Tewkesbury Abbey

From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
Tewkesbury Abbey

Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Status: parish church
Tewkesbury Abbey 2011.jpg
Tewkesbury Abbey
Church of England
Diocese of Gloucester
Grid reference: SO89083244
Location: 51°59’25"N, 2°9’37"W
Website: tewkesburyabbey.org.uk

The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Tewkesbury, commonly known as Tewkesbury Abbey, is a grand church in Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. It is the second largest parish church in the Church of England.

The church was once the church of a wealthy Benedictine monastery. It is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Britain, and has probably the largest Romanesque crossing tower in Europe.


Oddo and Doddo, legendary founders of Tewkesbury Abbey
The Norman arch of the facade

The Chronicle of Tewkesbury records that the first Christian worship was brought to the area by Theoc, a missionary from Northumbria, who built his cell in the mid-7th century near a gravel spit where the River Avon meets the Severn. The cell was succeeded by a monastery in 715, but nothing remaining of it has been identified.

In the 10th century the religious foundation at Tewkesbury became a priory subordinate to the Benedictine Cranbourne Abbey in Dorset.[1] In 1087, William the Conqueror gave the manor of Tewkesbury to his cousin, Robert Fitzhamon, who, with Giraldus, Abbot of Cranbourne, founded the present abbey in 1092. Building of the present Abbey church did not start until 1102, employing Caen stone imported from Normandy and floated up the Severn.

Robert Fitzhamon was wounded at Falaise in Normandy in 1105 and died two years later, but his son-in-law, Robert FitzRoy, the natural son of Henry I who was made Earl of Gloucester, continued to fund the building work. The Abbey's greatest single later patron was Lady Eleanor le Despenser, last of the De Clare heirs of FitzRoy. In the High Middle Ages, Tewkesbury became one of the richest abbeys of England.

After the Battle of Tewkesbury in the Wars of the Roses on 4 May 1471, some of the defeated Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the abbey. The victorious Yorkists, led by King Edward IV, forced their way into the abbey; the resulting bloodshed caused the building to be closed for a month until it could be purified and re-consecrated.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the last abbot, John Wakeman, surrendered the abbey to the commissioners of King Henry VIII on 9 January 1539. Perhaps because of his cooperation with the proceedings, he was awarded an annuity of 400 marks and was consecrated as the first Bishop of Gloucester in September 1541. Meanwhile, the people of Tewkesbury saved the abbey from destruction. Insisting that it was their parish church which they had the right to keep, they bought it from the Crown for the value of its bells and lead roof which would have been salvaged and melted down, leaving the structure a roofless ruin. The price came to £453.

The bells merited their own free-standing belltower, an unusual feature in Britain. After the Dissolution, the bell-tower was used as the gaol for the borough until it was demolished in the late 18th century.

The central stone tower was originally topped with a wooden spire, which collapsed in 1559 and was never rebuilt. Some restoration undertaken in the 19th century under Sir Gilbert Scott included the rood screen that replaced the one removed when the Abbey became a parish church.

Flood waters from the nearby River Severn reached inside the Abbey during severe floods in 1760, and again on 23 July 2007.

Construction time-line

Arms of Richard de Clare in the Founders Book
  • 23 October 1121 – the choir consecrated
  • 1150 – tower and nave completed
  • 1178 – large fire necessitated some rebuilding
  • ~1235 – Chapel of St Nicholas built
  • ~1300 – Chapel of St. James built
  • 1321–1335 – choir rebuilt with radiating chantry chapels
  • 1349–59 – tower and nave vaults rebuilt; the Lierne (vault)|lierne vaults of the nave replacing wooden roofing
  • 1400–1410 – cloisters rebuilt
  • 1438 – Chapel of Isabel (Countess of Warwick) built
  • 1471 – Battle of Tewkesbury; bloodshed within church so great that it is closed
  • 1520 – Guesten house completed (later became the vicarage)


The nave

The church itself is one of the finest Norman buildings in Britain. Its massive crossing tower was said to be "probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England" by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Fourteen of England's cathedrals are of smaller dimensions, while only Westminster Abbey contains more mediæval church monuments.

