The Abbey of Bermondsey

So completely has every important vestige of the once famous Abbey of Bermondsey (see Fig. 698) been swept away, that one may pass a hundred times through the streets and lanes that now cover the site, without even a suspicion that any such establishment had ever existed there. A few decaying squalid-looking tenements in the corner of an out of the way court (Fig. 697), a small portion of a gatehouse, with half the rusty hinge still inserted in the stone, scattered masses of wall about the present churchyard, and a few names of streets and squares, as the Long Walk, and the Grange Walk, are the sole relics of the monastery which in its days of splendour was esteemed of so much importance, that great councils of state were frequently held in it. Of the church, which unquestionably was a large and handsome, probably a very magnificent structure, there is not even a trace to be found, unless we may make an exception in favour of a very curious and ancient salver of silver, now used in St. Mary’s Church for the collection of alms, and which possibly formed a part of the abbey treasure. The salver presents a view of the gate of a castle or town, with two figures, a knight kneeling before a lady, while she places a helmet on his head. The costume of the knight appears to be of the date of Edward II. This church of St. Mary, we may observe, was built on the site of a smaller one, erected by the monks at a very early period, and, it is supposed, for the use of their tenants and servants. With so little, then, existing at present to stimulate our curiosity as to the past, it will be hardly advisable to dwell at any length upon the subject, though far from an uninteresting one. The founder of Bermondsey was a citizen of London, Aylwin Child, who, in his admiration of the new order of Cluniacs that had just been introduced into England, obtained four monks from one of the foreign monasteries to establish a house of Cluniacs at Bermondsey. The Benedictine rule or discipline was, one would imagine, strict enough for any body of men, however pious: not so thought some of the members of the order themselves; and from

their thoughts and desires gradually arose the order we have referred to. Bermondsey, like the other houses of Cluniacs in England, was considered an alien priory, that is to say, was under subjection to the great Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, and shared therefore in the fate that befel all such alien houses in the fourteenth century—sequestration. But Richard II. not only restored it to life and activity, but raised it to the rank of an abbey; among his motives for this gracious and important favour, a present of two hundred marks, we presume, ought to be enumerated. At the dissolution Bermondsey was valued at 548/. 2s. 5½d. ; and it is remarkable enough that King Henry seems to have really got nothing in this instance by the dissolution; through his unusual liberality, the monks were all pensioned off with sums varying from five pounds six shillings and eightpence to ten pounds yearly, while the abbot’s share must have swept away nearly all the rest, amounting, as it did, to 336l. 6s. 8d. King Henry certainly was never more shrewdly managed than by the last Abbot of Bermondsey.

Among the historical recollections of the Abbey may be mentioned the residence and death in it of Katherine, who had for her first husband Henry V., and for her second, Owen Tudor, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Two days before her death, her son by the conqueror of Agincourt, Henry VI., sent to her, in token of his affectionate remembrance, a tablet of gold weighing thirteen ounces, and set with sapphires and pearls. The chief interest, however, that we now feel in the Abbey of Bermondsey arises from the enforced residence of Elizabeth Woodville, whose eventful life finds few parallels in female history. At first the wife of a simple English knight; then, after his death in the wars of the Roses, a wretched widow, pleading at the feet of Edward IV. for the reversal of the attainder that threatened to sweep away the home and estates of herself and children; then the queen of that king, and married by him for the very unpolitical reason that he had fallen passionately in love with her; then again a widow struggling to keep her royal offspring from the murderous grasp of their usurping uncle the Duke of Gloucester,—and who, after their murder in the Tower, became Richard III.; then once more lifted into apparent prosperity by the union of the rival Roses in the persons of her daughter and Henry VII.; and then, lastly, a prisoner at Bermondsey during the very reign of that daughter, and at the instance of that daughter’s husband. And there she died, the queen of one king, the mother of the wife of another; and so poor, that in her will, which is touchingly pathetic, we find her leaving her blessing to her child as the only thing it was in her power to bequeath to her. “I have no worldly goods to do the queen’s grace, my dearest daughter, a pleasure with, neither to reward any of my children according to my heart and mind.” Henry’s reason for this harshness appears to have been a belief that she had been instrumental in raising a new Yorkist insurrection in Ireland in 1486, under the leadership of the pretended Earl of Warwick, but really Lambert Simnel, the son of a joiner. He had reason to know she did scheme; for, says Bacon, “in her withdrawing chamber had the fortunate conspiracy for the king against King Richard III. been hatched, which the king knew and remembered perhaps but too well.” After the death of his wife, Henry established a yearly anniversary at Bermondsey, when prayers were to be offered for his own prosperity, and for his wife’s, his children’s, and other relatives’ souls; but not a word as to the soul of his wife’s mother, the beautiful, intriguing, possibly unprincipled, but certainly most unfortunate, Elizabeth Woodville.