Some Other Old English Monsteries

Having now noticed in our pages, and at what may be considered sufficient length, some of the more important of the English monasteries, we shall, as a general principle, treat the remainder in groups; passing over most of the subjects in each with a brief, or at least a very partial account, but dwelling, as we may see occasion, on the others. If many highly important establishments may be thus cursorily dismissed, many also will receive a fair share of attention; whilst, by not attempting what is impracticable in the present instance,—to preserve the individual interest of all, we may hope to convey a more satisfactory impression as to those we select from the multitude. In our first group we include Byland and Fountains Abbeys in Yorkshire, Walsingham Priory in Norfolk, Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, and Hexham Priory in Northumberland. With such subjects it is indeed difficult to make a choice, but on the whole we may consider Fountains Abbey as the best fitted for lengthened notice.

Among the monastic remains we have had, or may yet have, occasion to notice, there are of course some few that enjoy a marked pre-eminence, either for their history, the beauty of their architectural relics, or the advantages of their local position: they are antiquities that every one feels interested in, that many have personally seen. Fountains Abbey is of this class. Its very name is suggestive of a world of pleasant associations, green ruins, with many a legend or story hanging about them, picturesque and attractive as themselves; quiet woods, and delightfully unquiet waters; nooks and corners among rocks or by water-banks, or beneath great overarching trees; a place, in fine, for deep emotion and elevated thought,—where one seems to stand between the Past and the Future, unaffected by all the disturbing influences of the Present; and to look on all things with a sense of newly aroused powers of apprehension of the truth or falsehood that is in them,—of newly awakened desire to draw from these chewings of the cud of sweet and bitter fancy the most wholesome nutriment for the every clay business of life, towards which we at last must again, however reluctantly, address ourselves. It is no wonder that Fountains Abbey should have obtained so high or extensive a reputation. All the peculiar advantages above enumerated, as tending to give such relics of ‘Old England’ their fame, are combined in this. It is situated in a beautiful and romantic valley, through which runs the Skell, and in the vicinity of Studley park and pleasure-grounds, the last forming one of the horticultural notabilities of England, a continuous garden of some three hundred acres laid out in the most charming style. For the beauty of the architecture of Fountains Abbey we need only refer to the view (Fig. 702), where the remarkable state of preservation in which the pile generally exists, as well as some indications of the elegance of the prevailing style, will be apparent. On the whole the Abbey ruins form the most perfect specimen that the country possesses of what may perhaps be called the most perfect architectural time,—the age of Henry III., and of Westminster Abbey. All the walls of both church and monastery yet stand, though roofless and with dilapidated windows. The majestic tower, from its unusual position at the north end of the transept, still rises upward in serene grandeur. We may walk through the nave and admire the arch of its once glorious eastern window; from thence wander into the “ruined choir ” and listen to hymns of praise, albeit the choristers are of a tinier race than of yore. The Chapter House yet tells us of the Abbots who sat there in due course of spiritual government, and some of whose tombs now lie beneath our feet, with half illegible inscriptions; we can still perceive, over the Chapter House, where the library was situated in which the monks read, and the adjoining scriptorium wherein they wrote. It is as long a walk as ever to pace from end to end of the cloisters, and almost as picturesque, with those curious arches over head formed by the mazy intersections of the groinings of the roof; the kitchen is ready at any moment to glow with “unwonted fires,” and renew those old hospitalities of which its two immense fire-places give one such an expansive idea; the very garden of the monastery still smells sweet and looks fair with quivering leaves and “flowres fresh of hue.

