Monastic churches in Dorset and Hampshire


The reformation, and the dissolution of the monasteries and friaries across England and Wales, turned many wonderful buildings into ruins, pillaged for stone. But not all monastic churches disappeared. Many of them took on the role of the parish church, and here Iíll be looking at three of them, close to my home in the South of England. The first is Romsey Abbey, in Hampshire.



Romsey Abbey was founded in the year 907, possibly on the site of an earlier church,  by the Saxon king Edward the Elder as a nunnery. His daughter, Princess Aelflaed, became the first abbess. In the later part of the 10th century it adopted the Benedictine rule.
  In 997 the abbey was destroyed by the Viking, Sweyn Forkbeard. The nuns had already fled to the Nunnaminster, the great nunnery at Winchester; legend has it that they had received a divine message warning them of what was about to happen.  The abbey lay deserted until 1020 when it was refounded in the reign of King Canute, and rebuilt in stone. It was rebuilt in Norman style between 1130-1140, though some Saxon features remain.  It continued as a nunnery for over 500 years. It was dissolved in 1539.
  At this time the building could have been lost. However, one part of the abbey church had served the function of a parish church for the town of Romsey, and so the town decided to buy the entire church. The price was £100.
    Architecturally, the church is endlessly fascinating. The impressive nave his three levels, arcade, triforium and clerestory: the triforium changes subtly as you move along the nave.

 

 

A unique feature is the extraordinary survival of two Anglo-Saxon roods. Both are Christus Triumphans images. The earliest, with a tenth century date, is in a chapel inside the building. Christ is nailed to a cross that is turning into the tree of life. On the left, Longinus pierces Christ with his spear: on the right, Stephaton offers Christ vinegar on a sponge. Angels seated on the cross offer Christ comfort. Originally, the eyes of the figures would have been jewels.
  Now outside, but possibly inside in Anglo-Saxon times, is another rood, dating from c 1015. Above, the hand of God is emerging from the clouds.  

    
  

Another remarkable survival is the early sixteenth century reredos, now in the chapel of St Laurence. Post reformation, it was painted over with the ten commandments, and then lost - it was rediscovered in 1813.
   The lower part of the reredos shows a resurection scene: at the top are a varied selction of saints. My reading (with a little help) from left to right is: St Jerome, St Francis, St Sebastian, a bishop (possibly St Swithun) St Scholastica, St Benedict, St Roche, one I'm not sure of, and another bishop.



Less obvious, but more extraordinary than anything yet, is the collection of Norman capitals. Some have a religious theme, though it is not always easy to work out exactly what they are showing. However, most have secular images, including battle scenes, and scenes of everyday life such harvesting. On the left below is a battle scene, but what does the capital on the right show? My guess is the Magi, but I may well be quite wrong!

   


Some more images to whet your appetite for a visit to Romsey. The panel painting was found with the reredos, though it is much older.




  
   



 On to Christchurch Priory, Dorset

 
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