Saturday 22 September 2012

A Trip to Evesham: Pigs, Fish, Angels, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

A little while ago I took a spur-of-the-minute trip to Evesham, which it turns out is very easy to get to from Oxford. Evesham Abbey is one of those places which keeps turning up in my research, for reasons I'll get into below, so I thought it really was time I went and had a look at it. I rather fell in love with it, and the result was that I took lots of pictures - in fact, so many that this post will have to be the first of two.  I'll try and confine myself in this first post to general medieval history and touristy pictures, and the second will be a 'medieval people in modern art' type of post, because there was a lot of that at Evesham...

The town of Evesham grew up around Evesham Abbey, which was founded some time around the year 700 by St Egwin, Bishop of Worcester. The name Evesham comes from the Anglo-Saxon personal name Eof, plus hamm, an area of land in the bend of a river - hence Eofesham, Evesham. The river in question is the Avon, which surrounds the town on three sides, and the eponymous Eof was - according to legend - a swineherd in the service of the bishop of Worcester. While tending his pigs, Eof had a vision of the Virgin Mary; he told the bishop about it, and Egwin decided to found an abbey at the site of the vision. The abbey grew to be one of the largest in England, until it was destroyed in 1540 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. All that's left of the abbey buildings now is the bell-tower, which was built by Clement Lichfield, one of the last abbots, at the beginning of the sixteenth century:

The tower is impressive, but when you learn that the spire of the abbey church was apparently twice this size, you understand what kind of building has been lost! Also remaining of the abbey is this pretty gateway, which is twelfth-century stonework with a fifteenth-century chamber on top:

And there's a wall, including the remains of the arch which once led to the cloisters:

It now leads to the allotments. It's been bashed around a bit, as you can see, but must once have been very impressive. (Ivy growing over something like this is just - well, the metaphor writes itself!).

This green space, which slopes down to the river, is where the abbey church and chapter house once stood. It's been nicely landscaped as a public park, and there were lots of families enjoying it on the day I went. Near the tower is a monument to Simon de Montfort, 'pioneer of representative government', who was killed nearby at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 and buried in the abbey church:

The abbey grounds, looking from the direction of the river:

Evesham Abbey had a number of claims to fame in the Middle Ages. One is that it may be the burial-place of Lady Godiva, a pious noblewoman with one of the most incongruous posthumous legends of any Anglo-Saxon figure. And apart from St Egwin (we'll get to his legend in a moment), Evesham also possessed the relics of St Wigstan, a murdered Mercian prince of the ninth century. His relics were moved from Repton in Derbyshire to Evesham during the reign of Cnut, because Cnut supposedly had a particular devotion to St Wigstan - which seems pretty unlikely, but that's what the Evesham chroniclers claimed. It's possible, I imagine, that Cnut had a particular sympathy for kings murdered by people who were supposed to be their supporters...

Cnut's reign was a fruitful period for these translations of relics (I've posted previously about similar translations of Saints Felix, Ælfheah, and Mildred). An extra impetus at Evesham may have been the fact that the abbot between the years 1014-1044 was Ælfweard, supposedly a relative of Cnut. If you think it's odd that the Danish king Cnut had a relative with an English name who was a monk and abbot of an English monastery - well, me too. I can't really explain it. (A relative of his English first wife, maybe?) But Ælfweard was a successful abbot, whose greatest triumph was obtaining for the abbey the relics of St Odulph - he bought them from some Vikings who had stolen them from Frisia.

And Evesham's connections with Denmark don't stop there: after the Norman Conquest, a group of monks went from Evesham to Denmark to evangelise the country. They were instrumental in the development of Christianity in Denmark and in the cult of St Cnut (d.1086), the great-nephew of the Cnut who was king of England. In the twelfth century there was an agreement between Evesham and the priory at Odense that monks from Evesham could visit Odense for as long as they wanted, and vice versa. So there could have been Danish monks wandering over these abbey grounds long before Abbot Lichfield built his bell-tower. And I just learned from this wikipedia article that the Evesham monks also planted the first apple-trees in Denmark in the garden at Odense. A little piece of Worcestershire in a Danish city!

