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Peeps at Some Historic Priories

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In taking a brief survey of some of our more interesting priories - still in part extant - the simplest scheme to follow is to start with a description of those in the West Country, to move eastward, and thence to the North of England. By this method of progress the first priory to come under notice is Ewenny, situated near the sea in the fertile low country known as the Vale of Glamorgan. It is not so well known as it should be, seeing that Professor Freeman, as well as the German text-books, regard it as the best specimen of a fortified ecclesiastical building in Britain. It dates from William II, when lowland Glamorgan was conquered from the Welsh by a group of Norman knights under Fitzhamon, who became Earl of Gloucester and Glamorgan. Each one had a share, which he proceeded to fortify by a great castle under licence from the king and subject to the immediate suzerainty of the great earl at Cardiff. As semi-independent Lords Marchers, with modified powers as time progressed, they thus remained till Henry VIII divided South Wales into counties. To one of these families, the Turbervilles, originally lords of the neighbouring fief of Coity, Ewenny still belongs.

It is a beautiful example of an ancient residence connected with a monastic church, in this case divided by a massive central tower into two parts. One was the priory church, the other parochial, and is still used as such. The monastery was founded in 1141 by the de Londres family, Lords Marchers of Ogmore, for the Benedictine Order as a cell of Gloucester. Nearly one half of the large double church is original Norman work, but the great feature of the building is its Norman style throughout - the thirteenth and fourteenth century additions being for some reason constructed upon the same lines. A comparatively small portion of the church is modern, which, however, is bad work.

The massive central tower rises with much dignity above the intersection, terminating in a remarkable military parapet, suggestive of the continual wars waged in this border country. Opening out of the presbytery at each side is a ruinous chapel, while within it has some exceptionally fine Romanesque vaulting, both of the barrel and groined cellular variety. Among several ancient tombs in the transept is that of the founder, Maurice de Londre, inscribed in Norman characters. Till the late eighteenth century the entire precincts were surrounded by a high embattled wall, some of which remains. The interesting priory house, now occupied by the owner, contains much old work and abuts on the church.

Crossing the Severn at Tewkesbury, one finds in sight of that noble abbey church the priory of Deerhurst, notable for its part Saxon church and wholly Saxon detached chapel. It is the remains of a great Saxon monastery founded late in the eighth century; a deed is extant at Oxford conveying lands to it in 804. The south wall of the nave, the chancel arch, and the lower half of the western tower date from about 980. In 1064 the Norman-loving Edward the Confessor stripped Deerhurst of half its revenues for his abbey of Westminster, and bestowed it on the monks of St. Denis near Paris, thereby reducing it to the state of an alien priory. Subsequently, however, 'it became a cell of Tewkesbury. The Saxon monastery is thought to have been ravaged by the Danes. It was here that Canute and Edmund Ironside met and made their agreement to divide England between them. The nave of four bays with aisles is Early English, but there is a very interesting double Saxon window with triangular caps in the east wall of the tower. The church was originally cruciform, with long transepts. Adjoining it is a most interesting fifteenth-century court-house - now a farmhouse.

But perhaps the most striking object in the precincts is the small Saxon chapel above alluded to, consisting of nave and chancel with a dedication stone in the outer wall. "This altar was dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity." This chapel, 45.feet long, was only discovered and cleared of its lumber by a recent rector of antiquarian tastes. It had been hitherto disguised, like the famous Saxon chapel at Bradford-on-Avon, as labourers' cottages. Deerhurst is a most charming two-mile walk across the fields from Tewkesbury.

Ascending the Severn from Tewkesbury for some twelve miles one comes within sight of the imposing central tower of the cruciform church of Malvern Priory springing finely up from its leafy surroundings, with the most shapely hills in England for their moderate height rising nobly above it. Medieval Worcestershire was the most ecclesiastical county in England. The three great abbeys of Worcester, Evesham and Pershore, besides Westminster as an absentee proprietor, left little room for baronial territory and sway. But the strip across the Severn, then a sprawling, swamp-fringed river, was all in wild woods and full of wild people when the little group of pioneer monks founded the monastery as a cell of Westminster. They were regarded at the time as quite heroic adventurers. It was in the foreground of the actual scene overlooked by the author of Piers Plowman. Only a double gatehouse with an oriel window remains besides the fine priory church, which at the dissolution of the monasteries the parish purchased and still uses.

