Sunday, 1 July 2018

Crowland, Lincolnshire

Since I was in the far northern reaches of Cambridgeshire I decided to visit a 'wish list' church - Crowland Abbey [open]. Through a combination of the dissolution and civil war all that remains of the original Abbey is the north aisle, now the body of the church, and the remains of the original nave but what a magnificent building this is. Set in a stunning churchyard this was a truly memorable visit.

I don't have Pevsner's Lincolnshire so here is its Historic England entry:

The monument includes the remains of Crowland Abbey, a monastery first founded in the early eighth century on the site of the hermitage of the Anglo-Saxon saint, Guthlac. It was destroyed by the Danes in 870 and re-founded as a Benedictine abbey in the mid-tenth century. From the 10th to the 15th centuries the monastic buildings were repeatedly extended and rebuilt. The abbey was finally dissolved in 1539 and all the monastic buildings demolished except the nave and aisles of the abbey church which were taken into use as the parish church. During the Civil War the church served as a Royalist stronghold and was surrounded by earthen defences; in the 18th century the nave and south aisle became ruined and parish use was restricted to the north aisle. The monument therefore includes the ruins of part of the abbey church, the buried remains of the Anglo-Saxon hermitage and monastery and medieval monastic buildings, and the earthworks of the Civil War defences. The standing remains of Crowland Abbey are Listed Grade I.

Crowland is situated on a gravel peninsula projecting into the fens and overlooking the south bank of the River Welland. St Guthlac is believed to have arrived on this 'island' in AD 699, establishing a hermitage composed of an oratory, a guesthouse and a number of cells for himself and his followers. These structures are thought to have been scattered over the whole of the original peninsula of Crowland, in some cases superimposed on the remains of pre-Christian burial mounds, as at Anchor Church House. Some of the buildings of this eremetical monastery, in particular the oratory and the cell of St Guthlac, are linked by medieval tradition to the site of the later abbey church. The first monastic church on the site was traditionally founded after St Guthlac's death by Ethelbald, King of Mercia, who also made extensive gifts of land to the establishment.

The remains of the Benedictine abbey lie on the south east edge of the old town, in and around the parish churchyard of SS Mary, Guthlac and Bartholomew. The parish church occupies the north aisle of the medieval abbey church, which was a cruciform building of limestone ashlar with Purbeck marble dressings. Adjoining the west tower of the present church are the standing remains of the west front of the former nave, a Norman structure altered in the 13th and 15th centuries. The facade, which rests on a moulded plinth, is divided into three zones separated by string-courses. The lowest zone is largely of 13th century construction and includes the central west doorway of the abbey church, a large pointed opening comprising two smaller pointed arches with the remains of tracery. The tympanum rests on a trumeau (vertical stone pillar) which was renewed in the 19th century, and is sculpted with scrolled foliage around a quatrefoil panel depicting scenes from the life of St Guthlac. Over the doorway is a hood-mould terminating at each end in a sculpted head. The jambs are deeply moulded and have marble columns. To each side of the doorway is a tall, blind trefoil-headed arch, that to the north containing the remains of a sculpted figure on a pedestal, that to the south with a pedestal only. Between each arch and the doorway is a small canopied niche without a figure, although that to the south retains a pedestal. Below each of these niches is a further canopied niche, that to the north containing the remains of a sculpted figure on a pedestal, that to the south a pedestal only. Above the north side of the doorway is a partially blocked quatrefoil.

The middle zone of the nave facade is occupied by the great west window, a 13th century opening enlarged in the 15th century. To each side is a tall arched panel containing a quatrefoil above four figures on pedestals, ranged in two tiers of paired niches, the lowest tier being composed of foliated canopies. The figures are largely complete. The uppermost zone is of the 15th century and contains the upper part of the west window, including a four-centred arch and the remains of Perpendicular tracery. To each side of the window is a further pair of tall, blind arches containing four figures in two tiers of niches. Running up from the northern spandrel of the window arch are three further niches, arranged in steps, also containing figures; the remains of three similar niches survive in a corresponding position to the south. Above the surviving niches and below the string-course is a sculpted frieze of human and animal heads.

