Thursday, 2 August 2012

St John's Abbey, Colchester, Essex

St John's abbey was founded in 1095 by Eudo Dapifer, William the Conqueror’s High Steward and Constable of Colchester Castle. From its inception the abbey made a major contribution to the development of medieval Colchester and became a wealthy and privileged house, despite losing part of its buildings to fire in 1133

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, perhaps as a result of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the abbey strengthened its defences and the gatehouse was added as part of this revamping around 1400.
St John’s was one of a handful of abbeys that refused to surrender to Henry VIII’s Commissioners during the Dissolution, succumbing only after the execution of the abbot for treason.

The property was eventually acquired by the Lucas family who converted some of the abbey buildings into a house. It remained their family seat until the mid-17th century, but it suffered considerable damage as a Royalist stronghold during the siege of Colchester in 1648. The gatehouse itself was stormed by Parliamentary troops and their artillery damaged the vaulted roof and destroyed part of the upper storey.

The site was used to house Dutch prisoners in the 1660s, after which the remaining abbey buildings appear to have been demolished; there are no references to occupation after the mid-18th century.

The two-storey gatehouse with its battlemented roof would have made a powerful statement about the strength of the abbey. It has turrets at each corner – higher on the north front – with large pinnacles. The north front is the most richly decorated, with flintwork panels and ornamented niches for statues.

The gatehouse is principally built of flint and brick with limestone dressings, though Roman and medieval brick has been used at the back of the building. It consists of a gate hall and a porter’s lodge. There is a pedestrian gate alongside the main carriage entrance. Both carriageway and pedestrian access have ribbed stone vaulting springing from moulded corbels carved with human heads and lions. A doorway in the east wall gives access to the porter’s lodge, which is now roofless. A doorway in the west wall once led into a now-destroyed adjacent building; a blocked door in the south-west turret once connected this building with the upper room of the gatehouse.

The lower part of the structure is mostly original, including the elaborate vaulting. The upper chamber, northern facade and turrets were heavily restored in the mid-19th century, but are believed to be faithful copies of the original work.

ST JOHN'S ABBEY, St John’s Green. Of the Benedictine abbey founded by Eudo Dapifer late in the C11, nothing at all remains but the N GATEHOUSE, dating probably from the C15. It is a splendid piece of display, characteristically more ornate to the outer world than to the abbey precincts. The outer facade is of flint with a great deal of flushwork decoration, chiefly shafts and blank crocketed arches. Tall carriage-way with four-centred head and tall niches above and to the l. and r. Below the r. niche the entrance for pedestrians, also with four-centred head. Two two-light upper windows and battlements. Flanking polygonal angle turrets with big crocketed pinnacles. No flushwork on the other side and only one wide gateway with a much simpler arch moulding. Inside the gateway is a star-shaped lierne vault. The whole Gatehouse was extensively restored in the C19.

Abbey Gatehouse (3)

St Giles stands by the garden wall of the abbey of St John founded by Endo Dapifer soon after the castle was built. His work has vanished, but some of its medieval magnificence is here to see, for the 15th century gateway stands. It is one of the few great structures here with no Roman bricks in it; it is built of flint and stone, with corner pinnacles and a battlemented parapet. The abbey itself was demolished before the siege, but we can see the mark of a cannonball in one corner of the gateway.

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