abbey church at Abingdon given in the Itineraries of William Worcester (d. c.1482), a man whose hobby seems to have been going to churches and pacing up and down them and writing down how long they were. Aesthetically this is very disappointing, but it occasionally has its uses. At some 300 feet (91 metres) long, the Abbey church at Abingdon was big, but not a Winchester-beater (376 feet / 114.6 metres).

Excavation in 1926 partly confirmed William Worcester’s measurements, but not the “hammerhead” west towers or extreme east parts, the latter often being demolished first and most thoroughly. The “supposed Saxon foundations” of an apsidal church around 61 metres (200 feet) long on the excavation plan below are thought now to be the church begun by Abbot Rainald 1084-96, completed under Abbot Faritius (1100-17), and entirely replaced in the 13th century and after with the church William Worcester messed about in with his trundle wheel in the mid 15th century.

abingdon excavation plan

The eastern extremity laid out on the grass in Abingdon today is the return of the foundations for the presbytery arcade, not the east wall of the church. Here is the archaeology in white with the 19th-century plan of the E end based on Worcester’s pacing.

abingdon church overlay

9. Abbey of St Mary, Reading (Berkshire)

£1938 gross

Benedictine monks – founded 1121 – suppressed summer 1539 – 35 brethren in 1445

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The inner gatehouse of Reading Abbey, late 13thc, heavily refaced 1869

Reading was founded as a no-expense-spared mausoleum by King Henry I, perhaps on a completely virgin site, but nevertheless a very strategic one at the crossroads of many thoroughfares. It was initially populated by monks from Cluny and Lewes as a Cluniac priory, but quickly became an independent abbey: the advantages of Cluniac liturgy but without the yoke of Cluny. After Henry I was buried in the east end in 1136, one could argue Reading tootled along as a monastery in royal favour without major incident or architectural change until the dissolution.

The last abbot, Hugh Faringdon (alias Cook), remained in favour with the Crown until he started to resist and get a bit bolshy with the commissioners who were trying to bribe the greater monasteries into surrender when they came to inventory the Abbey’s relics that were seen as superstitious. After the parliament of April 1539, when the act was passed ensuring every single monastery regardless of value was to be vested in the Crown, Reading never produced an act of surrender. Abbot Hugh was imprisoned in the Tower of London in summer 1539 and his Abbey confiscated under attainder. Under what charge he was considered guilty of treason is obscure, for he never publicly denounced the Act of Royal Supremacy over the English Church. As a mitred abbot and peer in the House of Lords, his attainder should have, legally, required an act of parliament.

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View toward the site of the Compter Gate (so-called as it contained the counter or city prison) affixed to the parish church of St Laurence in front of which Abbot Hugh was mutilated, murdered and where his dismembered cadaver subsequently exhibited in November 1539.

Regardless, on 15 November 1539, Hugh was brought back to Reading, and along with John Rugg, a former prebend of Chichester retired to the Abbey and John Eynon, a priest of the parish of St Giles, outside the Abbey gateway in act of judicial murder, the three were hung, drawn and quartered. This means, by the way, that they were choked on the gallows, their limbs severed while they were still alive, which were then thrown into a cauldron of boiling pitch. Abbot Hugh’s mutilated torso then was left hanging in chains from the gatehouse, as reported by the horrified French ambassador Charles de Marillac. The Abbey was left desolate until 1548 when the roof lead was surveyed and subsequently torn off for scrap.

Reading Abbey precinct

Apart from the inner gatehouse, parts of the hospitium connected to the parish church of St Laurence, the prime monument of Reading Abbey are the standing rubble cores of the crossing, transepts, and parts of the east range including the chapter house. Some of these are publically accessible, the north parts are in the back garden of the priest’s house of the Roman Catholic church, which mimics the apsidal shape of the transept it stands next to.

reading precinct plan

reading precinct overlay

Reading Abbey church

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Reading Museum Sketchup model overlaid over Google Earth 3D mesh data

Although the west end of the nave has not been found, the total length of the Abbey church at Reading would seem to be similar to the builds at Winchester, London, Ely and Bury St Edmunds that made reference to the extraordinary length of the now-lost early 4th-century basilica of St Peter in Rome. Reading’s nave lies under Forbury Gardens and the presbytery – where King Henry I was buried – is split between the backlots of the former Roman Catholic school (now a day nursery) and the perimeter wall of the long-time site of Reading Gaol, until 2014 operating as HM Prison Reading. It is currently held by the Ministry of Justice for disposal, who in May 2020 turned down Reading council’s bid. Not only does it contain an excavation site of extreme importance (recently only geophysical work has been permitted), but also where Oscar Wilde was held when serving his term when imprisoned under charges of gross indecency and immortalised in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Seems open and shut that it should be preserved for the public and not sold for private profit as luxury accommodation, but there you go. Not the first time that sort of thing happened. hint hint.

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Site of the presbytery of Reading Abbey and the burial site of King Henry I of England. Far L is the chapter house, then the staggered apses of the S transept chapels of the Abbey church. In the centre are the playgrounds of the Day Nursery, with the car park of the former H.M. Prison Reading below to the E. The Neo-Norman R.C. church to the R is by A.W.N. Pugin 1837-40 (S aisle and ambulatory 1925, N aisle 1962)

8. Abbey of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon, (Hounslow, West London)

£1943 gross / £1735 net

Bridgettine nuns and canons – founded 1431 – suppressed Nov 1539 – 51 sistren and 12 brethren at dissolution

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Syon House, W facade, appearance largely that of Thomas Cundy 1816-26 but likely incorporating mansion of c.1550 in undercroft
Syon was unique in English monasteries in that it was a double house of the Bridgettine Order, started by Swedish mystic and princess of the House of Folkung Bridget of Vadstena (d.1373). Syon was founded at Twickenham by King Henry V in 1415, along with a Carthusian house, (charterhouse) Sheen Priory, and a Celestine Abbey. After the site in Twickenham was found to be too marshy, Syon made the move – possibly to the site of the Celestine foundation that Henry quickly aborted – between 1426 and 1431.

Since women could not be priests and celebrate the Mass, double convents of male and female religious were always a monastic ideal that ran into obvious problems. Many early medieval (we’re talking before 900 here), pre-cloistral monasteries were both men and women, and Henry II, buried in the Abbey church of the double convent at Fontevrault (Loire), made numerous attempts to found double houses of the order in England. While the English Fontevrauldian foundations seemed to quickly shed their male convents in favour of easier-to-manage secular chaplains, the Gilbertines, beginning with Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire in 1131, maintained their double houses in good order until the Reformation.

The choice to found a Bridgettine house by King Henry V was no doubt diplomatic, building connections with northern European royalty. The Crown vested Syon with the properties from many of the so-called alien priories – granges and small convents which belonged to abbeys in France which had been dissolved as the Hundred Years’ War hotted up – which is why it was so extraordinarily wealthy. Like the Royal Abbey of Reading, there is no deed of surrender for the house. The community of women did not completely disperse and was reassembled in Sheen by Cardinal Reginald Pole (who had been educated in grammar at the Carthusian Priory) in November 1556. Shortly after the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 the community continued in Flanders, France and Portugal, moving to South Brent in Devon from 1925-2011.

So that’s the history, not untold before. What’s the material remains of this church and double convent, which must have been gigantic? Well, surprisingly, until very recently, it was almost completely unknown. The church was not immediately stripped by the Crown. Indeed, Henry VIII’s coffin rested there in 1547 en-route to Windsor, where his corpse reportedly burst and dogs scavenged his exploded innards (lol). Perhaps the Crown were considering its future as secular college, but Edward VI’s Lord Protector Edward Seymour waltzed in and granted the site to himself and pulled down much of it for a mansion and planned garden that he spent a stupid £5000 (a LOT of money in those days) on. After Seymour had his head chopped off in Jan 1552, after a period of leases from the Crown estate, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland obtained the freehold in 1604 and it remained in his family till the present day. The formal gardens were extensively landscaped by Capability Brown, which is never great for archaeology. In the west range of the mansion extensively reclad by Thomas Cundy 1816-26, are some undercrofts that for the longest time were assumed to be part of the west range of the Bridgettine cloister. However, things are rarely that simple.

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Exciting finds came in 2003 after excavations of the site by Wessex Archaeology (report available here) for Time Team. Through a combination of trenching and geophysics, it was found that Syon House is sited on the west half of the Abbey church, the undercrofts probably being related to Seymour’s first Tudor mansion. Evidence of the extensive conventual buildings, almost certainly for the sisters, on the south side.

