EBK Home
  Kingdoms
  Royalty
  Saints  
  Pedigrees
  Archaeology
  King Arthur
  Adversaries
  For Kids
  Mail David

 


The Norman Abbey Church TodaySt. Mary &
St. Aethelflaed's Abbey Church, Romsey

Founded in AD 907

Saxon History

Romsey Abbey was founded by King Edward the Elder in 907 for his daughter, Princess Aelflaed, a nun at Wilton who became the first Abbess of Romsey. There was an increase in interest in the female monastic life around this time and the King probably wanted to make extra provision for widowed and unmarried ladies of the Royal family. He had recently completed the building of the New Minster in Winchester and perhaps he saw Romsey as its sister foundation. The site was about equidistant from the nunneries at Winchester and Wilton and may have been chosen for its potential development as a defensive burgh. Little is known of this first Abbey, though it may have received a grant of land in Kingsclere from King Edmund the Magnificent in 943.

During the popular reformation of the late 10th century, Romsey Abbey was completely re-founded under the Benedictine Rule by King Edgar the Peacable (967). A pious noblewoman named Merewenna was made Abbess and she was given charge of the Queen's young step-daughter, Aethelflaed. Both Ladies were successive Abbesses and were also reverred as saints. King Edgar took a special interest in Romseya nd his young son was buried there. He gave the nuns the right to choose their own Abbess after Merewenna died and he also granted them lands in Edington (Wiltshire) and large woodland estates in return for which the nuns handed over gifts of a "finely wrought dish, armlets splendidly chased and a scabbard adorned with gold" valued at 112 10s. Nobles like Ealdorman Aethelmaer of Hampshire (d.982) also enhanced the Abbey's coffers around this time. The Saxon Abbey complex was destroyed by Sweyn Forkbeard and his Viking soldiers during a raid in 994. The nuns, apparently warned by divine intervention, were able flee to the Nunnaminster in Winchester.

The Nuns may not have returned to Romsey until the reign of King Canute around 1020. It is not clear in what state they found the monastery buildings, but ten years later the community was thriving, as a unique census of fifty-four nuns under Abbess Wulfwynn shows.

The Abbey continued to thrive until April 1539 when it was formerly disolved. The Abbey Church was saved for future generations when it was bought, for 100, by the parishioners of Romsey for use as their Parish Church in February 1544.

Notable Burials

Princess Aelflaed, Abbess of Romsey, d.959
St. Merewenna, Abbess of Romsey, d.c.970
Prince Edmund of England, d.971
Princess St. Aethelflaed, Abbess of Romsey, d.c.995

Artifacts

Joel from St. Cuthbert's StoleA beautifully embroidered stole given by King Athelstan to the Shrine of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street was discovered in the Saint's coffin when it was opened at Durham in 1827. Embroidered on it, in Latin, are the words "Aelflaed had me made for the pious Bishop Frithestan". The latter person is Bishop Frithestan of Winchester and, though the lady in question is usually assumed to be the King's step-mother, it could easily have been her daughter, Princess Aelflaed, the first Abbess of Romsey. It seems highly probable that the stole was made upon her instruction by the nuns of Romsey, though the Winchester Nunnaminster is another possibilty.

Architectural Features

Architecturally, Romsey Abbey is almost entirely of the Norman period and a finer example, you will be hard pushed to find. However, amongst the stonework are some extraordinary survivors from an earlier Saxon Building.

Saxon Crucifix c.1015On the wall of the transept outside the Abbess' Door, on the South side of the Abbey Church, is a large high relief carving of Christ on the Cross which dates from around 1000-1025. It may origainlly have graced the east wall of the nave of the old saxon Church. Christ is upright with head erect and arms outstrecthed in welcoming. While above, the Hand of God appears from the clouds to acknowldge his son. The carving is protected from the weather by a modern canopy.

Saxon Crucifix, St. Anne's Chapel, c.967Above the altar in St. Anne's Chapel, in the South Quire Aisle of the Abbey Church, is a second, this time low relief, carving of the Crucifixion. With its Byzantine influences, it is considered by many experts to be the oldest such sculpture in the country. In detail, the carving depicts Christ upon the Cross with two angels watching over him. Either side are the haloed figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John. Below, two Roman soldiers thrust spears at Christ: one with a vinegar soaked sponge on the end, in response to the former's cries of "I thurst". Christ's victory over death is shown by the spouting tendrels which transform the means of his execution into the Tree of Life. The carving was once gilded and the eyes of the figures would have been highlighted with precious jewels. The high quality of the workmanship makes it highly likely that this was the actual crucifix recorded as given to the Abbey by King Edgar the Peaceable in the 960s.

Archaeology

Romsey Abbey PlanDiscoveries in 1900, as well as more formal excavations undertaken in 1975 and 1979, have revealed much about the early monastic buildings at Romsey.

Three Noble Saxon burials lying on beds of charcoal and dating from the early 9th century have been discovered adjoining the present church. These are associated with the packed chalk footings of an early building and indicate that there was a church on this site even before the foundation of the first Abbey.

Saxon North Porticus FoundationsWhen the nuns moved to the site, early the following century, the earliest building was replaced by an equal-armed cross-shaped church, 28m long and wide, with a large apse at the eastern end. The base of the finely jointed ashlar blocks, which were brought from the Isle of Wight to build the Abbey Church, can still be seen just prodruding from where they were excavated adjoining the north wall of the present nave. Saxon Chancel Apse FoundationsThe remains of the apsidal chancel can be viewed beneath the tower crossing inside the abbey. Further discoveries show that the building would have been roofed with Purbeck stone tiles and the walls would have had a distinct pinkish tinge, both inside and out, from old Roman brick ground into the mortar and plasterwork. There was more decoration in the form of carved scrolling vine friezes. Residential buildings stood to the south.


Sources

Diana K Coldicott (1989) Hampshire Nunneries.
David Hugh Farmer (1987) The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
Jill Ivy (1992) Embroideries at Durham Cathedral.
M R James (1925) Abbeys.
Judy Walker (1988) Romsey Abbey.
Judy Walker (NK) The Benedictine Nunnery of Romsey Abbey 907-1539 AD
Ann Williams, Alfred P Smyth & D P Kirby (1991) A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain.
David M Wilson (1984) Anglo-Saxon Art.

Article by David Nash Ford

 

    Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.