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The Ruined Abbeys of England

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In every part of the land are roofless ruins of great churches, and sometimes of ranges of buildings connected with them, which group picturesquely with the beauties of nature amid which they are placed. Over the crumbling walls age has thrown its mantle, and the charm is indescribable, yet about them is the pathetic air of neglect and decay. At first sight it seems strange that in a country where cathedral and parochial churches are perpetually renewing their youth, these great Abbeys should be left in solemn loneliness, save for occasional visits of the student, the antiquary, or the curious tourist. In bygone centuries our forefathers had the high idea of honouring God with their very best, and these structures of the old recluses resounded with their chants and hymns day and night; but now -

A thousand fanes are fallen, and the bat and the owl repose
Where once the people knelt and the high Te Deum rose.

The life that was lived in the monasteries was essentially a religious life. Several causes contributed to the growth of the monastic ideal and the spread of enthusiasm for it in the centuries which witnessed the conversion of the world to Christianity. In the first place, from its earliest Jewish origin the Christian religion inherited an Oriental tendency towards retirement and a contemplative and ascetic life. Greek philosophic teachings, especially of the Neo-Platonic school which flourished at Alexandria, further emphasized the need of purification of the spirit and intellect through abstaining from every kind of physical indulgence, and the fine old Roman spirit, with its genius for austerity and discipline in life, reacted from the luxury and social disorder of a decaying Empire. Thus all the civilizing forces of the early centuries of the Christian era held up the ideal of a regulated life of self-denial, and crowning these contributory causes came the theological teaching of the Church.

A new epoch dawned for Monasticism and a fresh impetus was given to it by the work of St. Benedict of Nursia (b. 480), who systematised the monastic ideal and drew up rules for community life in accordance with it. Thus arose the Benedictine Order, the most famous and the most widely spread of all monastic confraternities. From its rule most subsequent orders took their pattern and the great majority of English religious houses belonged to it. The object of the Benedictine rule was to bind together those who devoted themselves to a life of self-denial, charity and the worship of God, on the basis of a threefold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. The life was rooted in worship, and every third hour of the day was marked by a service in the Abbey church. But devotion to God inspired service of man. Therefore each monastery had its medicine chest for the sick, its almoner who cared for the poor, and hospitality was always ready for the stranger and the wayfarer. Then in the Abbey was a school where grammar and music were taught and instruction was given in arts and crafts. The monks were skilful workmen, they made their own clothes and shoes, raised their own buildings, and were most diligent copiers of manuscripts.

The Benedictine Order laid especial stress on learning, and it is chiefly through the industry of its members that not only the Holy Scriptures and writings of the early Fathers but also many of the Classic writers have been handed down to us entire. During the Middle Ages the monasteries greatly increased in power and influence through benefactions in property and land. Further activity and responsibility followed. A great Abbey would have several churches to serve in its neighbourhood and parishes to look after, while its head became a feudal lord. The Abbot was in Episcopal orders, and was known as "Mitred." Like a diocesan bishop, he had a seat in the House of Peers, but, unlike him, he had no territorial jurisdiction, his authority being limited by the bounds of his Abbey and its various dependencies.

The premier house of the Benedictine Order in Britain was Glastonbury, because it was associated with the coming of Christianity to this island. According to cherished tradition, the religious settlement here was originated by St. Joseph of Arimathea (a.d. 63) and became the cradle and schoolroom of religion in our land. The story tells how St. Joseph and his companions arrived exhausted at "Weary-all" hill, and how the saint struck his staff into the ground, where it grew and became famous as the Holy Thorn, which invariably blossomed at Christmastide. The taking root of the staff was understood as a sign that the missionaries should settle at the spot, and here the first British church was raised - a chapel of wattle and reeds.

Throughout the era of Celtic dominance this humble structure was preserved, and in the Saxon period Paulinus (a.d. 630) protected it by casing it with timber and roofing it with lead. Later came Dunstan, appointed Abbot in 943, who began a new era of influence for Glastonbury under the Benedictine rule. After a great fire in 1184 the present Lady Chapel was built, known as St. Joseph's chapel, because it was raised on the site of St. Joseph's original sanctuary, and of the same dimensions. This stands at the west end of the ruins of the Abbey church and is in the Transition style from Norman to Early English, with north and south doorways of exceptionally rich design. The great church was dedicated in 1303, and of this the two tall piers at the entrance of the choir remain, lifting their keyless arch high above the green lawn. Nearly all the domestic buildings have disappeared, but the Abbot's Kitchen (1420) is a quaint survival, and the pilgrims' guest-house built by Abbot Selwood (1475) still receives travellers as the George Inn. Tor Hill, crowned by St. Michael's tower, was the scene of the martyrdom of the last Abbot, Richard Whiting, at the Dissolution.