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Syon Abbey overlay

(My overlay includes VCH mansion plan in light red with vaulted undercrofts in W wing highlighted)

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The parish church of Caythorpe, Lincolnshire, illustrates the difficulty of artfully transitioning from an even to an odd number of vessels
One of the oddest things about the excavation of the church was there were two sets of two great arcade bases found, and then one base further east in the middle. While a single arcade down the middle makes sense for dividing the two choirs for the men and women, making architectural sense of something going from two arcades to one is far from easy! To be honest, with “Capability” Brown shifting the land about, I would be highly skeptical about the position of that pier base as representing such a strange arrangement.

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At the moment it is impossible to offer even a tentative reconstruction of Syon Abbey’s church. Perhaps it never will, although there is more that could be done at the site. Time Team made one of it looking like an aisled King’s College Chapel (which, to remind you, was built with numerous changes in design 1446-1515, and similar with Syon/Sheen for being a royal dual foundation with Eton College). Putting a scaled version of King’s chapel next to it I think gives you more of an idea how gigantic and extraordinary a space the Abbey church of Syon must have been.

7. Abbey of St Peter, Peterborough

£1979 gross / £1721 net

Benedictine monks – founded 963 – surrendered 29 Nov 1539 – 42 brethren in 1534

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Peterborough Abbey church, apse begun 1118, with fenestration 2nd half of 14thc and ambulatory c.1509-12

That the Abbey of St Peter has a whole borough named after it I suppose is a clue that it’s important: even if it is Peterborough. Medehamstede, as it was first called, was founded under the patronage of the first Christian king of Mercia in 655. It was vacated during the invasion of the Great Heathen Army in 870, and recolonised in 963 by monastic reformer Bishop Athelwold of Winchester along with the fenland religious centres of Ely (not a cathedral priory until 1109) and Thorney.

Like Chester and Gloucester, it had clearly been earmarked as the seat of a new diocese by the Crown at the time of the dissolution, the last abbot becoming the first Bishop of Peterborough.

Peterborough Abbey precinct

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Peterborough Abbey, infirmary hall c.1250-63, looking E toward to the chapel

The monastic precinct was rather ravaged by being portioned up and sold off, as well as used for individual accomodation for the canons and prebendaries. None of the cloistral buildings survive (not even the chapter house) and even the cloister is a bit of a wreck after it was de-leaded to fund fixing up the church after damage in the Civil Wall. The infirmary hall arcades however are spectacular, although the infirmary chapel itself is now the sitting room of a private house! The abbot’s lodgings are inside the bishop’s palace, and there are many more bits and bobs simply not visible by the public.

peterborough precinct plan

Peterborough overlay

Peterborough Abbey church

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Peterborough Abbey church, presbytery begun 1118, from gallery (silly ciborium thing in foreground designed by J.L. Pearson and made by R. Davison, 1893)
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Peterborough Abbey church, E ambulatory, c.1509-12

This is not the place for an architectural evaluation of Peterborough Cathedral (much less the west front, which I will do a magnum opus video on, one day), but suffice to say, the sheer scale and magnificence of this Fenland abbey church as rebuilt beginning 1118 makes you think what might have been at a site like Ramsey. The retrochoir of c.1509-12, plausibly a trial run by John Wastell’s workshop for the high vault of King’s College Chapel, also displays the late confidence of the Benedictine house. The only major loss was the lady chapel (1272-90) which stood against the north side of the presbytery, and likely a inspiration for its famous compatriat at the Benedictine Cathedral Priory of Ely. With the cloisters, it too was brought down after the Civil War to help pay for the repair of the cathedral, and only depictions of its exterior exist. And not very good ones, either.

6. Abbey of St Mary, York

£2091 / £1650

Benedictine monks – founded 1086 – surrendered 26 Nov 1539 – 51 brethren at dissolution

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York Abbey church, N transept looking NW down N nave aisle
The abbey of York is again, one of those institutions that gets exclusively referred to via its dedication: even though there is no other abbey in York to distinguish it from (and you may have noticed, a lot of these monasteries are dedicated to the Virgin!). The above claustral blitz with the Archbishop over the Fountains reformers shows you that it always had a bit of bad-boy reputation. This started with its first abbot, Stephen, who was clearly more enterprising than the rest of his convent at Whitby and wanted to do something a little more hardcore. His first site at Lastingham, abandoned due to its vulnerability to raids, has left behind a barely-begun fragment of their first abbey church, securely dateable to 1078-86, as an isolated parish church.

