The Abbey Church of Tewkesbury

with some Account of the Priory Church of Deerhurst

By H.J.L.J Masse

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013


Tewkesbury Abbey, from the North
Photo. ][ D. Gwynne.

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ONE of the most characteristic views of the exterior is to be got from the iron gates which give admission to the church-yard. The view thus obtained presents to us, with the exception of the windows and the pinnacles on the tower, features almost entirely Norman.

As it is impossible to make a complete circuit of the church, it is as well to begin at the north transept. Here a wall will be found projecting from the north-east corner, of which the western face is in a very dilapidated condition. This wall contains a good Early English pointed arch, which is now filled up with stonework and contains a modern window. At the sides of the arch are Purbeck marble shafts with a central shaft of the same, which divides it into two subordinate arches, with an opening in the spandril between them. The base of the dividing shaft is a block of marble, curiously carved, representing four cats playing round the column. Each of the cats has in its mouth the tail of the cat immediately in front. On each side are the remains of a smaller recessed arch, and the only portion of the north wall which is still standing contains one bay of a trefoil-headed arcading which formerly was carried round the walls of this chapel.

On the north wall of the transept the four bays of the vaulted roof are discernible, and a fine Early English doorway in the wall (lately restored) used to give admission to the main building. Originally, when the church was perfect, this was an open arch. At the last restoration a wall was built up inside, so that the arch might be left clear. This chapel can hardly have been the one mentioned on p.13, which was dedicated

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to St. Eustachius, and was consecrated in 1246 by Prior Henry de Banbury. It is much more likely to have been the nave of the Early English Lady Chapel, of which the enclosed chapel to the east was the choir. Bristol Cathedral has its elder Lady Chapel in a similar position, though it was no doubt originally quite detached from the main building. The corner buttress at the north-west angle of the north transept was erected about the year 1720, and there is a corresponding support to the south transept at its south-west angle.

The clerestory on this north side of the nave has a Norman arcade, supported on short shafts, which extends from the tower to the west front. The insertion of the later windows, which presumably were enlarged when the nave was vaulted, has destroyed the regularity of the arcading.

A flying buttress of very slight proportions will be seen on the north side between the north transept and the north porch.

North Porch.- For a porch of Norman construction this is of unusual dimensions, measuring 24 feet by 20 feet and 39 feet high. It is extremely simple in character inside and out. The roof is a plain barrel vault of stone.

Both the internal and the external doorway have a circular arch composed of a series of mouldings supported by shafting, just as in the arch of the great west window.

Over the outside door of the porch stood an image of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, typical of the Incarnation, but it has suffered much at the hands of would-be zealots. Over the porch is a room or parvise, very difficult of access and badly lighted.

This north porch was in all probability built on to the church soon after the completion of the rest of the Norman building, and this may account for the difficult means of access.

Between the porch and the west end there are traces of some earlier building, abutting on to the north wall of the church.

The iron gates at the main entrance to the churchyard near the “Bell Hotel” were formerly mounted in the external doorway of the porch. They were given to the church by Lord Gage in 1750.

The Tower.- This is generally considered to be one of the finest and most perfect Norman towers in existence. Its

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The Abbey, from the South
Photo. ][ D. Gwynne.

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massive size (each side measuring 46 feet) takes off from its actual height. It stands well, and is impressive from its proportions and the simplicity of its ornament. It is 132 feet high from the ground to the battlements inclusive, and 148 to the top of the pinnacles. The pinnacles and battlements were added in 1660, as the inscription on the north-west pinnacle testifies. They were restored in 1825.

As to what was there before 1660 one can only conjecture, but it had been undoubtedly damaged by the fall of the wooden spire covered with lead, which event occurred on Easter Day, 1559.

From whichever point of the compass it be studied, there is ever a different charm displayed, and the charm varies according to the light that plays upon the time-honoured handiwork of the Norman builders. The tower looks equally well from the north-west end of the churchyard, seen through the trees, from the extreme west, and from the open ground to the south-east, where the eye can also take in the graceful battlementing of the choir. Perhaps the best view of the tower and the building generally is that obtainable from the Gloucester road, just as one turns the last corner coming into Tewkesbury.

