Today is the feast of the Anglo-Saxon hermit St Guthlac, the anniversary of his death in 714, and in his honour I thought I'd post about Crowland, the site of his hermitage and of the monastery which guarded the memory of the saint. I visited Crowland last August and took lots of pictures, so join me today on a ramble around Crowland and its beautiful ruined abbey.
Medieval Crowland is one of my particular interests (not only because of Guthlac), and I was about ten times more excited to visit Crowland than anyone has been in the past century, probably - maybe ever. In the Old English poems about Guthlac, the physical landscape in which he lives is crucial to his story: his retreat from the world to a devil-haunted island in the wild Fens makes him the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a desert hermit. The Fens are no longer a watery wilderness (whether they're devil-haunted or not I couldn't say), but to see Crowland is to understand the place, and Guthlac, much more clearly. Today the town of Crowland, amid the endlessly flat Lincolnshire landscape, is perfectly ordinary and unassuming.
But even the centre of this ordinary town has something extraordinary to offer:
(Spot the abbey in the distance.) This is Trinity Bridge, which was built - according to the helpful plaque it bears - between 1360 and 1390, replacing an earlier structure. It's a beautiful thing, and unique: a three-sided bridge, which originally provided a crossing over the place where a tributary flowed into the River Welland. The rivers have since been redirected, so the bridge crosses nothing - not even the road. It just stands there, stranded.
It's an entirely decorative bridge, but who could resist scrambling up and down it - if only to get a better view of the town, and admire the worn stonework of the steps?
And when we've walked up the bridge and down the bridge and round the bridge, we encounter something even more interesting:
This is a statue, nearly life-size, which probably represents Christ with an orb in his hands:
It presumably came from the abbey, where (as we'll see in a moment) stone-carving and statues are the chief relics of Crowland's monastic past.
And now we can go to the abbey. You can't miss it; it towers over the town and all the surrounding area.
Isn't that the loveliest ruin you ever saw? On the day I visited I took an accidental circuit around the perimeter of the churchyard (because the main gate wouldn't open, and I was looking for another one), so here's a view from the south-east:
What was originally the north aisle of the monastic church is now the parish church, and the ruined area beside it is part of what would have been the nave:
It's now a forest of finely-carved arches and arcades which lead into empty sky.
The chancel of the monastic church would have extended some way beyond this point, and that's where the relics of St Guthlac and Crowland's other saints would have been kept. The late-medieval chronicle of Crowland - a creative work of historical fiction or a nonsensical forgery, depending on your point of view - claims that in the eleventh century Cnut presented Crowland Abbey with the rich gift of twelve white bear-skins to lay before the altars of the church. This may be complete fantasy, but it's fun to imagine nonetheless. (The chronicle also says Cnut gave the abbot of Crowland a silk suit embroidered with eagles; I find that somewhat harder to picture.)
Bear-skins or no bear-skins, the overwhelming impression produced by the ruins of Crowland is of splendour, confidence and skill.
John Clare, who was born not far away in Helpston, described the ruins thus, in his sonnet 'Crowland Abbey':
In sooth, it seems right awful and sublime
To gaze by moonlight on the shattered pile
Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,—
The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;
And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,
Crumbling from arch and battlement around,
Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,
To sink more silent still. — The very ground
In Desolation’s garment doth appear,
The lapse of age and mystery profound.
We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones,
On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear.
'Struggling still with Time' the abbey may be, but on that August day it was hard to see the slightest shadow of Clare's gloomy Gothic imaginings; even in their present state, the ruins are an impressive monument to Crowland's one-time glory.
Best of all is the spectacular frontage:
This would have been the west front of the church, and it's still adorned with statues of saints and patrons of the abbey, a sculpture-gallery in stone.
Of course I looked for Guthlac, and of course he is shown crushing a devil at his feet:
Also depicted is the most controversial of Crowland's patrons (and my real reason for being interested in the abbey), Waltheof, the Anglo-Danish earl who was executed for rebellion against William the Conqueror in 1076. The monks of Crowland believed this anti-Norman insurgent was a martyr and a saint; they recovered his body from the place where it had been ignominiously buried and brought it to Crowland, where it performed miracles and attracted pilgrims. For a time Waltheof replaced Guthlac as the abbey's chief saint, but this statue - in armour, with his dog - is the only sign of that at Crowland now.
I love the apostle with his hand raised to his chin.
And when the sun comes out, what gorgeous golden stone!
Above what would have been the west door is a depiction of scenes from the life of St Guthlac.
The wonderful thing about this is its parallels with the Guthlac Roll, which tells the story of Guthlac's life in a series of roundels, similar but not identical to the scenes above the church door - for instance, here the scene of Guthlac arriving at Crowland (comparable to this) also shows a sow suckling piglets on the island, a propitious sign borrowed from the Aeneid:
It was heartening to see, as this demonstrates, that the modern incumbents of Crowland Abbey are very proud of St Guthlac; when we move inside we find that the church has a detailed display about him which even includes images and description of the Guthlac Roll. It's wonderful when churches are interested in their medieval saints, even more so when they know about the manuscript treasures their forebears produced - and the Guthlac Roll is truly something to be proud of. I was a little disappointed, though not at all surprised, that the church literature had nothing to say about Waltheof, except a note identifying one of the statues as him. Poor Waltheof! Crowland was the only place in England where he was commemorated, and today he's not even commemorated there. But he is buried there - somewhere - and his dust mingles with its stones. The very building recalls him, because it was built from the stone quarried from a place which (Crowland tradition said) Waltheof gave to the abbey.