One reason the monks might have been keen to go to Denmark after the Norman Conquest was that their first Norman abbot, Walter, was especially hostile to Anglo-Saxon traditions. He submitted the relics of the abbey to test by fire, and some of them burned - though the head of St Wigstan passed the test because it miraculously sweated in the heat.

And as for St Egwin: he was, as I said, Bishop of Worcester at the beginning of the eighth century.  The Catholic Encyclopedia gently says of him that "his fame as founder of the great Abbey of Evesham no doubt tended to the growth of legends which, though mainly founded on facts, render it difficult to reconcile all the details with those of the ascertained history of the period." That's a tactful understatement. The most famous story about Egwin concerns a period in his life when he was under attack from enemies within his own diocese; Christianity in the Worcester area (the kingdom of the Hwicce, in Anglo-Saxon terms) was only a generation or so old, and Bishop Egwin struggled to enforce new Christian ideas about marriage and the celibate priesthood. His enemies sent complaints about him to Rome, and Egwin decided the only thing to do was to go to Rome himself and clear his name. In order to make his journey a penitential pilgrimage, he fastened shackles around his feet and threw the key into the River Avon. Thus hampered, he travelled to Rome. But when he arrived there, a servant came to him and gave him the key - it had been found within a fish which was caught in the Tiber.

After this miracle - perhaps unsurprisingly - everyone was convinced of Egwin's holiness; his name was cleared and he came home to Worcester with the Pope's blessing. And then he met Eof and founded Evesham, and after his death was commemorated as its saint.

This disparate collection of facts, legends, and historical trivia explains some of the reasons why the abbey ruins at Evesham are particularly interesting to me. They also have the advantage that, although the abbey buildings don't survive, you can get a good impression of what the abbey complex looked like, including the two churches built by the monks to be parish churches for the growing town. These churches, both twelfth century in origin, are right next to each other - they even share a graveyard. From this picture you might be able to see how close they are, with the bell-tower behind:

Bearing in mind that before its destruction the abbey church would have been only a few yards away, this is an extraordinary concentration of buildings. There are almost more spires here than in the centre of Oxford!

Two medieval churches right next to each other is a nice thing to find. One belongs to the Churches Conservation Trust, the other is still a parish church, and although they're so close and so similar they also have very different atmospheres. My favourite was St Lawrence's, the disused one. Here's one view of it:

And here's another:

And, with looming cloud and another memorial to Simon de Montfort in the foreground, both St Lawrence's and All Saints:

The interior of St Lawrence's is stunning even in grey threatening-rain light; I'm sure it would be gorgeous when the sun was shining.

The loveliest stone-work is around the south chapel, which has a blank wall which may once have joined up with a walk-way to the abbey (a little passage to one side of the cloisters, maybe):

There are also some carvings which probably came originally from the abbey graveyard, including a depiction of the abbey's crest:

And an especially manic green man:

But the really great thing about St Lawrence's is its stained-glass windows. These come in all varieties, and the Churches Conservation Trust website says it features work "by many of the major stained glass artists of the last 150 years." I don't actually know the names of many major stained-glass artists, so I'm afraid I'm going to be shallow and say the ones which the CCT leaflet thought were the best I didn't particularly like. But some I liked very much. The east window is insanely, gloriously colourful:

This is by Thomas Willement, 'Father of Victorian stained glass', who designed the windows I like so much at St Bartholomew's in Kent. These sections particularly remind me of the patterns at St Bartholomew's:

Then there's this bright medieval pastiche, by Michael O'Connor, from 1847:

And this, from A. L. Wilkinson in 1957, with a beautiful heavenly city:

It contains an unusually literal depiction of feeding the hungry:

I'm not sure I've ever seen a roast dinner in a church window before!

This foliate cross is also attractive:

And I liked this nativity scene very much:

The Virgin has just the right mixture of serenity and tenderness, and the chubby baby with his reaching arms is sweet without being sentimental.