The tower is supported by four piers, which, as will be seen from an inspection of the plan, are very massive. The two easternmost piers are in plan very similar to the two corresponding piers in Gloucester Cathedral.

There are two windows in each side of the lower storey or base, immediately over the roofs of the nave and transepts, and between the windows is the stone ridge or wall-plate which indicates the pitch of the earlier roof. On three sides of the tower the dripstone is almost perfect.

The next stage or storey has an arcade with two lights in each side of the tower. The third stage has a narrower intersecting arcade of great beauty and delicacy, with a curious effect produced by the warm colouring of some of the stones.[1] In the topmost stage there is another range of arcades and columns.

The West Front.- The chief feature in this front is the noble recessed arch, 65 feet high and 34 feet wide. There are seven columns on each side of the arch, one being partially

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concealed by the masonry of the Debased Perpendicular window which was inserted originally to give light to the nave. Portions of the seventh shaft have been, however, exposed for inspection.

There is one slight defect in this unique west front as it now is, viz., that apart from the window, the arch is on too large a scale for the size of the front, or, as Dean Spence puts it (he himself is quoting from some other writer), “As this noble arch stands at present, it is extremely beautiful in itself, but it has an incomplete appearance, seeming to want a raison d'être, and being too large a jewel for its setting".[2] Exactly the same may be said of the window, though its excessive size will not be felt so much from the outside as from the inside of the church, where the low vaulting of the nave further accentuates the excessive size of the window.

As was the case at Gloucester, larger western towers were originally contemplated to contain the bells, and there are indications of this in the rough stonework in the clerestory on the south side, evidently designed to carry a tower 22 feet square. The towers in the west front at Southwell are an example of this design carried out. When it was decided to build smaller towers, the bell tower or campanile (which is shown on p.17) was built. Later again the lantern or open part of the interior of the tower was vaulted over (vide p.74), and the bells were hung in the great central tower. The campanile was then diverted to other uses. In later times it was used as a prison for several years, but having become structurally unsafe, was demolished in 1817.

It would be interesting to know the original scheme of windows in this west front. There is a trace of the original Norman doorway inside the present doorway, and it is supposed that the original window was either a large round window, with possibly one or two tiers of round-headed lights below. Later, a larger window, probably of fourteenth century work, was inserted, which lasted till it was blown into the church in 1661. The present window, which was built in 1686, may probably have been an attempt to follow the lines of the previous window. At either side of the large arch is a Decorated window of two lights.

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The stonework of the towers, above the point where the arch springs, is decorated with a Norman arcading in two tiers. They are finished by two partly Norman turrets, with later pinnacles and spires.

The South Side.- This side has a blank appearance owing to the total disappearance of the claustral and conventual buildings, all of which were “deemed to be superfluous”. There are traces on the south wall of the “outer parlour”, and there is blocked up into it a doorway from the west end of the south aisle of the nave. Traces are there, too, of Norman work on the wall, which prove that the Norman cloisters were of the same extent and size as those of Perpendicular times.

The Cloisters.- These were of two periods of Perpendicular work, and though smaller than those at Gloucester (80 feet as compared with 148 feet) seem to have been enriched with panelling and arcading in every way as fine, judging from the stone which shows the spring of the arches near the cloister door.

The doorway from the cloister to the south aisle is a beautiful piece of fifteenth century work. It consists of a low pointed arch, struck from two centres, in the hollow moulding of which are canopies. Below are pedestals for figures. At the top the arch is embattled, and above it are niches, seven in all, with pedestals and canopies, richly ornamented and carved. On either side, over the canopy is an angel bearing a plain shield. This doorway was filled with stonework up to 1892, and had been so filled for many years, but has since undergone restoration of a very careful kind. The oak door is new, and is an example of very florid work executed with the great mechanical precision which now characterises modern wood-carving. One bay of the cloister has been vaulted to protect the doorway; and the wall arcade has been restored, at the expense of the Freemasons of the county.

On the south front of the south transept there are to be seen traces of a building of the same width, through which there were means of communication with the church. The wall of this south transept has been considerably strengthened since the Dissolution.

