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History of Abingdon in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford


Ancient Abbey shapes a Town

Abingdon's history is closely intertwined with that of its Abbey. Abingdon Abbey claimed to be the first monastery to be set up in Britain. A title strongly contested by Glastonbury, which was said to have been founded by St. Joseph of Arimathea in AD 63. A discredited legend says Abingdon's origins lie with the evangelists, St.s Medwy & Elfan, who Pope Eleutherius sent over to the Roman client-King, Lucius of the Catuvellauni, in AD 166.

Another tradition says that St. Helen herself later founded a church on the site of the present one dedicated to her memory. Her son, the Roman Emperor Constantine, gave her foundation one of the nails from the Holy Cross of the Crucifixion, which his mother had found in Jerusalem. St. Birinus later restored this Roman church, and it became a Saxon Minster, standing within a Royal estate. The Witan is known to have met there in 989. St. Helen's is said to be the widest church in the country, having a nave and four huge 15th century aisles. The church's finest treasure is the beautiful painted ceiling of the Lady Chapel. Dated about 1391, its fifty-two panels feature Christ's ancestors (a Jesse Tree). The church contains the Mayor's seat, complete with sword-rest, and was home to the Fraternity of the Holy Cross. This was a kind of guild set up by King Henry VI in the early 1440s, and dedicated to the Holy Cross for obvious reasons. Behind St. Helen's stands the delightful Christ's Hospital (or Long Alley Almshouses) founded by the brotherhood a few years later. A charming wooden cloister walk was added in the 17th century. There are three further sets of almshouses nearby.

In the fifth century, the legendary St. Abban, the only man to escape the original Night of the Long Knives (when the Saxons massacred the British at a peace conference at Stonehenge) is said to have built himself a hermitage on Boar's Hill, just north of the town. In later years it became deserted but was refounded, in AD 675, as a religious community by Prince Hean, the nephew of King Cissa of Upper Wessex. However, the stream on Abban's Down interfered with the church's foundations and Hean was forced to move his community down into the valley below: and he took the name, Abing-don, with him. Hean's was probably the true founding of the Abbey, the other stories being fanciful mythology.

During King Alfred the Great's reign, the Abbey was burnt to the ground by the Danes from Reading, and there was a small skirmish outside the town. A superb Saxon sword from this period was found in the Thames at Abingdon. It has a silver covered pommel decorated with foliage and leopard heads. Below, among fine interlace work are a man, an eagle, a lion and a cow: the symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

King Edgar the Peaceable was educated at Abingdon Abbey by St. Aethelwold, the Abbot. The monastery was then in a very ruinous state and he promised that if he became King he would strive to restore all neglected churches. Shortly after his coronation, he held good to his word, for Abingdon was the first of several Abbeys to be rebuilt. St. Elstan was a monk at Abingdon under Aethelwold before becoming Bishop of Ramsbury & Sonning. While inspecting his new church buildings one day, Ethelwold came across Elstan, in the kitchen, preparing dinner for the workmen. Struck by a sudden impulse to test Elstan's obedience, the Abbot ordered him to thrust his hand into a boiling cauldron to retrieve a dumpling from the bottom. Elstan did so, and miraculously pulled both dumpling and his unscathed hand from the pot! St. Elstan died in AD 971 and, though he was buried at Abingdon, the monks seem to have made little of his saintly remains.

Pilgrims flocked to Abingdon Abbey during the Middle Ages for it held the great Nail of the Holy Cross, inherited from St. Helen's. The Abbey also held the relics of St. Vincent. During King Cnut's reign, the monks had stolen them from their brethren of Glastonbury whilst they were staying at the Abbey. The King approved and gave them a fine silver & gold shrine in which to house the bones. It was inscribed with the names of the King, his wife & Abbot Athelwin. Athelwin gave another shrine for relics he had collected & a splendid silver cross. Abingdon also acquired relics of St. Edward the Martyr during Cnut's reign. The young saint had visited the shrine of Our Lady of Abingdon (said to be the oldest in England and housing a Roman sculpture of the Virgin) during his short time as king. Later, his own shrine at Shaftesbury Abbey was sending out parts of his body to Glastonbury, Salisbury, Leominster & Durham. On travelling through Berkshire, the relic bearers were miraculously halted at Abingdon. As the saint evidently wanted to stay in the town, they decided to leave many of his bones in the Abbey Church. Abingdon venerated the relics of many other saints too.

The following are buried at Abingdon Abbey:

  • King Cissa of Upper Wessex, d.c.680
  • Prince Abbot Hean of Abingdon, nephew of King Cissa of Upper Wessex, d.740
  • Ansfrida, widow of Anskill, Lord of Seacourt, & mistress of King Henry I. She was buried at the entrance to the Cloister.
  • Brother Fulk, a monk & illegitimate son of King Henry I by Ansfrida of Seacourt, d.pre.1100 (See Seacourt)
  • Princess Margaret, d.1361, wife of John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke & daughter of King Edward III
  • Princess Mary, d.1362, wife of John De Montfort, Duke of Brittany & daughter of King Edward III
  • Many members of the Bessels family of Besselsleigh.

One wonders if any of the fabulous memorials, that must have existed within the Abbey Church, were made by Alexander of Abingdon. Also known as Alexander the Imager, this local man was among the greatest of medieval English sculptors. Unfortunately, only three pieces of work, definitely known to be his, still exist: the statues of Queen Eleanor of Castile from the Eleanor Cross at Waltham in Hertfordshire, for which he was paid 5 marks each (3 6s 8d). These can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum (those on the cross are now copies). The Eleanor Crosses were put up by Edward I to show where his beloved wife's body had rested on its journey from Lincolnshire to Westminster Abbey in the Winter of 1290. Alexander also worked on the great Charing Cross and Queen Eleanor's monuments in Lincoln Cathedral and the Blackfriars' (London). Such Royal commissions clearly show his pre-eminence in the medieval Art World. He is thought to have been the principal sculptor of the Westminster or Court School of Art. Other monuments attributed to him are those to:

  • Princess Aveline, wife of Prince Edmund Crouchback, E.of Lancaster (d.1273). Monument erected 1293 at Westminster Abbey.
  • Prince Edmund Crouchback, E.of Lancaster (d.1296) at Westminster Abbey.
  • Archbishop Percham of Canterbury (d.1298) at Canterbury Cathedral.
  • Bishop William De Luda of Ely (d.1298) at Ely Cathedral.
  • Bishop William De Marchia of Wells (d.1302) at Wells Cathedral.
  • Earl Henry Lacy of Lincoln (d.1310) at Old St.Paul's Cathedral (London). Now destroyed.

Alexander may have made his way to London through his association with the King's painter, Walter of Durham. Walter is known to have undertaken work at Abingdon Abbey and Alexander probably learnt his craft from Abbey masons there. They appear to have been quite a centre for sculptural inspiration, for there were other Abingdon sculptors abroad, like John of Abingdon who worked on Merton College Chapel (Oxford).

There isn't much left of Abingdon Abbey today. It lies buried beneath the Abbey Gardens. Don't be fooled by the sham ruin there. It's only a folly put up in the 1920s. Some of the stones do come from the old buildings though. The Abbey gateway is the most obvious of the Abbey's remains. This beautiful 15th century building adjoins the Norman Church of St. Nicholas, also built by the monks on the edge of their enclave. St. Edmund of Abingdon's mother was buried here, as recorded by a small plaque. St. Edmund was the eldest son of an Abingdon merchant who was so wealthy he could afford to send his offspring to University in Oxford (where St. Edmund's Hall is named after him). Edmund became Treasurer of Salisbury and eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1240, he died on his way to see the Pope in Rome. He was buried in Pontigny Abbey where his shrine became an important pilgrimage centre. The people of Abingdon built a small chapel dedicated to him near his birthplace in St. Edmund's Lane. His mother's remains were later reinterred here. On the opposite side of the Abbey Gate is the old guesthouse or hospitium of St. John. (There are obvious parallels with Reading.) The building became the town's council chambers and was drastically altered in 1731. An unexpected delight from the Abbey's past is the 13th century Exchequer Building with the finest medieval chimney in the country. Adjoining is a superb timber framed long gallery of about 1500.

Abingdon once had a famous market cross which stood just in front of the Abbey Gate. It was put up, about 1440, by the Fraternity of the Holy Cross as a monument to their Civic pride. One of the most fabulous crosses in the country, it stood some 57ft high and consisted of four, mostly hexagonal, tiers with niches and finely carved statues. There were six each of kings, virgins & prelates and prophets. These included King David and the Virgin Mary, and probably local patrons, such as:

  • King Ine
  • King Edgar the Peaceable
  • King Henry VI
  • St. Helen
  • St. Katherine
  • St. Edmund of Abingdon
  • St. Aethelwold

The main structure of the cross was almost entirely rebuilt, in 1605, by the Fraternity's successors, the Hospital of Christ of Abingdon. At this time, it became covered with the arms of the hospital's members, most of the local Landed Gentry. Those of Sir John Golafre of Fyfield and Mr. Unton of Faringdon remained from the original cross, but amongst the new arms were those of:

  • Bessell Fettiplace of Marcham & Besselsleigh
  • Andrew Windsor of West Hagbourne
  • Sir William Essex of Lambourn
  • Edmund Dunch of Little Wittenham
  • Mr.Choke of Abingdon
  • Mr.Stonehouse of Radley
  • John Clarke of Ardington
  • Henry Moleyns of Brightwell
  • Sir Henry Neville of Billingbear
  • Thomas Nelson of Chaddleworth
  • John Southcott of Drayton
  • Mr.Gayer of Foxley
  • Mr.Sutton of Inkpen
  • Mr.Pusey of Pusey
  • John Organ of Upper Lambourn
  • William Wollascot of Brimpton & Shalford

In May 1644, the magnificent cross was totally destroyed by the Puritanical Roundhead troops stationed in the town. They had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Thames at Newbridge and attack Oxford. Thus thwarted, they took their anger out on the town's great monument. Abingdon had not long been under parliaments's control. Being so near to Oxford, it was originally a Royalist town, but was taken by Essex and Waller more through luck than judgement. The Royalists had retreated and found, too late, that the King wished them to hold the town with reinforcements from Faringdon. Throughout the parliamentary garrison, conditions were appalling for both townsfolk and soldiers. There were many desertions. Major-General Browne wrote numerous times for relief, but none came. Despite continuous attacks from the Royalists at Oxford, particularly by Prince Rupert's men in the January of 1645, the Roundhead garrison managed to hold out for victory in early 1646.

Abingdon has the grandest Town Hall in England. A fine classical building built in 1678/82 by Wren's mason who created the Dome of St. Paul's. It is of the open-ground-floor type usually associated with small market towns. Its size, however, is hugely out of proportion to the size of the community. Abingdon was Berkshire's County Town until 1867, when Reading took over.

Masked men of the road, on the whole, preferred the rich pickings of the Bath Road to North Berkshire, but the area was not totally devoid of their exploits. One highwayman bit off more than he could chew when he held up a post-chaise just outside Abingdon in 1773. He took a watch from one traveller and money from another, but the third told him he'd have to shoot him if he wanted his valuables. The confused gentleman of the road hesitated, then turned and galloped away. The triumphant passengers unhooked their horses and gave chase. They soon caught him up and sent him off to the magistrate and Reading Gaol.

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