Whilst such the position and such the remains of Fountains Abbey, both at the same time borrow from their past history higher and deeper interest than the picturesque hands of nature or of time could bestow. The monastic orders generally, perhaps universally, had their origin in the desire of some one man, or some few men, to check prevailing evils in the lives or views of the people, or of their spiritual teachers, or to carry on still further reformations or improvements already begun. It is easy to imagine that much heart-burning and strife must have frequently resulted from such endeavours; which set brother against brother, divided the once peaceful monastery against itself, which annoyed the idle, or supine, or the licentious, by placing monitors eternally at their elbow. In connection with the records of Fountains Abbey we find a curious and ample account of the growth of such a division: “The fame of the sanctity of the Cistercian monks at Rieval [Rievaulx], the first of that order in Yorkshire, having extended to the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary at York, several of the monks there, finding too great a relaxation in the observance of the rules, were desirous of withdrawing themselves to follow the stricter rules observed by the monks of Rieval. But Galfrid, their abbot, opposed their removal, as being a reflection on his government of the abbey; whereupon, in A.D. 1132, the 33rd of Henry I., Richard, the Prior, went to Thurstan, Archbishop of York, to desire that he would visit the abbey and regulate what was amiss therein, and assist them in their design of withdrawing themselves. The day of visitation being come, the archbishop, attended by many grave and discreet clergy, canons, and other religious men, went to St. Mary’s Abbey, whither the abbot had convoked several learned men, and a multitude of monks from different parts of England, that by their aid he might oppose the archbishop, if requisite, and correct the insolence of those brethren that wanted to leave the abbey. On the 6th of October, a.d. 1132, the archbishop arrived at the monastery, when the abbot, with a multitude of monks, opposed his entrance into the chapter with such a number of persons as attended him; whereupon an uproar ensued: and the archbishop, after interdicting the church and monks, returned; and the prior, sub-prior, and eleven monks withdrew themselves, and were joined by Robert, a monk of Whitby, who went along with them, and were maintained at the archbishop’s expense, in his own house, for eleven weeks and five days. . . . The abbot did not cease by messages to persuade the withdrawn monks to return to their monastery, while they at the bishop’s house spent most of their time in fasting and prayer. However, two of them were prevailed on to quit the rest, and go back; and yet one of the two repenting, soon returned to those who were for a more strict way of life.” It is to these monks of St. Mary’s that Fountains Abbey owes its origin; they were its founders, and very interesting were the circumstances of the foundation, as related by the same writer, Burton [‘Monast. Eboracen.’]. “At Christmas, the archbishop, being at Ripon, assigned to the monks some land in the patrimony of St. Peter, about three miles west of that place, for the erecting of a monastery. The spot of ground had never been inhabited, unless by wild beasts, being overgrown with wood and brambles, lying between two steep hills and rocks, covered with wood on all sides, more proper for a retreat of wild beasts than the human species. . . . Richard, the prior of St. Mary’s at York, was chosen abbot by the monks, being the first of this monastery of Fountains, with whom they withdrew into this uncouth desert, without any house to shelter them in that winter season, or provisions to subsist on; but entirely depending on Divine Providence. There stood a large elm in the midst of the vale, on which they put some thatch or straw, and under that they lay, eat, and prayed, the bishop for a time supplying them with bread, and the rivulet (the Skell) with drink. Part of the day some spent in making wattles to erect a little oratory, whilst others cleared some ground to make a little garden.” A clump of yew-trees, it appears, however, offered a better shelter, and to these they removed, and there remained during the erection of the monastery. Some of these trees, we believe, still remain, and are of such extraordinary size and so close together, as to corroborate the statement of the uses to which they were put above seven centuries ago. The monks adopted the Cistercian rule, and placed themselves in direct communication with the famous founder of it, St. Bernard, who sent them a monk from his own monastery of Clairvaux, to instruct them alike in spiritual and temporal affairs. Some cottages were now built, and ten other persons joined them. Terrible, and all but intolerable, as were the difficulties these men endured, their enthusiasm seems to have never slackened for a moment; they were even liberal in their severest destitution. At a time when they were obliged to feed on the leaves of trees, and herbs boiled with a little salt, a stranger came and begged for a morsel of bread: two loaves and a half were all that the community possessed; and one was given to the applicant, the abbot saying, “God would provide for them.” Almost immediately after, two men came from the neighbouring castle of Knaresborough with a present of a cartload of fine bread from Eustace FitzJohn, its lord. Left, however, entirely to the assistance of the Archbishop of York, they were, at the end of two years, about to retire to the Continent, on the invitation of St. Bernard, when prosperity at last dawned upon them; Hugh, Dean of York, falling sick, caused himself to be taken to Fountains, and settled all his immense wealth upon the community. From that time the monks steadily progressed until their establishment became one of the most distinguished in the kingdom. Its territorial wealth seems almost incredible. From the foot of Pinnigant to the boundaries of St. Wilfred, a distance exceeding thirty miles, extended without interruption its broad lands. There is a circumstance in the later history of the abbey, which, taken in connection with those already narrated as to its earlier, forms a striking commentary on the causes of the rise and fall of all such institutions. William Thirske, the last but one of all the long line of abbots, was expelled for stealing from his own abbey, and afterwards hanged at Tyburn!