The Three Organs

The organ and east end
  • The Abbey's 17th-century organ – known as the Milton Organ – was originally made for Magdalen College, Oxford, by Robert Dallam. After the Civil War it was removed to the chapel of Hampton Court Palace, where the poet Milton may have played it.[2] It came to Tewkesbury in 1737. Since then, it has undergone several major rebuilds. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.[3]
  • In the North Transept is the stupendous Grove Organ, built by the short-lived partnership of Michell & Thynne in 1885: [2].
  • The third organ in the Abbey is the Elliott chamber organ of 1812, mounted on a movable platform: [3].

The bells

The tower: the largest Romanesque crossing tower in Europe

The bells at the Abbey were overhauled in 1962. The ring is now made up of twelve bells, hung for change ringing, cast in 1962, by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough.[4] The inscriptions of the old 5th and 10th bells are copied in facsimile onto the new bells. The bells have modern cast iron headstocks and all run on self-aligning ball bearings. They are hung in the north-east corner of the tower, and the ringing chamber is partitioned off from the rest of the tower. There is also a semitone bell (Flat 6th) also cast by Taylor of Loughborough in 1991.

The Old Clock Bells are the old 6th (Abraham Rudhall II, 1725), the old 7th (Abraham Rudhall I, 1696), the old 8th (Abraham Rudhall I, 1696) and the old 11th (Abraham Rudhall I, 1717). In St Dunstan's Chapel, at the east end of the Abbey, is a small disused bell inscribed T. MEARS FECT. 1837

The Abbey bells are rung from 10:15am to 11:00am every Sunday except the first Sunday of the month (a quarter peal). There is also ringing for Evensong from 4:00pm to 5:00pm, except on the third Sunday (a quarter peal) and most fifth Sundays. Practice takes place each Thursday from 7:30pm to 9:00pm.[4]

Abbey precincts

The town of Tewkesbury developed to the north of the abbey precincts, of which vestiges remain in the layout of the streets and a few buildings: the Abbot's gatehouse, the Almonry barn, the Abbey Mill, Abbey House, the present vicarage and some half-timbered dwellings in Church Street. The Abbey now sits partly isolated in lawns, like a cathedral in its cathedral close, for the area surrounding the Abbey is protected from development by the Abbey Lawn Trust, originally funded by a United States benefactor in 1962.[5]


The Abbey possesses, in effect, two choirs. The Abbey Choir sings at Sunday services, with children (boys and girls) and adults in the morning, and adults in the evening. Schola Cantorum is a professional choir of men and boys based at Dean Close Preparatory School and sings at weekday Evensongs as well as occasional masses and concerts. The Abbey School Tewkesbury, which educated, trained and provided choristers to sing the service of Evensong from its foundation in 1973 by Miles Amherst, closed in 2006; the choir was then re-housed at Dean Close School, Cheltenham, and renamed the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Tewkesbury Abbey)


  1. The priories of Cranbourne and Horton
  2. Harper, John (May 1986). "The Organ of Magdalen College, Oxford. 1: The Historical Background of Earlier Organs, 1481 - 1985". The Musical Times, Vol. 127, No. 1718. Musical Times Publications Ltd.. pp. 293–296. http://www.jstor.org/stable/965479. Retrieved 3 October 2014.  (accessed via JSTOR, subscription required)
  3. Tewkesbury, Abbey of St. Mary the Virgin, Church Street (D03548)
  4. 4.0 4.1 The bells of Tewkesbury Abbey – by David Bagley
  5. [1].
  • Morris, Richard K. & Shoesmith, Ron (editors) (2003) Tewkesbury Abbey: history, art and architecture. Almeley: Logaston Press ISBN 1-904396-03-8