York Abbey precinct

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York Abbey, portal to the chapter house, last quarter of the 12thc

St Mary’s was unique in that it was the only dissolved site that never left the hands of the Crown (although they did buy back some other sites) until the Yorkshire Philosophical Society convinced the leaseholders and the government to let them acquire the whole precinct as public gardens and a museum. This history has mixed blessings. The abbot’s lodging was retained and expanded by the crown as a hunting lodge, and the cloistral ranges demolished. Parts of the east range were found buried in mid-19th century excavations, including the splendid entrance to the chapter house, which is now re-erected on its original site inside the Yorkshire Museum. Parts of wall footings and the fireplace from the warming house on the end of the refectory also inside the museum. The public hospitium towards the river survives in a very restored form, and – often forgotten since York is famous for its defences  – the whole site is encircled by arguably the most complete monastic precinct wall, with the outer gatehouse of c.1200 by the parish church of St Olave.

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York Abbey church

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York Abbey, with parish church of St Olave in the early 18thc. Notice the surviving arcade bays with galleries with aisle vaulting which no longer exist. Engraving by Haynes and Gent, undated

The Abbey church that Archbishop Thurstan and the Fountains lads hid inside was begun around 1086, while Abbot Stephen’s community used the minster church on the site of St Olave. It is known partly from excavation, and must have been a severe Early Anglo-Norman affair.

It was progressively replaced in its entirety in 1271-94, a remarkably short space of time, in extremely lavish affair in the Geometrical style that had been popularised in England at Lincoln and other sites. Much more of the church, including vaulting and nave arcade piers with galleries above, was recorded in the early 18th century and subsequently disappeared, leaving only the outer wall of the north nave aisle, and returns of part of the attached west front and the arch into the north transept. However, because the church was built so uniformly, it’s not difficult to extrapolate the appearance of the whole church, even if the details of the crossing steeple, that would have easily rivalled the Cathedral on the skyline, remain purely conjectural.

york abbey reconstruction
Photo montage using Edwin Ridsdale Tate’s elevation of the Abbey church in Yorkshire Museum over Google Earth 3D mesh

5. Abbey of St Alban, St Albans (Hertfordshire)

£2192 gross

Benedictine monks – founded 970 – surrendered 6 Dec 1539

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St Albans Abbey church from Verulamium Park

St Alban was a Roman soldier, first martyr of the Christian faith not just England, but perhaps all of Northwestern Europe. His first certain mention in the historical record is when Gaulish Bishop Germanus visited the site in 429. In 793 King Offa of Mercia may have founded a monastery at Alban’s tomb, but by 970 there is a full Benedictine community established, and the site had shifted from Alban’s tomb to the site of his martyrdom on the hilltop. The rebuild of the church from 1077 by Paul, the first Norman abbot, was on a scale to promote Alban as one of the protomartyrs of Christendom, and its slightly ramshackle appearance seemingly cultivated to display its palpable link with Antiquity.

St Alban’s Abbey precinct

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Fowler’s plan of the precinct of St Albans Abbey, 1876 (click for BIG)

On the purchase of the church by the town in 1553 to replace St Andrew (which considering they had still had three parish churches remains quite remarkable), nearly everything else in the monastery was demolished: only the great gate house west of the cathedral remains. A remarkable sketch, looking somewhat like the 9th-century St Gall plan was made by the Rev’d Henry Fowler in 1876. Using a combination of archaeology, archival sources, topographical names, common sense and conjecture, he presented a layout of the monastery that while by no means completely accurate, gives a good idea of the use of the large precinct all the way down to the River Ver.

st albans overlay

St Alban’s Abbey church

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St Albans Abbey church, crossing, looking E

The church is actually really a remarkable thing to have, because one of the earliest works of Anglo-Norman Romanesque, with even the original tower still standing. What makes it unusual is that the early phases are all faced with brick quarried from the ruins of Roman Verulamium, and its vast public amenities such as a theatre which could no longer operate without a slave economy (that’s the price of Roman civilisation, folks!). The use of salvaged brick rather than freestone masonry means there is hardly any sculpture from Norman St Albans, the architecture coming across as severe and monolithic. The brick-faced interior is also probably why so many wall paintings in the church have survived, as none of the interior plaster was stripped off: the building completely relies on render to convey unity.

