The Mother of Westminster
The history of Pershore Abbey is beautifully illustrated in two stained glass windows in the south choir aisle of the present building. There are rather confused accounts of the beginnings of the Abbey. The earliest date to which it is pushed back is AD 689, when a certain Oswald, joint-King of the Hwicce and nephew to Aethelred I of Mercia, founded it. (This Oswald is neither the sainted King of Northumbria (d. 642) nor, of course, the Bishop of Worcester.) At the same time, his brother, Osric, founded St. Peter's Priory (Cathedral) in Gloucester. That this is substantially true we need not doubt; but, as in other cases, we must assume that the foundation was not a regular Benedictine house. We hear of secular canons, then of monks, then of seculars again, and nuns. This means that down to the times of the great Benedictine reform (circa AD 980) there was a laxity of rule.
William of Malmesbury says nothing of Oswald, but records that Aegelward, Earl of Dorset, founded Pershore in the days of King Edgar the Peacemaker. William is a good and sober authority, but he cannot be quite right here. We have a genuine charter of Edgar, of AD 972 (written in an amazingly complicated style, as is the habit of the time), which confirms many lands to the Abbey. It speaks of their having been given "in old and recent times by kings and pious persons of both sexes," which shows that there was already, by this time, a religious foundation at Pershore of some standing. Moreover, we hear of the monastery being devastated by the Danes in AD 958. Shortly after King Edgar's time, the Benedictine rule was established here by St. Oswald of Worcester; but an anti-monastic reaction in the early 980s led to the alienation, to Earl Alfhere of Mercia, of a very large share of its lands. "More than half its endowments," says William of Malmesbury. The Earl is said to have died miserably for such a crime. Rats ate him alive!
It was at about the time of the Benedictine reform that Earl Aegelward had acquired for Pershore, at a great price, a major portion of the bones of St. Edburga of Winchester. She was always the principal saint honoured here, but should not be confused with other St. Edburgas from elsewhere. This lady was a daughter of King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. When she was a child, her father put her to a test by placing before her on one side bracelets and necklaces, on the other a chalice and gospel-book. She chose the latter and became a nun at Winchester. Her relics were eventually enshrined in the south transept of the post-Conquest Abbey church at Pershore, where they became a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.
In 1002, fire destroyed the early Saxon building and a new structure took eighteen years to complete. Earl Odda, of "Odda's Chapel" fame, from Deerhurst, was a generous benefactor to this building and he was buried there in 1056.
The next great event in Pershore history was the establishment of Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor. The King used the Abbey's previously alienated lands to endow his new foundation; and William I continued the process. Hence the division of both parishes and influence within the town. St. Andrew's Church was built for Westminster tenants in Pershore and the Dean and Chapter are still patrons of the living there. This small Worcestershire town has been called the mother of Westminster, but the honour is hardly one she can have desired.
A new Norman Abbey was erected between 1090 and 1130 and the Benedictine monks seem to have flourished there. Their fortunes, however, were seriously effected by a number of major fires at the Abbey. In 1223, flames destroyed the presbytery of the abbey church. This was rebuilt by 1239, but a second fire, only fifty years later, brought down the tower right across the new presbytery roof. It took another fifty years for the devastating ruins to be rebuilt in the beautiful decorated style to be seen today. By this time, however, the abbey had only two hundred years of monastic life left.
The Tudor Age saw a decline in the morals of monastic life and Pershore did not escape such laxity. There is a letter in existence, from a monk of the Abbey to Thomas Cromwell, written just before the institution's suppression in 1540. It is a dreadful composition. The man is trying to curry favour with Cromwell and says everything he can against his brother monks. It is very likely that some of it is actually true. Some lines shall be quoted. The spelling is terrific:
"Now, most gracyus lord and most worthyst vycytar that ever cam amonckes us, helpe me owt of thys vayne relygyon and macke me your servant, handemayd and beydman and save my sowlle. . . . Now y wyll ynstrux your grace sumwatt of telygyus men. . . . Monckes, drynk an(d) bowll after collacyon till ten or XII of the clock, and cum to mattens as dronck as myss (mice) and sume at cardes, sume at dyyss (dice) and at tabulles, sume cum to mattens begenynge at the mydes (midst) and sume when yt ys allmost done, and wold not cum ther so, only for boddly punnysment, nothyng for Codes sayck."
The Suppression Commissioners would be very glad to get such a letter as this and, no doubt, did their best for Richard Beerley, the writer of it. The annual value, net, at the surrender was £633. The Sheldon family subsequently obtained the site.
In the ordinary way, the nave of the church would have been granted to the parishioners as their parish church and the choir and transepts destroyed. Here, however, the people of Pershore, with excellent sense, exchanged the nave for the choir which they bought for a mere £400. Had more money been forthcoming they would, very likely, have bought the whole church as was done at Tewkesbury. So, then, here the choir and transepts remain and the nave has gone.
Edited from M.R. James' "Abbeys" (1925).Click for the Architectural Evolution of Pershore Abbey.
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