Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Pictures of St Augustine's, Canterbury

Recently I visited the ruins of the monastery of St Augustine's in Canterbury, and took some pictures. If this post seems disjointed, it's because I have a lot to say about St Augustine's and no particular order to say it in, but I hope you'll think the pictures make up for it.

It's a splendid ruin. It was deserted when I was there, except for the birds; the weather kept changing from bright sunshine to ominous cloud and back again. I was wishing the cloud away, wanting good weather for photos and not to be chased away prematurely by rain; but now I look at the pictures, I think I prefer the ones with looming cloud.

You can see how close the towers of Canterbury Cathedral are; I had never realised just how close. The Cathedral is inside the city walls and St Augustine's outside, but they were near neighbours in their day. They would have heard the ringing of each other's bells; after the Norman Conquest there was a dispute about when St Augustine's was permitted to ring its bells, and Archbishop Lanfranc tried to insist that the cathedral ought always to have precedence. He gave way, but would never have foreseen that in the end it wouldn't matter: the bells of the cathedral still ring out across Canterbury, but the bells of St Augustine's were silenced long ago.

This was the first monastery in England. It was founded as the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in c.600, by St Augustine and his fellow missionaries from Rome, and with the permission of King Ethelbert of Kent. For centuries it was the burial-place of the kings of Kent and the Archbishops of Canterbury, before they began to be buried in the cathedral. Members of the Augustinian mission are buried here:

After Augustine's death, when the Apostle of the English began to regarded as a saint, it was thought appropriate to rededicate the monastery to Augustine, Peter and Paul, and this was done officially by Archbishop Dunstan (the man of the week!) when the buildings were extended in 978. Augustine's tomb in the abbey was a site of pilgrimage:

These tombs were of course destroyed at the Reformation. Ethelbert himself is buried here, and presumably Queen Bertha too. Parts of the Saxon building remain; this wall is in fact Roman brick, reused by Saxon builders in the seventh century, and still standing:

Although it began life so promisingly, St Augustine's has seen some stormy weather indeed. In the Anglo-Saxon period it was rich and successful, a centre of scholarship and learning surpassing the cathedral. It possessed some astonishing books, such as the St Augustine Gospels, brought from Italy by the saint himself, and this manuscript. It survived the Viking siege of the city in 1011 and in the reign of Cnut was given possession of the relics of St Mildred of Thanet, whose own monastery had been destroyed.

However, it was unlucky at the Norman Conquest. The English abbot, Æthelsige, seems to have put up some opposition to the invasion, and was forced to flee to Denmark in 1070. King William confiscated the abbey and installed a Norman abbot, Scotland. On Scotland's death Archbishop Lanfranc imposed another foreign abbot, Wido, against the monks' protests, and in 1089 some of the monks were involved in a conspiracy to kill Wido. They were unsuccessful, but a large number of them were expelled and imprisoned, and other monks brought in from Christ Church to replace them. The monastery was in chaos and effectively had to be re-founded as a new community.

The importation of new monks brought some measure of peace, and the Norman abbots embarked on various ambitious building projects. The monastery did pretty well until the Dissolution: when it was at last surrendered by the abbot on 30 July, 1538, it had thirty monks, and 2000 books in the library.

The reason I decided to post about St Augustine's today is that it's (possibly) the anniversary of the death of the eleventh-century historian Goscelin, about whom I've written before. Goscelin, a monk of Flemish origin, came to England in c.1058 and spent some time as chaplain to the nuns at Wilton. After the death of his patron he lived an itinerant life, moving between English monasteries and writing up accounts of their saints for them, before he settled at last at St Augustine's.

He seems to have found a happy refuge here, and most of what we know about St Augustine's at the end of the eleventh century comes from Goscelin. His works on Anglo-Saxon saints are valuable, and his contemporaries thought highly of him: William of Malmesbury said he was the best historian of English saints since Bede, and an excellent musician second only to Osbern.

He was at St Augustine's while Eadmer was at Christ Church, just a stone's throw away; it's interesting to wonder if they ever met.

Goscelin too is presumably buried here, though we'll never know exactly where.

I've been thinking a lot about monks and monastic life recently (as may have been obvious from the fact I will prattle on here about the medieval monks of Canterbury in ways which must, I always think, seem bizarre to my readers). In some ways I think the life of an eleventh-century monk is the only one I'm really suited for - a little unfortunate for a woman born in 1986. Nothing in the twenty-first century offers quite the same; it's the mixture of ordered life and scholarship, which Goscelin exemplifies so well, which appeals - one of the Benedictine tradition's greatest gifts to the world.

In any case, you would think that the sight of ruins like these would make me think twice about wishing myself into someone else's life. Goscelin and his fellow monks spent a lot of their time worrying about things which now seem utterly trivial - the bell-ringing, for instance. On another occasion, Goscelin was enraged because another community in Canterbury, St Gregory's, claimed to have obtained the relics of St Mildred, of which St Augustine's were so proud. The question wasn't trivial to him, and of course it did matter to the monastery, and it always matters to establish the truth and defend the right; but it's all in ruins now either way.

I was thinking about monks and birds when I visited St Augustine's, because of Anselm and the owl - the monk as pelican in the wilderness and sparrow on the housetop, ever wakeful, alone with the Alone. And there were lots of birds around, I suppose because of the rain; it was just them and me.

This one was in the ruins of the cloisters, a black monk in the place of all those who had walked and worked there. And here they are upon the housetop:


St Augustine's is a little outside the city walls, and so is often unjustly overlooked by tourists, but it's well worth a visit. I was very impressed by the English Heritage audio guide and information boards, mostly because they quoted Goscelin a lot. Do go if you're ever in Canterbury; and go to nearby St Martin's church as well, about which I'll post in the near future.


Anonymous said...

Hello, This is a most interesting blog.
Are there English translations of Goscelin's writings on St. Augustine of Canterbury?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Unfortunately not, as far as I know - there are translations of Goscelin's writings on the saints of Wilton and Ely, but not of St Augustine's. But there are some good scholarly sources which can give you a fair impression of the contents of the St Augustine's texts, if you're interested: several articles in a book called 'Canterbury and the Norman Conquest: Churches, Saints and Scholars, 1066-1109', ed. Richard Eales and Richard Sharpe (London, 1995), and two articles by Richard Sharpe, 'Goscelin’s St Augustine and St Mildreth: Hagiography and Liturgy in Context', Journal of Theological Studies 41 (1990), 502-516, and 'The Date of St Mildreth's Translation from Minster-in-Thanet to Canterbury', Mediaeval Studies 53 (1991), 349-54.

Anonymous said...

Good Evening. I am enjoying browsing your blogsite. Re your desire for a monastic opportunity to contemplate further or even experience if it was ever possible, may I suggest a vist to Minster Abbey in Thanet? The refounded legacy lifestyle of Benedictine nuns ought to accord with the Benedictine reordering of St Augustine's in its day. If nothing else, I'd like to read how you appraise the place and its history thro your blog. As for my interest in matters ecclesiastical, I am researching the legacy of chapel building here in Thanet apparently sponsored by St Augustine's in its heyday of plenty of spare cash. Shame the vast library which it owned was torched. One wonders what literary gems it contained as opposed to the gems glued to St Augustine's head once upon a time!