Byland Abbey (Fig. 701) needs but few words. It was founded in 1177 by Roger de Mowbray, the nobleman whose estates were sequestrated by Henry I. for disloyalty, and then given to another nobleman, also of Norman extraction, who took the Mowbray name, and founded the great family of the Mowbrays, Dukes of Norfolk and Earls of Nottingham. The exquisite form of the lancet windows yet remaining in a part of the ruins, shows that Byland has been a beautiful and stately pile. The memory of our “Lady of Walsingham” demands longer pause before the beautiful ruins of the priory at that place. It is difficult to account for the reputation obtained by this monastery. In 1061, a lady, the widow of Richoldis de Favarches, erected a small chapel in honour of the Virgin Mary, in imitation of the Sancta Casa at Nazareth; and to this chapel, the lady’s son added a Priory for Augustine canons, and built a church. In these facts there does not appear to be anything at all unusual or remarkable; not the less, however, did the shrine of our Lady, erected in the chapel, become the most popular place of resort, without exception, that Old England contained. Even Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury seems to have been hardly so much visited. Foreigners came hither from all parts of the world, guided, as they fancied, by the light of the milky way, which the monks of Walsingham persuaded the people—so Erasmus says—was a miraculous indication of the way to their monastery. Many kings and queens were among the pilgrims: above all, let us not forget to mention, for the sake of the strange contrast the incident presents to the subsequent acts of the same man, Henry the Eighth came hither in the second year of his reign, and walked barefoot from the village of Basham. Not many years after, the image of our Lady was burnt at Chelsea, to the horror of the Roman Catholic world; and who should direct the act, but that same quondam worshipper and royal pilgrim to Walsingham, King Henry. Prior to the dissolution of the monastery, Erasmus visited it. The chapel, he says, then rebuilding, was distinct from the church, and contained a smaller chapel of wood, with a little narrow door on each side, where strangers were admitted to perform their devotions, and deposit their offerings; that it was lighted up with wax torches, and that the glitter of gold, silver, and jewels would lead you to suppose it to be the seat of the gods. A Saxon arch, forming part of the original chapel, still exists; and there also remain extensive portions of the church and monastery, among which may be especially mentioned, on account of its exceeding beauty, the lofty arch, sixty feet high, which formed the east end of the church, and the two wells called the Wishing wells, from which whoever drank of the waters obtained, under certain restrictions, whatever they might wish for: as least so many a devotee was told and believed. Most of the convent ruins are now included in the beautiful pleasure grounds of a modern residence known as Walsingham Abbey. (Fig. 703.)


Figure 703
703.—Walsingham Abbey, Norfolk.