What first greets you when you enter the church (and God bless them for being open! If I'd gone all that way and the door was locked I would not have been happy) is the elegant soaring lines of the bell-tower:
The Crowland chronicle tells us (as always, not totally trustworthy but immensely interesting) that the medieval bells of the abbey were named Guthlac, Bartholomew, Beccelm, Turketel, Tatwine, Pega and Bega. Bartholomew was Guthlac's patron, Beccelm his servant, Pega his sister; Turketel was a tenth-century abbot of Crowland, about whose life the chronicle tells the most fantastic (in both senses) narratives - that he fought at the Battle of Brunanburh, for instance, and heroically saved the day despite not actually killing anyone. He was supposedly the chancellor of King Eadred, grandson of Alfred the Great, and best friends with St Dunstan, and he retired from the world to be abbot of Crowland because he was so impressed by the hospitality he received there when he visited the abbey, en route to a battle in the north. From his praise of Crowland (says the chronicle) the abbey gained the nickname 'Crowland the courteous', which it still had in the late Middle Ages. There's a medieval rhyme which describes the characteristics of the different Fenland abbeys thus:
Crowland as courteous as courteous as may be,
Thorney the bane of many a good tree,
Ramsey the rich, and Peterborough the proud,
Sawtry by the way that poor abbey,
Gave more alms than all they.
An alternative version:
Ramsey, the rich of gold and of fee;
Thorney, the flower of the fen country,
Crowland, so courteous of meat and of drink,
Peterborough the proud, as all men do think.
And Sawtrey by the way that old abbey
Gave more alms in one day than all they.
Crowland's reputation for hospitality is supported by William of Malmesbury, who tells us in the twelfth century that 'the place cannot be approached from any side except by water, but in front of the monastery door there is, as it were, a public highway for those sailing by. The result is that there is almost never any lack of guests, on their journeys to and fro.'
Here we see the crest of the abbey, which combines the symbols of St Bartholomew (the knife with which he was flayed) and Guthlac (the flail which Bartholomew gave him to fight off demons).
In the fifteenth century the monks of Crowland used to give away souvenir knives to pilgrims who came to the abbey on St Bartholomew's Day - sadly no longer...
Of course I was looking for Guthlac, and he is much in evidence:
St Bartholomew and knife:
(No sign of poor Waltheof!)
This is the chancel of the present-day church:
It has an impressive wooden screen, with some lovely details.
A Green Man up in the roof:
This is perhaps the abbey's most famous non-Guthlac object, the tomb of one of the masons who built this place:
He is William of Wermington, Master of the Works c.1427, and he holds the tools of his trade, a pair of compasses and a 'T' square.
Otherwise, I was surprised by how many bits of unidentified stone were scattered about the church, as if the ruin hasn't stopped falling down yet (the sign warning of unstable stone on the west front was a bit concerning).
The whole place is a memorial to Guthlac and the monks who built it, but the most interesting post-medieval memorial is this:
'Beneath this place in six foot in length against ye clarks pew lyeth the Body of Mr Abrm Baly he dyed ye 3rd of Jan 1704. Also ye Body of Mary his wid[ow] she Dyed ye 21th of May 1705. Also ye Body of Abrm son of ye s[ai]d Abrm and Mary, he dyed ye 13 Jan 1704, also 2 wch Dyed in there Enfantry. Mans life is like unto a winters day. some brak there fast & so departs away. others stay dinner then departs full fed; the longest age but supps & goes to bed. O Reader then behold & see: as wee are now so must you be. 1706.'
The verse is a quotation from a local poet, a seventeenth-century bishop of nearby Peterborough, but Guthlac and Waltheof would certainly have understood the image of life as a feast on a winter's day. Waltheof, as a native of Northumbria who was educated for a monk (so tradition at Crowland said), could have probably have quoted Bede's famous story about the sparrow flying through the lighted hall:
"O king, it seems to me that this present life of man on earth, in comparison to that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at table in the winter with your ealdormen and thegns, and a fire was kindled and the hall warmed, while it rained and snowed and stormed outside. A sparrow came in, and swiftly flew through the hall; it came in at one door, and went out at the other. Now during the time when he is inside, he is not touched by the winter's storms; but that is the twinkling of an eye and the briefest of moments, and at once he comes again from winter into winter. In such a way the life of man appears for a brief moment; what comes before, and what will follow after, we do not know."
Guthlac would have recognised the idea, though not the text; he and Bede were the same age, and when Guthlac came to Crowland Bede had not yet written his Historia. In the ruins of Crowland, amid John Clare's 'wrecks of ornamented stones', this reflection on the transience of earthly glory seems not unfitting; but nonetheless Guthlac's fame has lasted 13 centuries, and there is much remaining at Crowland to bear witness to the abbey's glorious past.