Adjoining the southern end of the west front of the nave is a large 15th-century buttress with three tiers of blind panelled tracery, a tall pinnacle with a small flying buttress at the top, and a fragmentary cusped frieze below. This buttress is built onto an earlier, shallower buttress which forms part of the decorative scheme of the pre-15th century facade of the abbey church. The earlier buttress, of the Norman period, is composed of vertical panels, some of the columns of which are visible at its north eastern corner; it terminates near the top of the middle zone of the nave facade, thus indicating the approximate height of the main vessel of the church before it was raised in the 15th century. The later buttress is relatively large and includes, in its northern face, a blocked window and doorway composed of reused architectural fragments. The doorway is made up of a four-centred arch with renewed jambs, the hood-mould having been cut away to lie flush with the wall. To the lower right of the doorway is a row of blind quatrefoil panels taken from a frieze. The blocked window, above and to the west of the doorway, is made up of a variety of voussoirs fitting into an irregular pointed arch. These features are considered to represent the remains of a late medieval reconstruction of the cell of St Guthlac on its traditional site outside the western end of the south aisle.

Adjoining the buttress to the south are the ruins of the west front of the south aisle of the abbey church. This wall, composed of a stepped plinth and four tiers of roundheaded blind arcading, represents part of the earlier, Norman fabric of the church. On the east side of the wall is a blind roundheaded arch; on the south side is an area of rough stonework where the aisle was bonded into the monastic buildings to the south. The location of the south wall of the south aisle is marked by a modern retaining wall which is partly composed of reused fragments from the superstructure.

On the eastern side of the nave facade is the rounded arch of the central doorway with a blank quatrefoil in the tympanum. To each side of the doorway is a blind pointed arch; set upright in the northern arch is an early 15th century tombstone. In the interior of the nave, now ruined, are the remains of the 14th century arcade which stood between it and the south aisle. The three westernmost piers survive, forming three pointed arches with the remains of the triforium above. The remains of the fourth and eighth piers from the west are also evident and survive to a height of about 10m. The eighth pier has a slot on the northern face where a former screen was attached. The foundation of the fourth pier is exposed, revealing that Norman pillar fragments were reused to support the later arcade. The springing for the nave vault is visible at the western end of the arcade.

The north arcade of the abbey church (which is identical in type and date to the ruined south arcade) was blocked in 1743 when the parish church was reduced in size to occupy the former north aisle. From the south side of the arcade spring further supports for the two westernmost bays of the nave vault. Adjoining the east end of this arcade are the ruins of the central crossing of the abbey church, including a large, semi-circular arch which formerly supported the west wall of the central tower. The south west pier of the crossing contains a newel staircase giving access to the tower and triforium walk of which fragments remain. Attached to each end of the surviving arch are the remains of the arches which stood between the transepts and the aisles. All of these arches are composed of Norman zig-zag, and further Norman ornament is visible on the capitals. Fragments of Norman and Gothic arches are also built into the post-Dissolution panelled buttresses at the eastern end of the nave.

Built into the bottom of the surviving crossing arch are the remains of a 14th century stone screen, moved here from the east end of the abbey church when it was demolished at the Dissolution. The screen takes the form of a solid stone wall with a pointed doorway at each end and a later quatrefoil frieze above. The east side of the screen, which in its original position would have faced west, is carved with decorated panels and quatrefoils, and there is a shallow recess at the centre for a retable (a carved screen behind the altar). This face has been discoloured by fire in the post-medieval period. To the west of the screen is the high altar, also moved from the east end of the monastic church, set on a raised platform paved with post-medieval gravestones. The interior of the nave and south aisle, which occupies an area approximately 42m x 16m, was used for burials during the 18th and 19th centuries; the nave has since been cleared and the ground lowered to its late medieval level, while the south aisle is still occupied by graves and yew trees and is consequently higher.

Surrounding the standing remains of the abbey church is a rectangular churchyard, bounded by a low stone wall, within which lie further remains of the medieval monastic complex. Beyond the east end of the nave is an area of low earthworks including a square raised area on the site of the tower and crossing of the abbey church. To the north and south are the buried remains of the transepts, and to the east those of the choir. The east end took the form of a semi-circular apse and was the original site of the medieval altar over which the shrine of St Guthlac was installed. To the south of the abbey church, still within the present churchyard, lie the buried remains of the medieval monastic buildings. These include the cloister, which adjoined the south wall of the south aisle, the chapter house, which adjoined the south transept, and the other buildings of the east range, the south range, including the frater and kitchen, the west range, including the abbot's lodging, stables and guesthouse set around an inner court, and many other monastery buildings, including the lay brothers' hall, brewhouse, bakehouse, workshops and infirmary. These buildings, begun in the late tenth century, were extensively added to and rebuilt, particularly during the late 15th century. Finds made during grave-digging in this area include timber and the remains of hearths.