I’ve written about St Albans and what a bit of mess it went through before, but Fowler’s drawing clears up, as least for me, the mystery of why an already long Romanesque church had a westward extension in the 1190s. The cloister only returned from the original Romanesque nave, the extension flanked the abbot’s own personal court. It might have seemed befitting for the abbot’s lodgings to adjoin a grand west front, but also why interest was lost in completing it to its full glory with flanking twin towers and luscious interior Purbeck shafting after the initial setback of a dodgy mason.

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St Albans Abbey church from S. The blind arches in white clunch are from the N walk of the cloister, built after this portion of the Romanesque nave collapsed in 1323. The next blank bay would then correspond with the west cloister walk coming towards us, and the next bay after that marks the beginning of the c.1190s extension of the nave

4. Priory of St John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell (Middlesex)

£2286 gross / £2081 net

Knights hospitaller  – founded 1144 – surrendered 1540 – 34 knights in 1338

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Clerkenwell Priory, the east wall of the choir of the late medieval Priory church and a range of buildings extending north, engraved by W. Hollar 1656

FOUR WILL AMAZE YOU INDEED! Perhaps unexpected, but not surprising when you think how much the Knights Templar were worth and how much the Hospitallers benefitted from obtaining the bulk of their English preceptories and their holdings after the order was completely dissolved in 1312 on trumped up charges of heresy when the French Crown found they were defaulting on loans. The famous Temple Church off the Strand, was at this point, also run by Clerkenwell (and subsequently handed over to the bar as their private chapel).

Clerkenwell Priory precinct

There aren’t many priories that are sliced in half by a road, but that’s what happened to the precinct of Clerkenwell Priory in 1874-8 when the cross-capital arterial road was ploughed through it. The military orders were of course less strictly claustral than regular monks, but even by their standards, it likely had more of a palatial role for receiving guests than a monastery.

london clerkenwell plan

(plan from 16th-century London map in Layers of London)

clerkenwell overlay

The great gate is the most complete survival of the complex, even if it is massively restored. It had a colourful afterlife, being the place that the father of William Hogarth set up a coffeehouse where you could only speak Latin (it went bust very quickly as you’d expect, not least because there is no Latin word for coffee), the printing house of the important antiquarian journal Gentleman’s Magazine and ultimately the headquarter of the English Order of St John, which was more a post-Ivanhoe dress-up club for toffs than anything else, which eventually became those nice volunteers who look like medics but are only qualified to give you a mint when you faint at a concert.

Clerkenwell Priory church

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Sequence of Clerkenwell Priory church/Parish of St John Clerkenwell/Chapel of the Order of St John from the Survey of London (2008)
What survives of the medieval priory church is, essentially, the south wall of the late medieval presbytery. The original round nave, as at Temple, is marked out in the sterile City square in front of it, however it had been demolished in the late Middle Ages for a standard aisled nave. This was demolished by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Protector of Edward VI, to provide building material for Somerset House. The chancel was converted into a parish church with dwelling in the early 18th century, and its early 19th-century classical replacement was bombed out in World War II. The replacement is a dull-ly austere hall by dull fixer-upper merchants Seely and Paget. Its south wall has a brick relieving arch that represent the former wall to the chapel, and the door that led to a vestry from the Hospitaller’s choir.

clerkenwell

However, preserved underneath is one of London’s hidden medieval treasures – the undercroft of the 1160s east end, extended in the early 13th century under the newly aisled counterpart above. Three bays of rounded rib-vaulting are followed by pointed bays extending to the east wall. It’s all very simple – it was little more than an undercroft to jack up the much fancier building above, after all, but it’s still a wonderfully evocative space.

3. Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk)

£2336 gross / £1659 net

Benedictine monks – founded 1020 – surrendered 4 Nov 1539 – c.60 brethren in 1534

bury st edmunds montage
Montage of aerial photo of Bury St Edmunds with watercolour of a view of the Abbey by W.K. Hardy, 1883

Bury St Edmunds Abbey – and that was always how it was referred, never Bury Abbey or anything – was doubtless one of the most powerful institutions in medieval England.