The nave of six bays is Norman, beneath a Perpendicular clerestory. The north wing alone remains of the transept; the central tower is panelled and displays open pinnacles. The presbytery of two bays dates from 1460. The Lady-chapel, however, built over an ancient crypt, has gone. There are twenty-four stalls with carved misericords. Several of the large windows represent the achievements of S. Wulfstan, the founder of the monastery.

Going south into Wiltshire, one finds near Westbury, and beneath its famous "White Horse down," the beautiful priory church of Edington, built by William de Edindon, bishop of Winchester, in this his native place, about 1347. He had already founded a college here, but at the instigation of the Black Prince he changed its Order into that of the Augustine monks known as Bonholme. The cruciform church is of beautiful design and full of interesting detail, and some of the original oak benches remain. The groined south porch has a priests' room over it, while the massive central tower is supported by noble arches. The stone walls of the priory gardens still remain, and the ancient fishponds may be traced.

Several effigies, both of the medieval and Tudor periods, survive, and the floor, once rich in brasses, shows ample traces of the despoiler's hand. The stone of the monastic buildings was carried away at the Dissolution by the grantee, Lord Seymour, to build his mansion in the neighbourhood, now reproduced in the later one of Erlestoke.

Passing farther south into Hampshire and down to the coast, we find the great Priory of Christchurch, founded in 1156 by Bishop Flambard and the Earl of Devon. It is about five miles east of Bournemouth and stands at the mouth of the Wiltshire and Hampshire Avon. The view of it from the bridge, including the perched-up ruins of the castle and the old Norman castellan hall by the water, is very striking. The priory church is parochial, and, forming the background to the scene, displays a beautiful blend of Norman and Early English over 300 feet long. The nave was the work of Flambard, the architect of Durham, and up to the triforium inclusive is pure Norman with a Transitional clerestory. The transept also is Norman, with a very perfect round turret at the north-east, decorated with a network design. The spacious north porch is Early English. The choir is entered through a magnificent screen with rood loft of the time of Edward III. There are three crypts beneath the transept and sanctuary.

Other remains of the priory include the dormitory stairs at the west of the south aisle. Outside, the mill and the porter's lodge of the sixteenth century remain. A walk by the river used of old by the monks still retains the name of "Paradise." The wide hospitality and charity extended by this great house made its dissolution keenly felt, and urgent but vain efforts were made to save it.

Turning eastward into Sussex, the only priories in that county to be noticed here are those of Wilmington and Michelham. Both of these are in the near neighbourhood of Eastbourne. Wilmington was an alien house attached to the Benedictine abbey of Grastain near Honfleur, and was suppressed with others by Henry V. It was founded in the eleventh century by Robert, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of Pevensey, near the church of coeval date, which boasts a yew tree 800 years old. The tower gateway of the priory still remains, while above rises the slope of the down, showing on its face the large, mysterious figure of the Wilmington Giant, outlined in white stones. Not far away in the Cuckmere valley is Michelham, where, again, a three-storied Perpendicular tower defending the bridge over the moat is nearly all that remains of the priory. Other surviving fragments include those of a refectory and lavatory, a vaulted passage with a fireplace and doors. The house was founded by Gilbert de Aquita in the reign of Henry III for Augustinians.