The Benedictine Abbey of Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, marks the site of another cradle of present-day Christianity, and the relics of this establishment form the chief feature of the island.

Bury St. Edmunds is another Abbey associated with the early days of Christianity in England, for it grew up around the shrine of St. Edmund, King of the East Angles, put to death by the Danes at Hoxne in Suffolk (a.d. 869), and was the chief place of pilgrimage in this country until after the martyrdom of S. Thomas of Canterbury. Later, it played a part in the vindication of English liberties when within its walls was held a meeting of the barons (1214), which resulted in the signing of the Great Charter by King John. The vast Norman nave of the church, rivalled in extent only by old S. Paul's, has perished. Its plan was unusual, with a great transept at the west, having a tall tower in its centre, and flanked by round towers at either end. Such arrangement, native to the Rhineland, was only followed elsewhere in England at Ely Cathedral. The rubble core of the nave remains, converted into dwellings. Two adjuncts of the Abbey remain intact, the massive square detached bell-tower of the Norman period and the loopholed and battlemented gateway a little distance to the north.

Of the ruined Abbeys of the Fenland, Crowland has most to show. It was raised on the site of the eighth century oratory of S. Guthlac, and the story of its earlier days is connected with Hereward the Wake. Before his conversion Guthlac had been leader of a robber band, but it is said that even then such was his innate goodness that he always gave back one-third to those whom he robbed. Considerateness seems to have been the inherited tradition of the Abbey, for this characteristic is commemorated in an old Fenland rhyme which compared it with the neighbouring Abbey of Peterborough:

Peterborough the bounteous of gold and of fee.
Crowland as courteous as courteous may be.

Of the Norman church one slender arch of the central tower remains in situ. The west front with its fine statuary is Early English, but in the fifteenth century large Perpendicular windows were inserted when the nave was rebuilt. The north aisle was fitted in the seventeenth century for a parish church and still serves this purpose.

The original religious house upon the storm-swept cliff of Whitby was presided over (657-680) by Abbess Hilda, whom all that knew her called "mother" for her singular piety and grace. This was a convent for men and women and the great educational centre of Northumbria that figures largely in the pages of the Venerable Bede. Here was held the memorable synod of Straenaeshalch (as the house was then called), when the Roman reckoning for Easter, with some other details of Church order, were finally adopted by the Anglo-Saxon Church. After the Conquest a Norman Abbey, for men only, replaced the original foundation, and the ruins which still stand high above the quays and crowded alleys of the old town are those of a third church begun in 1222 by Roger de Scarvard and finished 1356. The style is uniform Early English, with some larger traceried windows of later date in the western part. It is, however, upon S. Hilda's long-vanished sanctuary and its associations that memory lingers.

While at Whitby we think of the Father of. English History - Bede. Malmesbury Abbey was the scene of the labours of William of Malmesbury (1095-1142), our greatest early historian after him. This site again takes us back to the missionary ages of the Saxon Church, for the famous S. Aldhelm, Apostle of the West Saxons, musician and church-builder, is reckoned as the founder (680). The Abbey church, of which the nave now forms a parish church, was built in the twelfth century and finished about 1180, and is a fine example of the Norman style, though the pointed arches above its massive cylindrical piers evidence the dawn of the Gothic style. Its chief glory is the south porch, whose elaborately sculptured ornament sets forth the story of the Creation, the Deluge, and the Nativity of our Lord. Within the church a curious bay window looks from the triforium into the church below. This was either a pew in which the Abbot could join in the service without descending to the church, or a watching-loft from which a monk might keep guard over the building and its many treasures.

