Romesy Abbey, St. Peter’s in the East and Aspatria.

Romsey Church, the chief remain of Romsey Abbey, is generally supposed to have been built by the kings Edward the Elder and Edgar; but the regularity of the plan, no less than the finished character of the workmanship of the building, have induced high authorities, Mr. Britton for instance, to attribute the erection to the latter part of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century —the very period that the records of the Abbey have made so full of interest, in connection with its internal affairs. Royally founded —Romsey seems also, through a succession of Abbesses, to have been long royally governed. But it is not that circumstance simply that has invested the fine old church and the neighbouring ruins with an attraction even more potent than that of their architecture. We have more than once had occasion to mention the good queen Maud or Matilda, the wife of Henry I.; it was from Romsey Abbey the king took her to become his bride, and under very important circumstances. She had been educated here from her childhood, under the care of the Abbess Christina, her relative, and cousin to the Confessor, who had evidently cherished in Maud a lofty spirit, well becoming the daughter of the king of Scotland, and a descendant on the mother’s side of the great Alfred. As she grew up, many suitors appeared, among them Alan, Earl of Richmond, who died before he could obtain an answer from the king, Rufus; and William de Garenne, Earl of Surrey, who does appear to have obtained an answer and a refusal. When Rufus died, and Henry came to the throne, a new, and what most women would have thought a dazzling, prospect opened upon Maud; the young king himself appeared as her suitor. But the recollections of the bloody field of Hastings, on which had been destroyed the nationality of her country, pressed stronger upon her mind than the personal advantage which might accrue to herself from marrying the grandson of the Conqueror; so she desired to be permitted to decline the match. But the country and the people she so loved were even more interested than Maud in the success of the proposal. She was told she might restore the ancient honour of England, and be a pledge of reconciliation and friendship between the two races; whilst otherwise their enmity would be everlasting. Maud could not resist that argument, and at last reluctantly consented. But now a new difficulty arose. Many among the Normans, who were not at all desirous of seeing an end put to the state of things that had given them so much power, asserted that Maud was positively a nun; that she had been seen wearing the veil, which made her for ever the spouse of Christ. Maud’s explanation is one of those very interesting passages of ancient history which give us a true and most melancholy picture of the state of the people during the first few years after the Conquest. Having denied that she had ever taken the veil, she said, “I must confess that I have sometimes appeared veiled, but listen to the cause: in my first youth, when I was living under her care, my aunt, to save me, as she said, from the lust of the Normans, who attacked all females, was accustomed to throw a piece of black stuff over my head, and when I refused to cover myself with it she treated me very roughly. In her presence I wore that covering, but as soon as she was out of sight I threw it on the ground, and trampled it under my feet in childish anger.” The chief ecclesiastics of England in solemn council determined, in effect, that this explanation was sufficient, by declaring Maud free. The marriage accordingly took place, and threw a momentary gleam of sunshine over the hearts of the miserable Saxon people. The history of another abbess suggests less gratifying materials for reflection. It is an old story, — that of human passions stifled, and therefore burning but with greater intensity, within the walls of the cloister, whither the unhappy man or woman has retired in the hope of obtaining a peace denied them in the world—that peace which passeth all understanding. But old though this story be, it is ever full of instruction, ever sure of sympathy, when we are permitted to throw the veil aside, and see the true being who is hidden beneath. Such cases are necessarily rare, indeed almost confined to those most awful of events in the histories of our monasteries, when, bursting through all the restraints it had voluntarily imposed upon itself, but which force subsequently maintained, the heart of the unhappy recluse has demanded, at any hazard, its restoration to the general heart of humanity, to share again in all the cares and distresses and exacting demands of the world, but also in all the pleasurable enjoyments which are for ever welling up at our feet, even at the most unexpected times, and in the most unanticipated places, when we pursue with steady purpose the path that duty has marked out for us. If it be true that without occasional solitude the best of us may pass through life in ignorance of that which, of all other things, it most concerns us to know—ourselves, it is no less