To the east and south of the churchyard, on a slightly lower level, is a grass field known as the Kissing Ground. In the south west part of this field are the low earthworks of a rectangular building aligned north-south. Geophysical survey in the field has detected the buried remains of further structures. These have been interpreted as further remains of the monastic complex. Also within this field, running along the edge of the churchyard wall, is a shallow, dry ditch up to 1m deep; in the eastern part of the field are further banks and ditches which form a series of depressions and raised areas crossed by a later trackway. This is the site of part of a defensive fieldwork constructed in the Civil War when the church was used as a Royalist stronghold. The fieldwork was constructed of banks and ditches and took the form of a defensive rampart around the churchyard with projecting bastions.

Excluded from the scheduling are the walls and fabric of the present parish church and its tower, though not the ruins attached to them; the churchyard walls and gateways, which are Listed Grade II; and all gravestones, 161 of which are Listed Grade II; the ground beneath these features is, however, included. In the south western part of the churchyard, which is still in use as a cemetery, the graves, gravestones and earth to a depth of 2m, are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath this depth is included.

Crowland Abbey (4)

Boss Green Man

Life of Guthlac (1)

CROWLAND. Lying on the edge of Deeping Fen, close to the meeting-place of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Cambridgeshire, this remote little market town is a place of wide renown. Only just above the level of the Fens today, it was once an island in the midst of a vast swampy countryside, traversed only by little boats. Hereabouts in the past men have come upon the oaks and alders of ancient forests submerged in ages past.

Fame came to Crowland because of its great Benedictine abbey, founded in memory of a saint. It was in A.D. 699 that a little boat came to rest by this patch of dry ground in the dismal morass which gave the place its name—for Cru-land means soft, muddy land. In the boat was a young Mercian noble, named Gutblac, over whose shrine was to rise Crowland Abbey.

St Guthlac, who was born about A.D. 673, belonged to a family from which had sprung the kings of Mercia. After a wild youth, however, during which he was a leader in lawless fighting and plunder, he decided to abandon his wealth and military career and devote himself to religion.

For about two years he was at Repton Abbey in Derbyshire, where he studied assiduously. Then, when he was about 26, he determined to live a life of still greater solitude and austerity, and, setting off in his boat down the River Trent, he came eventually to Crowland. Here he built himself a hut and little chapel, and for the rest of his days lived on simple and meagre fare ,clad in the skins of animals, but  happy amid the dreary waste as a follower of God and a student of Nature.

Here at Crowland Guthlac was sought by men in need of spiritual counsel; and here, in flight from his cousin Ceolred, came the future King Ethelbald, to be assured by Guthlac that he would gain the crown without bloodshed. Guthlac died in 714, and was buried in his own little chapel, which soon became a place of pilgrimage. Two years later Ethelbald became King of Mercia, and, true to his promise to Guthlac if his prophecy should be fulfilled, founded the abbey in remembrance of his friend and protector. Such were the romantic beginnings of Crowland Abbey.

When, many centuries later, the melancholy swamps that Guthlac knew had become fields of golden corn the glory of the abbey had passed away. Three times in its long history it was destroyed by fire, and three times it was rebuilt, ever with increasing splendour, until it eventually became the wealthiest mitred abbey in the county. After the Dissolution the monastic buildings and cloisters (which lay on the south side of the church) were largely destroyed, and the church lost its choir, transepts, and central tower; but all that lay westward was left to serve as the {parish church.

By the middle o the 18th century the south aisle had been taken down and the nave had fallen into ruin (weakened perhaps by Cromwell’s bombardment of the abbey in 1643, when it had been fortified by the Royalists) leaving the north aisle to serve as the parish church-as indeed it had always been, and is still, with the grand old tower at its west end, and a short chancel added in 1897.

This aisle and tower are the only complete survival of the old abbey; but grouped with them are splendid fragments-—the ruined nave with its glorious west front, the lovely west arch of the central tower, and a portion of the west front of the old south aisle. To the west of this aisle walling, in the churchyard, is the site of the cell in which St Guthlac lived his hermit's‘life; and about a mile away, by the road to Spalding, is Anchor Church Field, where he is said to have landed. ( It was on St Bartholomew’s Day that Guthlac came to Crowland, and both saints have a place in the abbey’s dedication.) Of the abbey’s first wooden buildings there is, of course, nothing to be seen, but grave-diggers in the churchyard have come upon the oak piles on which they were set.

A century-and-a-half after its foundation, Crowland Abbey was burned by the Danes, who murdered its abbot (Theodore) at the altar. In the first half of the 10th century rebuilding was begun by Abbot Thurcytel (a kinsman of Edward the Elder), who founded the Crowland library and obtained from King Edgar a charter still extant. He it was who set up stones to mark the extent of the abbey’s domain; and in a garden at Brotherhouse (four miles away, near the Asen Dyke) still stands one marking the boundary between Crowland and Spalding, and proclaiming (in Latin) “This rock, I say, is Guthlac’s utmost bound.”

It was Thurcytel, too, who gave the abbey a huge bell called Guthlac; and according to Ingulphus, the abbey chronicler, a better bell could not be found in the land. Abbot Elgeric, who went on with rebuilding after Thurcytel’s death in 975, is said to have added six bells and so made the first peal in England. Whether that be true we know not; but it is certain that the six bells now in the old abbey tower have made Crowland Abbey known to countless folk who have never seen it, for their fine peal has been carried by wireless far and wide. One of the bells is 15th-century, and another sounds the curfew at 8 o’clock every night, followed by a number of rings corresponding with the day of the month.

In the time of Edward the Confessor, Abbot Ulfketil restored some of the wooden buildings and began to build a new church of stone, having found a generous benefactor in the famous warrior-earl Waltheof, the only man ever condemned to death by the Conqueror. Waltheof’s body was allowed burial in the abbey, and miracles are said to have been wrought at his tomb. In 1091, while Ingulphus the historian was abbot, the abbey was destroyed a second time by fire-this time, it is said, owing to the carelessness of a plumber. The whole library of 700 manuscripts perished in the flames, and what little of the building survived was pulled down in the time of Abbot Jolfrid of Orleans, who began the next rebuilding in 1113.

The massive Norman church built by Joflrid and his successors had the shape of a cross, with transepts and central tower, and although it was damaged by earthquake in 1118 and was partly burned down in 1143, some remains of it are still to be seen. There is Norman work in the remaining portion of the west front of the south aisle, enriched with arcading in which are clearly seen the old masons’ marks-—among them a pair of compasses, a circle with the four points of a star, and a circle with rays. On the eastern side of this wall is a blocked Norman arch. The most striking feature of the Norman remains, however, is the western arch of the vanished central tower; richly adorned with zigzag, and set on its two lofty piers, it stands out like a graceful bow against the sky, defying Time. Beneath the arch is a 15th-century stone screen, pierced with two doorways, and carved and panelled on its eastern side, where an astonishing detail is the marks of a fire lit one day in the 18th century when the squire decided to roast an ox for his son’s coming-of-age.

Next in order of time to this Norman work is the west front of the nave. It has all the richness of a cathedral front, and is almost complete except for its vanished gable, the tracery of its vast window, and some of the splendid statues in niches which adorn it from top to bottom. The lower portion of the front is 13th-century work, and the rest was rebuilt early in the 15th century after it had been blown down. In the tympanum of the richly-moulded double doorway is a bold quatrefoil showing five carved scenes (now very worn) from the life of Guthla  - his boat landing at Crowland where a sow and her litter are resting; his ordination by the Bishop of Winchester; his compelling of Satan to bring stone for the abbey; his body being prepared for burial; and his elevation to Heaven by two angels.

The statues are in five tiers, occupying the whole front except for the space taken by the doorway and window. With the three figures believed to have been on the missing gable there were 29 in all; now there are 20. Highest of all are saints and apostles, including Philip with three loaves, James the Greater with staff and wallet, Andrew, Peter, James the Less, and Jude. The second row, divided by the head of the window, has King Ethelbald, the two patron saints (Bartholomew and Guthlac) and Richard the Second in whose reign the abbey was refounded. (Guthlac is shown holding the three-thonged whip which he is supposed to have obtained in answer to prayer, for warding off the “fiends” which assailed him at Crowland, one of which is shown here at his feet.)

The first statue of the third tier is either Kenulph (the first abbot) or Thurcytel; then come William the Conqueror and his Queen Matilda, and Abbot Ingulphus holding a volume of his history. Below them are the Conqueror’s Archbishop Lanfranc, King Wiglaf, who found refuge at Crowland and was buried here in 825, Earl Waltheof, and Abbot Jolfrid. By the doorway is the one remaining Evangelist.

Except for three stately bays of its south arcade, little is left of the rest of the nave, which, together with the old north aisle and the tower, belongs to the great 15th-century rebuilding under the three abbots who ruled from 1393 till 1469—Thomas Overton, Richard Upton, and John Lytlyngton.

The tower (which was given its two-storeyed west porch and its stumpy spire with four dormer windows early in the 16th century) has a great six-light west window with fine tracery, an arcaded top stage, and panelled buttresses rising to a plain parapet. Its interior is a glorious lantern, with enormous arches framing windows with panelled sides. There are four galleries at various levels, and a great panelled arch leads to the old north aisle which through the centuries has been the people’s church. With its great windows and its fine vaulted roof of stone, this old aisle is a lovely sight from the tower, giving a vivid impression of the beauty and dignity which the complete church must have possessed. One of the roof ’s six golden bosses, showing a staff over a tun, is the rebus of Abbot Overton in whose time the abbey was mitred.

The fine 15th-century oak chancel screen, enriched with tracery and still retaining some of its original colour, once enclosed the lady chapel in the north transept; in the spandrels of its lower panels are leaves and flowers, a man in a boat, a bat-like grotesque, a fierce dragon, and a man's head with golden hair. Here are also two fonts-a traceried one of the 15th century, and a round font of Norman times set in an arched and vaulted recess in the south pier of the tower arch. Two of the three old chapels on the north side of the old aisle are vestries now, and in the rector’s vestry stands a solid oak chest five centuries old. Gathered together in a south window is a mosaic of old glass fragments, including two little angels in white and gold.

The upper room of the west porch is used as a chapel, and within the porch is the entrance to a dark little room where the abbots of old may have sheltered people who claimed sanctuary. Some fragments of old stonework are preserved within it.

Against the inner wall of the tower is a fine tombstone with the engraved portrait of William of Wermington, the 15th-centur master of works responsible for much of this splendid architecture. standing under an elaborate canopy, he holds the instruments of his craft, a pair of compasses and a square. Nearby hangs a miniature stone coffin-lid—the top of a heart-burial casket. Also in the tower is an inscription to an 18th-century sexton, William Hill, who though blinded in middle age could still walk unaided about the town and find his way to every grave in the churchyard.

Hanging on the north wall is a wooden tablet bearing the quaint epitaph of a family of Queen Anne’s time:

Man’s life is like unto a winter’s day,
Some brake their fast and so depart away;
Others stay dinner, then depart full fed;
The longest age but sups and goes to bed.
O reader then behold & see:
As we are now so must you be.


Father, mother, and three children all were laid to rest in the time of  Henry Perne, rector here for 51 years till 1722.

One other ancient sight known far and wide has Crowland. Standing at the cross-roads in the middle of the town is the famous Triangular Bridge, a relic unique in the land. Built when these streets were waterways, it is like three halves of bridges meeting at a centre and climbed by three fiights of steps. Built in the second half of the 14th century, it replaced a wooden bridge mentioned in a document of 1000 years ago, and may have served as the base of a great cross, as well as a three-way bridge. For about 200 years the bridge has been adorned by a seated figure of Our Lord holding the World. It is believed that this statue was originally on the missing gable of the west front of the abbey church, where it perhaps had figures of St Mary and St John for company.

Henry the Sixth, who gave the town its charter for a market and a fair, landed here when he came to stay with the abbot in 1460, and some years later Edward the Fourth stepped from the bridge on to a boat that was to take him to Fotheringhay Castle.

Half a mile from the town, in a field by the Spalding road, is a notice-board recording an odd feat in early Victorian times by a man of 56. Henry Girdlestone was his name, and his feat was to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours. From this spot to an inn in the town he tramped to and fro, stopping only for sleep and refreshment, until he had accomplished his freakish feat of endurance.

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