Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

St Augustine's Abbey Canterbury

Today is the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, who died in 605. The monastery of SS Peter and Paul which he founded at Canterbury to the east of his cathedral in 598, became his shrine church. In the tenth century St Dunstan added the dedication to St Augustine, which became the name by which the abbey was known, and it became one of the great Benedictine houses of medieval England - indeed the first where the abbot had the right to wear pontificalia, a papal grant made in 1063. There is an online version of a useful illustrated history of the abbey from 1896 here, and a contemporary online account with illustrations and links here

I recall Fr Hunwicke making the point that the plan of Christian Canterbury was arguably based on that of Rome, with the cathedral church of Christ inside the city as with the Lateran (itself primarily dedicated to Christ) and SS Peter and Paul outside the walls, like the Vatican and St Paul's in Rome, but combined into one in the Kentish city. I cannot find the exact link, but he makes related points about following Roman patterns in Fr Arthur Middleton and my Biretta, a post from 2009.

Other than the fine late medieval gatehouse little of it survives today beyond foundations in the care of English Heritage. Until 1822 however much of one of the western towers of the great romanesque church, known as Ethelbert's tower after the King baptised by St Augustine in 597, survived.

Ethelbert's Tower in 1800


The local historian William Gostling recorded that

"On the morning of the 10th of October, 1822, the S.S.W. corner of the Tower, known by the name of Ethelbert's Tower, comprising about one half of what remained of that venerable edifice, and amounting in weight to many hundred tons, and nearly seventy feet in height, fell with a tremendous crash, cracking by the shock the remaining part, the altitude of which was about one hundred feet, and presenting a grand, but terrifically dangerous appearance. On the Thursday subsequent to the accident, which was occasioned by a tremendous high wind, an attempt was made to pull down that which was left standing, by inserting large timbers through the various fissures; but this trial was extremely futile; a plan of a more formidable kind, (a battering ram) was then adopted, which likewise, in the onset, proved of no avail; but, upon its removal, and being directed in another position, that justly admired and very ancient structure, yielded its majestic head to the force of the machine, in the afternoon of Thursday, October 24th. Its descent was awfully grand, and to the lover of antiquity, grievous. Thus fell an edifice, consecrated by ages, and rendered sacred by its association with some of the most important and intereseting events in our local and national history."

St. Ethelbert's Tower had an internal space about 16 feet square, walls 4 1/2 feet thick. It was erected A.D. 1038-50, and was a fine piece of Norman architecture.

John Bulman, Three drawings of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury by John Bulman, 1780 - 1800

Watercolour of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury by John Bulman, 1780 - 1800

This was not the only loss in this period. Henry Ward in the Canterbury Guide, published in 1843, records how 

"In the common cemetery which adjoins the church southward, about sixty feet from it, there stood, till lately, a large massive ruin, composed of flint and rubble stone, of an extraordinary thickness, having been to all appearance, two sides of a campanile or bell tower. It was taken down in 1793, by the united efforts of nearly 200 men, the materials, exclusive of rubbish, amounting to nearly 500 cart loads."

With acknowledgements to Machadoinck.com for these quotations 

The remains of St Augustine's Abbey in 1703.
The Ethelbert tower is centre right


The fate of St Augstine's is reminder of how much has been lost, and indeed how significant remains survived to be recorded by antiquarians but are lost to us other than in their descriptions and drawings.

At Trinity Hall in Cambridge there survives a remarkable piece of late medieval antiquarian information about the abbey. Here is an extract from their blog, which had featured the Canterbury Gospels and their use at the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

" One item due to play a key role in the ceremony is the St Augustine’s Gospels (Corpus Christi College MS286). This magnificent manuscript is a vulgate text of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and was probably brought to England by St Augustine in 597. The practice of using St Augustine’s Gospels for the enthronement of the Archbishops of Canterbury was revived in 1945. The Parker Librarian, Christopher de Hamel, will remain in charge of this precious manuscript throughout the ceremony.

St Augustine's Gospels viewed via the Parker Library on the web

St Augustine’s Gospels viewed via the Parker Library on the web

But why is a Corpus manuscript featuring in our Old Library blog and what its connection to Trinity Hall?

The answer lies in one of our own most precious manuscripts Thomas Elmham Historiae Abbatiae S. Augustini (Trinity Hall, Cambridge, MS1) created in about 1410-1413. On one leaf of Thomas of Elmham’s history is a remarkable early plan of the East end of St Augustine’s Abbey. It is finely drawn in red, blue and black and features the chapels of the East end, various reliquaries, the high altar and the altar screen.

Plan of the East end of St Augustine's Abbey (Trinity Hall Cambridge MS.1)

Plan of the East end of St Augustine’s Abbey (Trinity Hall Cambridge MS.1)

“At the top of the screen are six books identified by a small inscription as the books sent from Pope Gregory (the Great) to Augustine”. The entry in the Cambridge Illuminations exhibition catalogue continues, “It is intrinsically probable that they included the St Augustine’s Gospels.” Thus our manuscript contains the earliest depiction of the Gospels used for the enthronement of the new Archbishop! As one of the holiest works in Britain it is more than likely that St Augustine’s Gospels were kept as an object of veneration with other sacred texts above the high altar of the Abbey.

The six books above the high altar of St Augustine's Abbey

The six holy books above the high altar of St Augustine’s Abbey

The Abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries and remains a ruin today. The monastic library was dispersed and its manuscripts came onto the open market. Our manuscript was collected by the antiquarian and Catholic sympathizer, Robert Hare (d. 1611), who was a great donor not only to Trinity Hall but also to the University Library. Thomas Elmham’s Historiae Abbatiae S. Augustini came to us as a result of Hare’s friendship with Henry Harvey (Master of Trinity Hall 1559-1585) and has been a treasured by the College ever since.

Robert Hare's signature

Robert Hare’s signature


Here is an engraing of part of the Thorne plan, showing the High Altar and its reliquaries , and which is a very important source for what was the appearance oif the interior of major monastic churches. Its influence can be seen in some of the twentieth century works of that great designer Sir Ninian Comper.


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