Separated from the south transept by a slype or passage, was the Chapter House, of which nothing is known beyond

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the fact that it was repaved in 1259, and destroyed at the Dissolution with other buildings on this side. Over the Chapter House there was a dormitory, also with an entrance to the church. This entrance has been walled up. There were stairs giving access to a room built over the apsidal chapel in the south transept, and also to the transept itself.

The Cloister Doorway
Photo. ][ R.W. Dugdale.

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To the east of the south transept a very good view of the choir and its chapels is to be obtained. The westernmost chapel is the Norman apsidal chapel, and here the original Norman work comes to an end as far as the exterior is concerned.

The Norman arcading on the east and west walls will be noticed, but it has been lately restored.

The chapel (marked Vestry in the plan) has an upper chamber with two commonplace modern windows in it, the mullions having been destroyed. There is a massive buttress attached to the wall of this chapel, much larger than any of the other exterior buttresses. It is quite hollow, and is entered from the interior of the chapel, which is now used as the clergy vestry.

The windows of the choir are elaborately decorated with a crocketed gable.

The east end of the church[3] and the exterior of the chapels on the north side of the church are in private gardens, which unfortunately extend up to the very wall of the church, and prevent access.

The actual east end now consists of an arch which was formerly the entrance to the destroyed Lady Chapel, of which nothing remains but the modern masonry in the arch, now walled up, and containing a modern window of three lights; and above this is the original west wall above the vestibule of the Lady Chapel, with a restored window of four lights.

The parapet of open work which runs round the summit of the apse is another beautiful feature of the exterior of the eastern part of the church. It seems to be formed of stalks from a thorn tree intertwining in such a way as to form triangular openings. This parapet or coronet is as much like lacework as it is possible for stonework to be, and gives to the building a peculiarly delicate and subtle finish.

A very good exterior view of this east end can be obtained from the battlement of St. Faith's Chapel. The pitch of

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the roof and the character of the mouldings can thus be seen.

The Lady Chapel.- Nothing is left but the partly concealed mouldings of the arch in the east wall of the ambulatory of the choir. On the outside of the east end may be seen portions of the lofty vaulting - just where it sprang from the walls-which would indicate that the masonry was very beautiful and delicate work.

Much uncertainty exists as to the size of the Lady Chapel, though traces of the foundations have been found for some distance to the eastward of the present building. Unfortunately the ground in which the foundations are hidden is private property, and the chance of a thorough investigation of the site very remote. Traditionally, the Lady Chapel is said to have been 100 feet long, or about a third of the length of the building. There is no documentary evidence to support this tradition, and in the absence of such confirmation Mr. Blunt supposes that there was no large Lady Chapel,[4] but that a chapel somewhat similar to those still surviving, and specifically referred to as “Capella Beatæ Mariæ Ecclesim Conventualis”, was destroyed not long before the Dissolution for the purpose of making room for a larger and more splendid chapel. This chapel, Mr. Blunt adds, was never completed, the plans of the builders being upset by the general dissolution of the monasteries.

The Capella Ecclesim Conventualis above mentioned would rather imply the existence of another Capella Mariæ to which the parishioners had ordinary access, and this reference to it tends to strengthen the theory that on the north side of the north transept there was a detached Lady Chapel as at Bristol.

On the other hand, the orders of Henry VIII.'s Commissioners expressly mention the Lady Chapel as a part of the building to be pulled down, as being superfluous. This is a matter of exact history, and we have either to accept the conclusion that the Commissioners ordered the chapel to be

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destroyed, and that it was done, or else that they ordered the destruction of a building which did not exist. To support the former alternative we have the tradition, and it is nothing more, that the Lady Chapel was destroyed because of the delay of the good people of Tewkesbury in buying the choir.

[1] Some of the stone in the tower is undoubtedly Caen stone, brought from Normandy for the work.
[2] Mr. W. St. John Hope suggests that there was to be one central western tower, within which this arch would not look out of place.
[3] A good view of the north-east end at close quarters can be obtained from the Abbey Tea Gardens.
[4] There are records of interments in the Lady Chapel: William Lord de la Zouch of Mortimer in 1335, another Lord de la Zouch in 1371, and the widow of the latter in 1408. In 1472 the Bishop of Worcester appropriated the church of Little Compton to the Convent of Tewkesbury to augment the salaries of the priests officiating in the chapel of the Virgin Mary there.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in June 2013.

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