St Edmund, the King of East Anglia, was captured and executed by the Great Heathen Army in 869. After a Latinate wolf miraculously led the king’s subjects to his severed head, the whole corpus was taken to a minster church at what was then called Beodericsworth. In the 1020s, King Canute, somewhat in penance for the deeds of his Viking ancestors, granted the church and Edmund’s shrine a great deal of land and a Benedictine monastery was established, and a stone rotunda built over St Edmund’s shrine in the manner of the 4th century Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The town of Bury St Edmunds was laid-out by the abbey on a grid plan around the time of the Norman Conquest and basically run by it: the courts and mint were all controlled by the monks. However, the massive precinct was almost totally demolished, mainly for the worked stone (initially Caen limestone brought in by boat), which in this part of the country that has no quarries was very valuable.

St Edmund’s Abbey precinct

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bury st edmunds overlay

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Bury St Edmunds, the “Norman Gate”, built second quarter of 12th century

Despite the massive amount of destruction which beset Bury St Edmunds shortly after it became Crown property, it’s still a very interesting site, as nearly all of it is a public park and highly accessible. The most famous survivals are the two gate houses that face the town.

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Bury St Edmunds, the “Great Gate”, built 1330s-50s

The first, opposite the Abbey church west front, dates from the 1120s and was converted into a belltower for St James parish church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral). The second was the entrance to the outer court and was rebuilt after an organised riot against the Abbey by citizens of the town in 1327. As well as big parts of precinct wall, there are other parts of the cloistral ranges and extensive royal apartments to be find, but too numerous and robbed to itemise here.

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Dovecot and range with fireplace on the N side of the Abbot’s garden

St Edmund’s Abbey church

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Measured plan of Bury St Edmunds Abbey church showing splay of N aisle wall

The loss of the Abbey church is one of the biggest tragedies of the dissolution. One of the peculiarities of Bury St Edmunds is that was first to have a Norman abbot, Baldwin, appointed in 1065, making it well-placed for an early grand rebuilding. The church begun c.1081 was one of a group of English buildings that actively vied with St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for size. After translation of the relics of St Edmund to the completed east end, the north nave wall was built gradually tapering outward to create a more massive west front (as, incidentally, also happened at Peterborough). The Romanesque west tower collapsed in 1430/1 and was rebuilt, and a catastrophic fire in 1465 burnt off the high roofs. As John Wastell lived in Bury and worked under master mason Simon Clerk at the Abbey, it is not impossible that the church was revaulted with fan vaults.

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Bury St Edmunds Abbey church, west front, springing of the arch between S and and SW transept

With its western transepts and a central tower, and octagonal side buildings, the west front of the Abbey church was easily the widest in the kingdom, trumping Ely, Wells, Lincoln, Peterborough et al. However, it is is now little more than a great robbed husk of wall core divided into private dwellings, made to look more “churchy” with the insertion of Neo-Norman windows in the 19th century. Observations of the west front are obstructed by private gardens at the back and S. Dykes-Bower’s horrible new cathedral at the front, but careful observation can reveal some architectural details.

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Aquatint/engraving of W front of Bury St Edmunds Abbey church by J. Kendall, 1787. The survival of medieval masonry is not greatly reduced today, but such a vista is impossible to obtain

2. Abbey of St Peter, Westminster

£3912 gross / £2409 net

Benedictine monks – founded 960 – surrendered 16 Jan 1540 – 24 brethren at dissolution

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Westminster Abbey, N range of cloister, with aisle, gallery and clerestory of church behind

The origins of this monastery are obscure, the results are not. In the mid-10th century King Edgar established a Benedictine monastery here, which maintained royal connections and was favoured by Edward the Confessor. From c.1050 an exceptionally large Romanesque church was built, clearly imitating the scale and manner of great churches in Normandy: ahead of the wave of such buildings in post-Conquest England. Henry III famously gave the Abbey a proverbial blank cheque for replacing the Romanesque church in 1245, and continuing (but never quite as absurdly generous) royal patronage brought it to the size it is today.

Westminster Abbey precinct

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Westminster Abbey, N wall of the refectory

For its position in the middle of a busy capital city, the cloistral ranges and precinct of Westminster Abbey is surprisingly intact. The dormitory has been replaced by the library, and the refectory is just the north wall of the headmaster’s garden in the adjoining Westminster School. St Catherine’s Chapel and the Little Cloister are a good survival of the infirmary hall and chapel.

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westminster overlay

(plan again from Layers of London, late 13thc map, even though other Westminster precinct maps are available, please note the literal “Thorney Island” that the Abbey was allegedly built on is nonsense)

The outer bounds of the precinct are less clear. Mostly because all of the former watercourses to the Thames have disappeared since the Embankment dramatically changed the topography of the riverside, and also because of the blurred boundaries between the royal palace and Abbey after its dissolution. The precinct boundary may have run though the middle of the grounds of Westminster School, but all down to Great College Street may have been an extension of the precinct as it would have been boundaried by the Mill Stream. Yes, the Abbey mill is why it’s called Millbank.

There were of course gate houses to the west and north, and a free-standing campanile where the Supreme Court now stands, that were demolished as the north precinct was opened up.

Westminster Abbey church

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Westminster, Abbey church, begun 1245, from N transept W gallery towards presbytery

I think I may have voiced my hot takes that nobody cares about on Westminster Abbey church before. It was Henry III who initiated the demolition of the Confessor’s Romanesque basilica, not the VIII. The fact that it was made into a cathedral in 1540, when there was hardly a need to split off Middlesex and carve out bits of Winchester into its own diocese, suggests the Crown never considered pulling it down for the lead. However my old adage that there is probably not a single stone on the outside that is medieval stands. Maybe that bit on the west front above the shop.

1. Abbey of SS Peter and Paul, Glastonbury (Somerset)

£3642 gross / £3311 net

Benedictine monks – founded 960 – suppressed 15 Nov 1539 – c.32 brethren at dissolution (3 executed 1539, 25 pensioned 1553, 4 in refuge at Westminster petition Queen Mary to restore their Abbey 1556)

glasto
Google Earth 3D mesh model of Glastonbury Abbey and environs

Glastonbury had of course, the best foundation legend, that their monastery was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the man whose rock-cut tomb Christ lay in for three days who is mentioned in all four Gospel narratives (but Matthew alone implies that the tomb Jesus lay in was his own). In 1191, the monks very fortuitously located the body of his purported descendant, the Briton King Arthur, who was placed in a tomb in the Abbey church.

glastonbury church planThe monks also stumbled across SS Patrick, Indract, Brigit, Glidas and Dunstan, the latter particularly suspicious because although he was an Abbot of Glastonbury, he indisputably died and was buried as Archbishop of Canterbury in 988. Possibly all something to do with the fact that their Abbey church had burnt down in 1184, but then always telling the truth from a single point of view doesn’t get you to be the richest abbey in England (by net, yes, I’ve fiddled Westminster off the top spot, but hey, they waste £1.5k a year by seemingly not bothering to do their own accounts).

Glastonbury Abbey precinct

The remains of the monastery at Glastonbury are dominated by the ruins of the church, but by its absurd size this was indubitably always the case. Essentially there are parts of the east range, and piers of the refectory undercroft can be seen, with the clear outline of the cloister. There’s the famous abbot’s kitchen, the gatehouse, bits of precinct wall, but not much else. Apparently. I’ve seen the Tor from the road a few times, but sadly I have never made it to England’s Jerusalem itself.

Glastonbury Abbey church

Late medieval Glastonbury, much as today, was always driven by a sense of loss. Their great monument was the vetusta ecclesia, a timbered building said to be built by their founder Joseph of Arimathea, which of course was reduced to aske in the great fire of 1184. The vetusta ecclesia was rebuilt in a purely round-arched late Romanesque style to contrast with the new church, which was built in West Country Gothic, fresh out of Wells. What survives of the high east walls of the transepts and south aisle walls of presbytery and nave and is enough to give a reasonable reconstruction of one of the greatest buildings erected in Britain.

glastonbury cathedral
Imagine, just if. Though apparently in this timeline, COVID-19 still happens.

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Reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey church crossing, from the N transept looking SE, by F. Bligh Bond, 1925. The strainer arches ala Wells and Salisbury have been added in conjecture with the documented replacement of the tower vault c.1525
Under Abbot Monington (1342-74) the church’s high east wall was taken down and the presbytery lengthened by three bays with a low ambulatory behind, and the whole refaced. This work would likely come into the early Perpendicular sequence of West Country Benedictine presbytery remodellings from Gloucester (1322-60) and Evesham (1393). Also like Gloucester, a chapel was added onto the back of the ambulatory, but as late as the 1520s, completed under Abbot Whiting.

