The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin

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Tewkesbury’s tall tower dominates the landscape and was described by Pevsner as “probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England”. The abbey is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Britain and is a truly jaw dropping experience.

The building dates from the beginning of the 12thC when it was built to house Benedictine monks. Building stone came from Caen and was brought up the River Severn. There are three important families holding the Honour of Tewkesbury in the Middle Ages, the de Clares, Despensers and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. By the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Tewkesbury was one of the richest abbeys in England.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, the possessions of the abbey went to the king’s exchequer, the monastic buildings were pulled down and used for building stone and the church sold to the parishioners who had used the western part of the nave as their parish church, for £453. This was the estimated value of the lead on the roof and the bells. Henry kept the right to appoint the vicar and Queen Elizabeth is still patron of the benefice today.

It is an impressive building from the outside with a splendid central square tower with blind arcading, battlemented top and corner turrets. Remains of earlier roof lines can be seen on the walls. The long nave has tall turrets at the west end, clerestory windows with blind arcading between them and lower side aisles with flying buttresses. The huge west window is set under a series of recessed Norman arches.There is more blind arcading on the sides of the transepts.

The angular chancel has an open carved frieze round the top with lower side chapels and flying buttresses. The chancel originally had a large Lady Chapel at the east end which was pulled down during the Dissolution. It’s foundations are marked by slabs in the grass.

Entry is through the large plain north porch with a modern carving of the Virgin and Child above the arch.

Stepping into the NAVE, the first impression is of Norman power with huge round arches and round arches soaring up to a vaulted ceiling. The clerestory windows are almost lost. To say it is impressive is an understatement. This is Norman architecture at its very best. Side aisles are narrow adding to the overall effect of dominance.

The clerestory and vaulted ceiling were added in the mid C14th and are typical of the decorated style. The ribs rest on carved heads. The carved and painted bosses have either winged angels or scenes from the life of Christ. There are also some green men. The ribs have a green painted border. The original bosses are now displayed round the wall of the side aisles and ambulatory.

At the west end is a lovely arch across the roof with a gilded carvings at the base of Eve and Jesse, forebears of Christ. Each have a carved square with foliage. At the east end of the nave, the arch rests on the painted head of Atlantes holding up the roof.

Opposite the north door is an octagonal FONT with a dark marble carved top with quatrefoils with a foliage pattern round the sides. There is more foliage below the bowl. It stands on a very old stone base with rounded pillars and ball flowers. Above is a very tall dark wood cover with crocketed pinnacles.

Behind it on the south wall is an impressive Roll of Honour from the 1914-18 war with flags round it.

At the end of the north aisle, under an ogee arch, is a wall tomb of a knight in armour with uncrossed legs. There are also two Victorian cast iron stoves which were both burning and provided an effective heat source if you were standing close to them.

The pulpit, lectern and rood screen are C19th. The PULPIT is of carved stone and has panels with Christ with his disciples and also Christ preaching. The ROOD SCREEN has trefoil panelled base and delicate tracery at the top. The cross has a carving of Agnus Dei in the centre. On either side are the figures of the Virgin Mary and St John. On the wall by the rood screen is the Royal Coat of Arms.

Beyond are the choir and sanctuary.

The CHOIR is under the tower and has a modern encaustic tile floor. A brass plate in the floor marks the burial place of Edward Prince of Wales, son of Henry VI who was slain in the Battle of Shrewsbury. The lierne vaulted ceiling has gilded bosses on a red background with the Sun in Splendour on the centre. The stained glass in the windows is mid C14th and given by Eleanor de Clare, wife of Hugh Dispenser. The choir stalls have carved misericords.

On the south wall is the Milton ORGAN, which is one of the oldest organs still in use. It was originally built for Magdalene College Oxford in 1631 but was bought by the people of Tewkesbury in the C18th.

Steps lead up to the SANCTUARY with brass tablets marking the graves of de Clares and Despensers. There is a simple altar rail and table with a silver cross and tall silver candlesticks. Behind the altar are gold hangings. On the south side is a three seater sedilia. An open carved stone screen separates the sanctuary from the ambulatory with small chapels off it. The sanctuary ceiling has blue and red patterns painted on it. Bosses are gilded on a red background.

There are three small chantry chapels off the north wall of the sanctuary; the Warwick chapel, the founders chapel and the canopied tomb of Hugh Lord Despenser and his wife Elizabeth Montague, with their alabaster effigies.

The FOUNDERS CHAPEL contains the body of Robert Fitz-Hamon, second cousin of William the Conqueror and founder of the church. He was originally buried in the monk’s chapter house, but transferred here in 1241. It has a fairly plain stone screen round it with the remains of paint on it and a fan vaulted ceiling. This may have served as an Easter Sepulchre.

