Tag Archives: Romsey Abbey

Abducting Nuns

Saxon rood (3)

Romsey Abbey

Content warning – this post refers to sexual assault

Last week I was chatting with Portia from The Gift of Time and she said that I should write a post about how convents were different from monasteries. I said they were the same, except that nuns who were heiresses were often abducted from convents. She said, “Ah”, so I went away and did some reading. It wasn’t long before I realised that there were some other ways in which convents and monasteries were different. A bit more research showed that abductions from convents were not as common as I’d thought they were, although abductions of wealthy unmarried women in general were far from unknown.

There were nowhere near as many nuns as there were monks in England. This was partly because nuns usually came from aristocratic families, whilst monks came from all kinds of backgrounds. Another difference between monks and nuns is that nuns were not expected to do the physical labour that monks were. That meant that there were more servants proportionally in a convent. It also meant that nuns might find themselves with time on their hands.

Women went into convents for various reasons. Some of them went of their own accord, because they had a vocation for the life of a religious or because it was a place where they could live quietly after an active life. It might have seemed an attractive option for a wealthy woman who had had two or three husbands. It was also a place where daughters who were unlikely to marry could be sent.

Another difference between convents and monasteries is that few convents were really wealthy. The nearest convent to me, Romsey Abbey, was one of those, but most attracted few gifts of money or land. When the harvests were bad, there could be real suffering in the poorer convents. In order not to have the nuns starve, some bishops gave them gifts to tide them over, or allowed them to leave the convent in order to beg.

So, what about the abductions? I couldn’t find many. Since they took a vow of chastity, nuns were not supposed to marry. Marriage was usually the purpose of an abduction, although gaining a hostage or rescuing a woman from a violent husband were other motives. Circumstances might change after a woman had become a nun, making her an heiress and more worth marrying than she had been. Abduction sounds fairly harmless, but it wasn’t. More often than not, the victim was raped in order to bring about the marriage.

In the mid-thirteenth century a nun from Shaftesbury Abbey was abducted whilst visiting her parents. Nuns were not supposed to leave their convents, but some were permitted to visit relatives. One of the more notorious examples of this was Mary of Woodstock, a daughter of Edward I, who went on pilgrimages and frequently spent time at court with her parents. Even more scandalously, she was known as gambler. Mary had entered the convent at Amesbury (another wealthy abbey)  at the age of 6 at the instigation of her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence. The widow of Henry III also persuaded another granddaughter to go into the convent when she retired to it a few years later. Edward I was able to take the unusual step for a monarch of giving up one of his daughters to the convent, because he had others who could make political marriages.

Not everything that was passed off as an abduction was an abduction. Sometimes it was an elopement. Mary de Blois, the daughter of King Stephen, was abbess of Romsey when she was abducted by (or eloped with) Matthew, Count of Boulogne in 1160. Unsurprisingly, their marriage caused a great scandal and the pope put the County of Boulogne under interdict so that the sacraments of baptism and the last rites couldn’t be given. Later, after she had given birth to two daughters, Mary repented and returned to the convent. I can’t help thinking that she might not have returned had she had a son or two.

My novel, The Winter Love, opens with Henry abducting Eleanor from her convent. His motives, I’m glad to say, are honourable, but it takes Eleanor a while to trust him.

Medieval Nunneries by Mike Salter
Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Copyright © 2020 aprilmunday.wordpress.com– All rights reserved.




Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Nuns, The Medieval Church

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.


Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.


In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:










Filed under Church, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

The Medieval Mason



Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey


Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.



Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton


Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.



Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey


The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.




Filed under DVD Review

The Abbey at Romsey



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.


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




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.


Interior Rood, Romsey Abbey




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.


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.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

Wall paintings at Romsey Abbey


On a recent visit to Romsey Abbey I was reminded once again of how wrong my view of life in the Middle Ages is. When I went into the abbey I saw that the walls were just grey stone and it’s easy to assume that they’re unchanged since the church was built in the twelfth century, but that’s not the case.

Most churches would have had a depiction of the Last Judgement painted on a wall that could easily be seen. This would have shown Christ enthroned deciding who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. Hell would be shown as a dreadful place, and the demons leading the damned souls into it usually had sharp teeth and claws with which they tormented their victims. Heaven would be full of light, and the blessed would be led there by beautiful angels. This was supposed to make the parishioners consider their eventual fate.


Wall painting in the Chapel of St Mary, Romsey Abbey


This wall painting is from the Chapel of St Mary in the abbey and is thought to represent the life of St Nicholas. It is from the late thirteenth century. Nicholas lived at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth centuries. He was made bishop of Myra and is said to have been one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. The colours are faded now and it’s hard to imagine how bright the whole church must have been when all the walls, columns and ceilings had just been painted. A church was considered unfinished until the painting was complete.

Not all wall paintings were there for instruction. Sometimes decoration was just decoration. The ribbed vault and the pillar shown below were painted just because all the stone in the church was covered in plaster and then painted. The effect of all the colour on top of the size of the building itself would have struck those inside it with awe. Although wealthy people decorated their own homes in a similar way, frequently with secular as well as religious images, poor people did not. Their homes would have been dull and drab. For them, coming into the abbey would have been a very different experience from their everyday life.


Painted ribbed vault, Romsey Abbey


Paintings were almost constantly being updated as tastes changed or a new patron took over a church. They were not considered permanent.


Painted pillar, Romsey Abbey


In England the paintings were whitewashed over during the Reformation, but most were destroyed by the Victorians. Instead of exposing the pictures by removing the whitewash, they preferred to expose the stone by removing the plaster onto which the paintings had been painted. This was, of course, very far from the intentions of the medieval builders, who had gone to great lengths to cover over the stone, which was no more than the skeleton of the church, even when it had been beautifully cut and dressed.




Filed under Church, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors