Tag Archives: King Alfred

The Abbey at Romsey

 

the-abbey

Romsey Abbey

 

Towards the end of last year I wrote about the wall paintings at Romsey Abbey without really mentioning any of the other things contained in the abbey or the history of the abbey. I visited Romsey in October as part of my research for Beloved Besieged, since part of the story takes place there.

Romsey is a small town on the River Test, twelve miles south-west of Winchester. The abbey stands in the centre of the town and was a convent for over 500 years.

The abbey has a very long history, being founded at the end of the tenth century by Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. The first building was probably made of wood, which was the norm for Saxon churches. The abbey was refounded in the middle of the tenth century and the nuns adopted the Rule of St Benedict.

Ethelflaeda became abbess in 996. She was canonised and is one of the patron saints of the abbey. This thirteenth century tomb is in her eponymous chapel, as is the fifteenth century painting of a priest.

20161003_110108

Thirteenth century tomb in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

 

20161003_110140

Painting in St Ethelflaeda’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

The abbey has two Saxon roods. A rood is a crucifix, usually life-sized.  One rood is inside, in a chapel, and the other is on an exterior wall.

saxon-rood-3

Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

 

saxon-rood

Exterior Rood, Romsey Abbey

 

Romsey Abbey has housed some famous women including Matilda, later wife of Henry I and mother of Empress Matilda. She was educated in the abbey at the end of the eleventh century. Mary de Blois, daughter of King Stephen, against whom Empress Matilda fought a civil war, was abbess in the middle of the twelfth century. Mary was kidnapped from the abbey and forced to marry when she became Countess of Boulogne in her own right. This caused a scandal and the marriage was eventually annulled, although not until she had borne her kidnapper two children. After the annulment, Mary entered another convent, where she remained for the rest of her life.

The Vikings burned the abbey in the 990s. Fortunately, the nuns had received a warning and were able to escape. The Normans started to replace the Saxon church in the 1120s. Throughout its early history the abbey was rebuilt and extended several times.

The nuns lived in buildings south of the church, but nothing is left of them today. There were normally about one hundred nuns in the abbey, but it must have varied considerably over the years. In 1327 the bishop of Winchester wrote to the abbess to say that no more women could be admitted without his permission, as there were too many of them. It’s not known how many women were in the abbey at the time, but it must have been significantly more than one hundred.

Like many monasteries and convents, the abbey was badly hit by the Black Death in 1348/9. By the time the plague had run its course, only nineteen nuns remained alive. Their numbers never really recovered, providing sufficient cause to dissolve the abbey in 1539.

The nuns of Romsey always had a reputation for lax behaviour.They travelled as much as they could, thus flouting the Rule, which said that a nun should not leave the convent once she had been admitted to it.  The nuns also dressed extravagantly. Like monks, they were supposed to wear simple clothes. Two nuns were even excommunicated in the fourteenth century, although it’s not known what they had done to merit this.

20161003_105038

Fifteenth century reredos, St Lawrence’s Chapel, Romsey Abbey

 

This last photograph doesn’t have anything to do with the abbey. These are just some swans who were also enjoying the late autumn sun on the River Test a short walk from the abbey.

20161003_145246-2

21 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Food of Love, or King Alfred’s Last Resting Place

corbel

Last week I had the privilege of performing in St Bartholomew’s, Hyde, a medieval church in Winchester. Rather confusingly the performance was commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death as  part of the Hyde900 festival, which originally commemorated the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Hyde Abbey where Alfred the Great was buried, but is now an annual festival. The occasion was a semi-dramatised performance of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which is really rather risqué for a church setting.

Winchester was the capital of King Alfred’s Wessex, and he was originally buried in its minster (the Old Minster), but, shortly after the Conquest, the Normans wanted to build a larger cathedral and Alfred’s body, together with those of his wife, Alswitha, and their son, Edward the Elder, was moved to the newly-built abbey at Hyde.

hyde-doorway

The Norman doorway

 

A church was built near the abbey gate around 1110 by the monks as a place where their tenants could worship, but it was probably destroyed in a fire in 1141. A new church was completed by about 1185. After the abbey was dissolved in 1539 some stones were salvaged to be used in the church, which was left to serve the parish, but the church fell into disrepair fairly early on and apparently fell out of use altogether during the Commonwealth. It wasn’t until 1690 that regular services were held again. Despite this, the necessary repairs were not carried out. As the diocesan website remarks succinctly “The Church was extensively repaired by the Victorians”.

14th-century-tiles

These encaustic tiles from the abbey were on display as part of the Hyde900 weekend.

 

Hyde’s connection with Shakespeare is that it was part of the estate of the earls of Southampton. The first earl was partially responsible for the demolition and ’looting’ of the abbey and received the abbey’s estates in return.  The earl also took over the estates of two other wealthy abbeys: Beaulieu in the New Forest and Titchfield to the east of Southampton. Titchfield became the seat of the earls of Southampton. The third earl was Shakespeare’s patron for a time and Venus and Adonis was dedicated to him. As one of the festival organisers remarked, with a trace of bitterness, it was the first earl’s looting of Hyde Abbey that gave the third earl enough money to be a patron to Shakespeare. This allowed Shakespeare to write poetry, a gentleman’s pursuit. Writing plays was not something that a gentleman did, apparently.

capitals-from-hyde-abbey

Stonework salvaged from Hyde Abbey

 

“The food of love” is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – “If music be the food of love, play on”. Since we were providing the musical interludes for Venus and Adonis, this seemed an appropriate name for our sextet.

7 Comments

Filed under Church