The WARWICK CHAPEL is the most magnificent and erected by Isabella la Despenser for her first husband Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester. This has a beautifully carved screen with angels holding shields on the base panels, set under crocketed pinnacles. The canopy has a fan vaulted ceiling which still has the remains of paint on it. It has an extra half storey inside which once contained the kneeling figures of Isabella and her second husband, Richard Earl of Warwick. There is a small stone altar and old tiles on the floor.

On the south wall is the TRINITY CHAPEL, chantry chapel of Edward le Dispenser d1375 erected by his widow. He held command under the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers. This is surrounded by a beautiful open carved screen with pinnacled arches on the base and carved arches above. It is set under a crocketed canopy with fan vaulting underneath. Above, set in a crocketed and pinnacled arch is the painted figure of a kneeling Edward praying. This is best seen from the ambulatory on the far side of the choir by the Founders or Warwick Chapels. The attitude and position of the kneeling figure are unique and it is possibly one of the finest monuments of its type in existence.

There is a small altar at the east end. High on the wall above is a beautiful mural of the holy Trinity with God the Father holding the body of the crucified Christ with an angel on either side. The small figures at the edges are Lord Edward and his wife Anne.

Moving out into the ambulatory and walking round clockwise, in the north transept is a Mitchell and Thynne organ presented to the church as a memorial of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It is occasionally used for concerts, although needs a thorough restoration.

The first chapel if is CHAPEL OF ST JAMES, which is now the abbey shop. The large painted reredos on the back wall used to be behind the high altar. In the centre is Christ on the cross with apostles on either side. The left panel shows the Annunciation. The right panel the nativity. Near the shop is an old strong box opened to show its complex locking mechanism under the lid.

Next is ST MARGARET’S CHAPEL which contains the holy sacrament. On the wall is a statue of a ‘pelican in her piety’, pecking her breast to feed her young on her blood. Between the chapel and the ambulatory is the tomb of Sir Guy de Brien d 1390. He was standard bearer to Edward III at the Battle of Crecy and one of the earliest Knights of the Garter. He was the third husband of Elizabeth Montacute, who is buried with her second husband Hugh Despenser in the tomb on the north side of the sanctuary. Sir Guy is in full armour, with his feet resting on a lion. Round the base of the tomb are shields.

ST EDMUND’S CHAPEL has a small modern reredos of Christ preaching. The ceiling bosses show his martyrdom by the Danes in the C9th.

Next to it is ST DUNSTAN’S CHAPEL. The reredos above the small altar is a reproduction of a C15th Flemish painting showing the Passion of Christ.

On the right is the WAKEMAN CENOTAPH under an elaborate canopy with a cadaver effigy lying on an open shroud. He was the last Abbot of Tewkesbury.

Behind the high altar, the iron grating in the floor covers the stairway down to the CLARENCE VAULT containing the bodies of George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward IV who was murdered in the Tower of London, reputedly by being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine) and his wife Isabel, daughter of Warwick the ‘King Maker’.

Near it is the modern statue of Our Lady Queen of Peace, which didn’t do a lot for us.

Continuing round, on the outer wall by St Faith’s Chapel is the ROBESON CENOTAPH. Arcdeacon Robeson was vicar from 1877-92 during the great Victorian restoration of the abbey. He is in fact, buried in Bristol Cathedral. St FAITH’S CHAPEL has a modern altar and a big chest to store to store ecclesiastical copes.

Next is the CHAPEL OF ST CATHERINE AND ST JOHN THE BAPTIST with two glorious windows by Tom Denny to mark the 900th anniversary of the coming of the Benedictine monks to Twekesbury in 1102. Their theme is the Benedictine motto Labore set Orare. They are abstract designs predominately in shades of yellow, green and blues. The overall impression is colour but the more you look, the more detail you realise there is. On the wall is the tomb of Abbot Cheltenham who ruled here between 1481-1509.

Opposite this chapel on the south wall of the sanctuary is the tomb of Hugh Despenser, favourite of Edward II who was hung, drawn and quartered in Hereford in 1326. The tomb was erected by his wife, Elizabeth. It is set under a low arch with foliage and trefoil arches. They were responsible for adding the chapels round the choir.

The SACRISTY is next. On either side of the door are two tombs of abbots; Abbot Thomas Kempsey d1328 and the tomb of Abbot Alan d1202.

Beyond this is the LADY CHAPEL which comes off the south transept. This has a mosaic image of Christ on the east wall.

This is a marvellous abbey. There is so much to stop and look at. It is redolent of history and is said to contain more medieval monuments than any other church apart from Westminster Abbey. There is a plethora of names from English history. This is Norman architecture at its best with glorious perpendicular chapels adding the icing to the cake.

The abbey is open daily and the closest parking are the two car parks off Gander Lane. The nearest post code is GL20 5RZ and the grid reference is SO 890325.

There are more pictures here

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