Of Benedictine Abbeys whose foundation dates after the Norman Conquest, Battle Abbey comes first. This was founded by the Conqueror himself after his victory at Senlac (1066), the high altar of the church marking the spot where Harold fell. The church is ruined, but the Abbot's house is still a residence, and the roofless refectory remains. The early English vaults of the crypt and the scriptorium, supported by slender pillars, are very attractive. The handsome gateway to the precincts dates from 1350, and the old pilgrims' hostel may still be seen standing on the green.

It was at Barking in Essex that William the Conqueror first took up residence after the battle of Hastings. Four centuries earlier Erkenwald, Bishop of London, had founded here a nunnery which numbered royal princesses among its abbesses. Of the later buildings of the Abbey nothing remains except the fourteenth century gateway known as the "Fire-Bell Gate," in which the curfew bell was rung. Reading Abbey, like Battle, was a royal foundation, owing its inception to Henry I in 1121. It was ruled by a long line of influential Abbots, and within it councils of Church and State were held and Parliament met. Its ruins - a range of roofless and ivy-clad unfaced walls - are somewhat lacking in interest. The gateway was subject to drastic restoration by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1861, but its associations are pathetic, for in the hall above it the last Abbot, Hugh Faringdon, was tried and condemned in 1539, being afterwards shamefully hanged as a traitor.

Another Norman foundation was at Thetford, begun by Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, in 1104, of whose cruciform church there are some mutilated remains. The ruined entrance gateway was built much later, in the fifteenth century.

Buckfast Abbey, in lovely Devonshire scenery, on the bank of the Dart, is deserving of special mention because from its ruins has arisen once more a great monastic house, the property having come into the possession of Benedictines expelled from France. The Abbey prospered greatly in old time through the woollen industry of the locality, but everything had disappeared, for its stones had gone to make cloth mills, bridges and roads. Only the Abbot's Tower remained, which was found convenient for conversion to a secular dwelling.

Cluny was a famous Burgundian Abbey of the Benedictines, and from it was derived the name of a reformed branch of the same Order, founded in the eleventh century to recall the brethren to due strictness of life. Wenlock Priory in Shropshire was an important Cluniac house. The present buildings are the remains of the work begun by Roger de Montgomery, a kinsman of the Conqueror and commander of the vanguard at Hastings. The church was finished in the twelfth century. Its ruins are considerable, and afford a fine example of the Early English style, but the chapter house is part of Montgomery's building in the Norman style, greatly enriched.

By the eleventh century the Benedictines had somewhat deteriorated from the high standard set by their founder: abuses had crept in, there was too much laxity and too little discipline, while wealth was lavished on ornaments, carvings, paintings, costly vessels and embroideries. Consequently Robert de Molesmes with a few followers broke away from the, order and set up a new house at Citeaux near Dijon in 1098. This became the mother-house of a new branch of Benedictines known as Cistercians. The object of the founders was the inculcation of more severe austerity together with a rigid simplicity of worship. The sternness of the Cistercian rule found outward expression in the severity of the architecture of the churches of the Order, which refused the appeal of an elaborate art.

All the Cistercian churches referred to below show transition to a new style or exhibit the Gothic in all the pristine beauty of its dawn. The period was one of special devotion to our Lady, and this accounts for the absence of a Lady Chapel in a Cistercian church. It was deemed superfluous, since all churches of the Order were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

The first house of the Order in England was founded in 1128 at Waverley, Surrey, by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester. But it was in the wild and remote vales of Yorkshire and Wales, where there was ample scope for agricultural enterprise to make the wilderness blossom as the rose, that most Cistercian monasteries were built, and nearly all the great Yorkshire Abbeys belonged to the Order. Rievaulx was the first of these to be founded, in 1131, and between that date and 1175 there followed Fountains, Kirkstall. Jervaulx, Roche and Byland, all exhibiting in their architecture the transition from Norman to Gothic. Fountains is one of the stateliest monastic ruins in England. Its church is fairly complete and its notable feature is the range of chapels at the east with tall, slender piers still standing. The community became very wealthy, and the monks so far forgot the fear of ostentation which originally marked their Order as to build a tall bell-tower (1490-1524) in the Perpendicular style, finished not long before the fall of the house. At Rievaulx the roofless church stands in a most beautiful setting, described at the time of its foundation as "a great and dreadful solitude." Here, as at Kirkstall, so much is left that it is not difficult to reconstruct in mind the whole noble church, but at Roche and Byland the ruins are fragmentary.

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