Tewkesbury Church, as it is called, but which for size, plan, and magnificence may rank among our cathedrals, was, before the dissolution of monasteries, the church of the Abbey of Tewkesbury, originally founded in the Saxon times by two brothers, Dodo and Odo, who both died in 725. During the reign of the Confessor, an incident occurred which led to the temporary ruin of the foundation, and which is too remarkable to be passed without notice. Bithric, Earl of Gloucester, was sent into Normandy, on an embassy, and whilst there, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin, Earl of Flanders, fell so passionately in love with him, as to forget the delicacy of her sex and make her feelings known to him who had called them forth. Whether the earl disliked the Norman lady, or was already in love with an English one, we know not, but he at all events so discouraged the advances made that the love, as is not unfrequent in such cases, changed to hate, and left but one desire in Matilda’s heart, that of vengeance. The earl no doubt laughed at threats from such a quarter, and returned to England, where most probably the circumstance was altogether forgotten. But by and bye, news came that Matilda had married Duke William of Normandy. Time passed again, and rumours of invasion at the hands of this Duke William filled all England; and truly the duke came at last, and England was conquered. Then too came the time that Matilda had never, it seems, ceased to look forward to. She personally solicited the conqueror to place Bithric at her disposal, and having obtained possession of his person, threw him into prison at Winchester, and there he died. Many of his estates were at the same time seized by Matilda, among them the town and abbey of Tewkesbury. By William Rufus, however, the church and monastery were re-granted to Robert Fitz Hamon, who rebuilt the whole about 1102. “It cannot be easily reported,” says William of Malmesbury, “how highly he exalted this monastery, wherein the beauty of the buildings ravished the eyes, and the charity of the monks allured the hearts of such folk as used to come thither.” Among the interesting features of the interior of this Church may be particularized the monuments of the nobles and others slain in the fatal battle of Tewkesbury. (Figs. 705, 706.)

Hexham Church (Fig. 704) was also the church of a famous monastery, and, like Tewkesbury, owes its preservation, in much of its ancient magnificence, to the fact of its being used after the Reformation, as a place of worship for the town and parish. The plan is cathedral-like, including nave, choir, and transepts, though the nave, having been burnt by the Scots in the time of Edward the First, has never been rebuilt. The architecture generally is of the twelfth century, but there are both later and earlier portions; some of the last indeed being supposed to be remains of a structure that formed one of the marvels of Saxon England, the church erected by Wilfrid, Archbishop of York, in the latter part of the seventh century. It has been thus glowingly described by one who assisted to restore it from the ruin into which it had fallen. Wilfrid “began the edifice by making crypts, and subterraneous oratories, and winding passages through all parts of its foundations. The pillars that supported the walls were finely polished, square, and of various other shapes, and the three galleries were of immense height and length. These, and the capitals of their columns, and the bow of the sanctuary, he decorated with histories and images, carved in relief on the stone, and with pictures coloured with great taste. The body of the church was surrounded with wings and porticos, to which winding staircases were contrived with the most astonishing art. These staircases also led to long walking galleries, and various winding passages so contrived, that a very great multitude of people might be within them, unperceived by any person on the ground-floor of the church. Oratories, too, as sacred as they were beautiful, were made in all parts of it, and in which were altars of the Virgin, of St. Michael, St. John the Baptist, and all the Apostles, Confessors, and Virgins. Certain towers and blockhouses remain unto this day specimens of the inimitable excellence of the architecture of this structure. The relics, the religious persons, the ministers, the great library, the vestments, and utensils of the church, were too numerous and magnificent for the poverty of our language to describe. The atrium of the cathedral was girt with a stone wall of great thickness and strength, and a stone aqueduct conveyed a stream of water through the town to all the offices. The magnitude of this place is apparent from the extent of its ruins. It excelled, in the excellence of its architecture, all the buildings in England; and in truth, there was nothing like it, at that time, to be found on this side the Alps.” [Richard, Prior of Hexham.] It can hardly be supposed there were English architects to design, or English workmen to execute such a building, in the seventh century: both classes were brought from Rome.