The angel above has some particularly lovely wings:

This window, I learned from the CCT leaflet, was made in 1963 and is by F. W. Skeat. 'Skeat is an unusual name,' I thought, 'I wonder if he's any relation to Walter Skeat?' Walter Skeat was a Victorian super-philologist to whom all students of English medieval literature are indebted, and it did indeed turn out that Francis Skeat the stained-glass artist is his grandson. I don't know if sympathy with medieval England is genetic or something, but - as well as this Nativity window - Francis Skeat designed some windows for St Lawrence's depicting three scenes from the medieval history of Evesham, and they're just wonderful. They, however, will have to wait for the next post.

And after all that there's still All Saints, the parish church.

All Saints has several attractive features, but I think my favourite was that it takes the theme 'all saints' very literally. Every single window has a stained-glass saint in it - literally every one, through the whole church, including the tiny ones right up in the roof. It's like someone in the nineteenth century just thought, 'well, it is our name', and ran with it. I took pictures of lots of these windows, but I won't include all of them here - they're bound to pop up on the blog at some later date. To give you a flavour, though, here's St Columba, included among several other British and Saxon saints:

And beneath him some monks:

The rood screen:

This is the chantry chapel of Clement Lichfield, who was abbot of Evesham just before the Dissolution. He had it built some time before 1514, and is buried here:

The roof of the chapel is beautiful:

You might be able to see that the boss has the monogram P C L, the initials of 'Prior Clement Lichfield'.

This post is now long enough, but I have to finish by mentioning the Almonry Museum, situated in (guess what?) the medieval building of the abbey's almonry. It's a splendid museum, full of information and piles of interesting stuff. Don't you love how all local history museums are basically the same, in some funny way? They always have heaps of old agricultural implements no one can identify, bits of stone dug out of somebody's garden, pictures of shops which no longer exist, someone's collection of model soldiers, a mayor's chain of office, personal reminiscences of the town during World War 2... It's a testament to generations of local pride and love, and it's immensely endearing. The Almonry Museum is like that, but it's also housed in a beautiful building:

(See what I mean about random agricultural implements?). It also has a really excellent section on the medieval history of Evesham Abbey, including various archaeological finds from the tombs of some of the abbots. And, best of all, it has the 'Evesham Bible', a copy of the English translation printed in 1537 by John Rogers (under the name 'Thomas Matthew'), which belonged to John Alcester, a monk of Evesham who after the Dissolution became vicar of the nearby parish of Hampton. John made all kinds of notes on the blank pages of his Bible, including musical notations, proverbs in English and Latin, miscellaneous information such as lists of seasons when weddings could not take place - and an eyewitness account of the moment when the abbey was suppressed:

And the yere of our Lord 1539 the monastery of Evesham was suppressyd by King Henry VIII the XXXI yere of his rayene the XXX day of Januer at Evensong tyme the convent beyng in the quere at thys verse Deposuit potentes and wold not suffir them to make an end, phillipp hawfard beyng abbot at that tyme and xxxv relygius menne at that day a lyve in the seyde monastery.

'In the year of our Lord 1539, the monastery of Evesham was suppressed by King Henry VIII, in the 31st year of his reign, on the 30th of January during Evensong [i.e. Vespers], the monks being then in the quire, and at the verse 'Deposuit potentes' [the verse from the Magnificat, 'he hath put down the mighty...']; they were not permitted to conclude. Philip Hawford was abbot at that time, and there were at that day 35 monks living in the said monastery.'

As far as I know, that's the only eyewitness account written by a monk of the suppression of his monastery - and to know the very moment in the service when it happened is so poignant. All those centuries of prayer, so suddenly and violently put to an end. It reminds me of another occasion when a monastic service of Vespers (which you'll notice John, like many a good English Catholic before the Reformation, calls 'Evensong') was famously interrupted, when on a December night in 1170 four knights burst into Canterbury Cathedral to murder Thomas Becket; but the eyewitness accounts of that event do not, as far as I know, note at which verse in the service the disruption took place. The verse John mentions, with its promise that God will humble the might of the proud and powerful, must have seemed painfully appropriate to the monks witnessing the wanton destruction of their community, and its eight centuries of history.


Anonymous said...

I'm serioulsy becoming addicted to your blog; this post was just superb.

denise said...

Enjoyable and interesting. Thank you.