Richard Whiting was born around 1461. He seems to have been a peaceful, thoughtful man. He was admitted to Glastonbury Abbey at an early age to study grammar, graduating from Cambridge in what is now Magdalene College  with a master’s degree in the liberal arts in 1483 followed by a doctorate in 1505. He returned to his Somerset Abbey and slowly worked up the ranks. Thomas Wolsey, on request of the monastery, nominated him abbot in 1525. During his abbacy, the number of monks rose from 46 to 54. Whiting spent the best part of his seventies attempting to placate Thomas Cromwell by gifting him sundry game parks in order to fend off the attempts to bribe the monastery into surrendering. After the Second Act of Suppression in April 1539, the commissioners arrived at Glastonbury on 19 September, confronting Abbot Whiting at his lodging in Sharpham. After brief questioning on his loyalty to the King, they judged his answers showed his “cankered and traiterous heart” (apparently a bit of a catchphrase in parliament regarding any bolshy prelates) took him into custody and sent him to the Tower of London before collecting moveable valuables from the monastery, such as cash and plate, and looking for anything they could use to stitch up the abbot.

Books containing arguments against the King’s first annulment from his first Queen Catherine of Aragon were allegedly found (oh no books with arguments in them how terrible), along with a life of St Thomas of Canterbury (fair dos). Cromwell cross-examined Abbot Whiting in the Tower, then sent him back to Glastonbury to be “tryed and executvd“. Charles de Marillac wrote to the French king to say he never heard of any other evidence besides the books in the abbot’s library. A trial of sort took place at Wells in November, a rather open and shut affair based on the charge of “robbing Glastonbury church” (his own church) okay’d by a jury that were going to directly profit from the disposal of the Abbey site.

glasto blood
The bloody mile-long trail from the Abbey west gate to the chapel of St Michael on Glastonbury Tor.

On the 15 November – the same day as Abbot Hugh was butchered in Reading – Richard Whiting, now in his mid-seventies, with the Abbey treasurer John Thorne and sacristran Roger James, were chained onto metal frames fastened behind horses to be dragged up to the summit of Glastonbury Tor, where gallows had been set up in front of the chapel of St Michael. Whiting’s severed head was displayed that afternoon on the great gatehouse of the Abbey, and subsequently the segments of his quartered torso on gibbets at Ilchester, Bridgwater, Wells and Bath.

The lackeys who whipped the horses up the Tor that November morning likely believed, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the green and pleasant land that bruised, broke and tore the bodies of the monks dragged behind the steeds was that very ground where Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail and established the first Christian monastery that those they were mutilating were the heirs of. Of course the foundation legend wasn’t true. But neither were the accusations made against these men, whose only crime was standing strong for their valuable and ancient institution against an authoritarian and corrupt profiteering government. Evidently they had been convinced by psychopathic, vainglorious bullies that there was something more important.

By the following summer, it is likely all the windows in the Abbey church at Glastonbury, surely commemorating such legends of its foundation, were smashed out and the high vaults collapsed, pulverising the tomb of King Arthur and of the abbots who had served the abbey. All to salvage the lead which held together the pieces of stained glass and most importantly, covered the roofs, to cast it all into giant smouldering cauldrons by bailiffs on behalf of the Crown, so the molten metal could be siphoned off and cast into ingots and sold to bankroll the Tudor war machine. Blood followed blood, and the rich got richer.

These monastic sites were researched in lockdown with only internet resources (very often the Victoria Country History) and my modest library of Pevsners and other books, so by no means comprehensively so. However many of them I have previously researched in-depth for past guided tours which of course, are not happening this year. If you are able (we’re all in this plague together) and feel obliged to do so, consider dropping a proverbial coffee with PayPal via this Ko-fi thing
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I’m not destitute or anything but every bit really is appreciated at the moment! Absolutely NO obligation whatsoever, but lovely to get money for stuff I believe matters.

As for the Valor Ecclesiasticus database – I plan on making it public when it’s reasonably complete and accurate. If you’d like a look at it in the meantime, just contact me.

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