true, that without a participation in all the healthful activities of life, we shall most probably learn nothing either of ourselves or of others: in a word, we may vegetate, but can hardly be said to live. In the records of Romsey we have a glimpse of one of those terrible struggles between human affections and mental aspirations—between the continual beatings of the heart against its cage for liberty, and the chill repressive bonds of custom, aided by the fearful whisperings of the conscience, “This thing that thou desirest, it were wickedness to do.” The termination of the struggle, however, was less tragical than such terminations have too often been, probably from the fact that the culprit was at once an abbess and a princess. Mary was the youngest and, at the time of her entering the abbey, only surviving daughter of King Stephen; a circumstance that, taken in connection with her subsequent history, renders it probable there was some extraordinary reason for her assuming the veil. From a simple nun, she was raised to the rank of abbess, on the first vacancy perhaps, but it soon became evident that her affections did not that way tend; the religious world of England was suddenly surprised and horrified to hear that the abbess of Romsey had been secretly conveyed to Flanders, and there married to Matthew, son of the earl of that country. To compel her return to the monastery under such circumstances, much less to punish the offender for leaving it, was out of the question; but if the lovers could not be prevented from living together, as they continued to do for no less than ten years, they could be harassed by the incessant interferences and alarmed by the extreme denunciations of the spiritual powers; and these at last seem to have made their union unendurable. So after the long period mentioned, during which two children had been born, the unfortunate abbess was fain to seek a reconciliation with the Church, by consenting to a divorce, and then returning to her monastery. God help her! There needs no record to tell us that she must have had a weary time of it for the remainder of her life. The church is pleasantly as well as commandingly situated, with the green and quiet-looking churchyard of Romsey on this side (Fig. 726), and a pretty little garden on that; here a paved court, once the court of the abbey—there the Sessions Hall, on the site of the monastic buildings, in which the abbess and her nuns and the father Confessors once resided. The oldest and most interesting parts of the structure are the chancel, transepts, and eastern part of the nave, which are all of the richest as well as purest Norman style (Figs. 725, 727); the other or western portion was Gothic. In the interior are some memorials of the lady abbesses, and an inscription, charming for its simplicity, “Here lies Sir William Petty:” referring, it is hardly necessary to say, to the well-known and estimable ancestor of the Marquis of Lansdowne. From the top of the towers a delightful view is obtained of the surrounding country; though, until of late years, visitors who ascended to the spot were generally drawn thither to examine Nature on a more limited scale, or, in other words, to admire an apple-tree that had grown upon a small quantity of mould, and there flourished, and put forth its flowers and fruit, regularly as the seasons came, for two or more centuries, and only died at last of sheer old age.

Among the churches of Oxford valuable for their antiquity, the most remarkable is St. Peter’s in the East, one of the many relics about which the learned disagree as to their Saxon or Norman origin. It is not certainly known when or by whom it was founded, but it is generally attributed to St. Grimbald, who intended his remains to lie in the crypt (Fig. 718); but the good saint, being nettled by some disputes between him and his scholars, indignantly removed his monumental preparations to Winchester. The crypt designed for that honour remains the most remarkable part of St. Peter’s. It has a vaulted roof, and low massive pillars in four ranges, and looks altogether like a subterranean cathedral on a small scale. In the churchyard lies the antiquary Hearne. Aspatria is a long straggling village in Allerdale, below Derwent. The church is dedicated to St. Kentigern, and of rich Norman style. (Fig. 721.) A gigantic skeleton was found in a chest in the neighbourhood; on its left side lay a broad-sword, five feet in length; on the right a dirk, a foot and a half in length, the handle studded with silver. Other discoveries have been also made. Barfreston Church is a highly prized remain of architectural antiquity, seated in a remote and barren part of Kent, on open downs. (Fig. 723.) At the Domesday Survey it formed a part of the vast estates of the Bishop of Bayeux. Subsequently it was attached to the castle at Dover. Its dimensions are unusually narrow, suited to the scanty population of the district. The most interesting part of the structure is the south or principal portal, which, in every point of view, is elaborate and sumptuous, with some extraordinary allegorical sculpture. (Fig. 727.)