Passing on to the Eastern Midlands, here are two notable priories in Bedfordshire. One of them is Chicksands, founded in 1150 by Pain de Beauchamp and his wife for nuns and canons of the order of S. Gilbert of Sempringham, and the lady foundress spent her widowhood here. Pain's son gave the church to the nuns, and in 1317 they were granted the manor. Soon after the Dissolution, Chicksands came into the hands of the Osborne family, who still own and reside in it, though the priory retains much of its monastic appearance and a good deal of the monastic work. Two sides of the cloisters, which formed a quadrangle, are still almost perfect, and their windows have been filled with ancient stained glass. Various old relics, too, have been collected and deposited here, not all, however, actually associated with the spot. A portion of the building used as a chapel and some adjoining ones show vaulted and groined stone roofs.

The other Bedfordshire priory to be noticed is Dun-stable, almost wholly represented by the parish church, which contains a fine Norman nave with a Perpendicular clerestory. The west front has a good Norman porch with some Early English and Perpendicular additions, including an Early English stone gallery The town was founded by Henry I with the intention of protecting the. frequented northern road on which it stood from robbers, who abounded in the neighbourhood. About 1131 the king bestowed it on the Priory of Black Canons which he had recently founded near the mansion where he and some of his successors frequently resided and occasionally kept Christmas with great splendour. In 1204 John gave palace and gardens to the priory, on condition of their accommodating the monarch on his visitations. A farmhouse now occupies the site. Many historical meetings took place and several kings sojourned at the priory during the Middle Ages. The first miracle play acted in England, that of S. Catherine, was performed here, and it was in this church that Cranmer pronounced the sentence of divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

Turning south-eastwards, S. Martin's Priory at Dover claims attention. The magnificent church of this once powerful monastery was unfortunately demolished for house-building purposes in 1845. The large refectory, gatehouse (1320) and guest house remain, and fortunately stand within the grounds and in the safe keeping of Dover College. The house was founded in the eighth century and was the spiritual and, in a measure, no doubt the material prop of ancient Dover. Together with the town, it was so badly damaged by William the Conqueror's soldiers that he not only compensated the citizens but re-endowed and rebuilt the priory.

From the twelfth century the housing of the crowds of oversea pilgrims flocking to Becket's shrine at Canterbury was an always serious problem for Dover. in which the hospitality of the priory was severely tested. As de facto head of the Cinque Port towns and officially the chief port for the Continent, town and priory were also called upon to deal with a continual stream of outgoing English pilgrims bound for Compostella and other Continental shrines. But in course of time the Benedictine monks of the priory fell into such dissolute habits that the archbishop, to whom it had been handed over, expelled them bodily and introduced an entirely new set - a stern measure which preserved, however, the monastery's utility and reputation till the Dissolution of the monasteries in Henry VIII's reign.

In East Anglia Colchester and S. Osyth, both in Essex; are especially interesting In regard to the former the Priory of S. Botolph and S. Julian was founded about 1107 by Abbot Eynulph of Peterborough as one of the earliest houses of Augustinian canons - an order exempt from all secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction save that of the Pope - and of which Canterbury was the chief seat. A subsequent benefactor, Hugh Fitzhaven, had his grant confirmed by Henry III on condition of a horse of 5 value for forty days for any Welsh wars. The buildings were granted at the Dissolution to Thomas Audley, the King's Chancellor and builder of Audley End. The church, however, was acquired by the parish and used as the municipal church of Colchester till it was destroyed in the Civil War by the guns of Fairfax. There are still, however, some fine remains: the west front, with intersecting arcades of Roman bricks, six bays on the north and three on the south side of the nave.

The Priory of S. Osyth on the Essex coast, though actually for 400 years an abbey, was founded early in the twelfth century for regular canons of S. Augustine by Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London, in honour of S. Peter and S. Paul and S. Osyth, virgin and martyr, daughter of Frithwald, the first Christian King of the East Angles. The story runs that when, against her wish, which was to be a nun, she was in the very act of being married, the ceremony was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a white stag, which drew off the bridegroom and party in hot pursuit. Upon this the bride fled with her maidens to a neighbouring Saxon bishop, who promptly professed her as a nun. Later on she endowed and became the abbess of a nunnery at S. Osyth, to be subsequently murdered by heathen Danish raiders.

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