St. Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury is a ruined monastery originally founded in 598 AD by Augustine, a Roman abbot who was sent by the pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Rebuilt in the Norman era and almost completedly destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the ruins of the abbey are not substantial.
Yet the foundations that remain provide a sense of the layout and the great importance of the site is well illustrated and explained by the onsite museum. Together with Canterbury Cathedral and St. Martin's Church (both located nearby), St. Augustine's Abbey was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
History of St. Augustine's Abbey
Christianity had reached Britain in Roman times, but many pagans remained unconverted when the Roman legions departed in 410. According to legend, Pope Gregory I "the Great" (540-604) heard about the tribe called the Angles and thought such "angels" must be converted.
The facts are probably not quite as romantic - the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent had married a Frankish Christian princess named Bertha, and it was probably due to her influence that Pope Gregory sent missionaries to the area.
Assigned to the task of converting the Anglo-Saxons was the future St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was then an abbot in Rome. He set off with his party from Rome in May 595. However, he found the journey difficult and encountered opposition, and turned back in July. He asked to be released from his assignment, to which Pope Gregory replied in a letter:
So that's a "no," then. Augustine obediently completed the journey, arriving in Kent in late 596 or early 597. The route can be retraced thanks to letters of Pope Gregory asking the assistance of bishops and rulers along the way. Augustine and his party, which included 40 monks and some Frankish priests to act as interpreters, sailed from Rome to southern France then traveled overland through Arles, Vienne, Lyon, Autun, and Tours before making the short journey across the English Channel.
St. Augustine baptized King Ethelbert by the end of 597 and founded an abbey to serve as his base in 598 AD. Originally dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, it became known as St. Augustine's Abbey after the founder's death and subsequent canonization. The abbey was the burial place of St. Augustine, subsequent abbots and archbishops, and the kings of Kent.
The Church of Sts Peter and Paul was begun during Augustine's lifetime but completed around 613 by his successor (who had accompanied him from Rome), Archbishop Laurence. Built from reused Roman bricks, it was a simple structure consisting of a nave, west porch or narthex, round east apse, and long side chapels on each side.
The Anglo-Saxon buildings were completely reconstructed in the Romanesque style following the Norman Conquest of England (1066), when it took on the form of a typical Norman Benedictine monastery. An Almonry was added in 1154 and some rebuilding was done in 1168 after a fire.
From about 1250 onwards the abbey was once again alive with building work. The cloister, lavatorium, frater and kitchen were totally rebuilt and a grand new abbot's lodging was built. The range was also extended to provide a great hall.
A new crenellated Great Gate was built in 1309 completing the Inner Court. On the north side the monks were able to take in much more land, which provided space for a new outer court with cellarer's range, brewhouse, bakehouse, and in 1320 a new walled vineyard. There was also expansion on the east side of the abbey where a series of lodgings were built along with a walled cellarer's garden.
An earthquake in 1382 led to more building work, and in 1390 the gatehouse that still survives was built. Last to be built was a Lady Chapel to the east of the church, which many large churches received in this period. By 1500 the abbey covered a very large area and its library contained in excess of 2,000 volumes. Many of these were produced by the monks in the abbey's own scriptorium.
The religious history of St Augustine's Abbey came to an end with King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was valued in 1535 (it had a gross income of £1733) then dissolved on July 30, 1538. Its 30 monks were evicted and its treasures were dispersed.
King Henry did not sell the site, as he had plans in mind for it. He would convert it into a palace for the use of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Work on this project began in December 1539, proceeded rapidly, and was ready in time for the arrival of the new queen.
Beginning in 1541, the attention of the king's workmen turned to the demolition of the abbey buildings. The materials, including blocks of Caen stone and medieval floor tiles, were sold for reuse. James Needham, Surveyor to the King's Works, recorded
The palace ended up not being used much by the monarchy, and was leased to a succession of nobles. In the early 1600s was in the possession of Edward Lord Wotton, who employed John Tradescen, to lay out formal gardens around it. King Charles I visited with his wife Henrietta Maria during this period.
This palace is thought to have survived until a great storm in 1703, which caused great damage to the already ruinous structure of the abbey.
What to See at St. Augustine's Abbey
Entrance to the ruins is through the St. Augustine's Abbey Visitor's Centre, which is efficiently run (though with limited opening hours in winter) by English Heritage. Admission includes an audio tour and the museum, which visitors pass through on their way out the door to the ruins.
St Anne's Chapel in the south transept was a chantry chapel founded by Juliana de Leybourne, Countess of Huntington, in 1362. She was buried here after her death in 1367 and there are several other burials as well. There are some remains of elaborate stone carving in the left-hand corner. This must have been a richly-decorated chapel, for many of the carvings on display in the museum were found here.
There are foundations of two buildings off the south side of the nave. The westernmost one was probably a temporary workshop erected during the demolition of the abbey in 1539. The eastern one was a chapel, possibly dedicated to Mary and certainly used for burials.
The easternmost section of the nave is the site of the Anglo-Saxon Church of Sts Peter and Paul, begun during St. Augustine's lifetime and completed around 613. Its foundations are about a meter beneath the Norman nave floor and are still covered over. The north chapel, however, has been excavated and left on display.
Known as the Porticus of St Gregory, this chapel running along the north side of the Anglo-Saxon church contains the tombs of early archbishops. The tombs were empty when they were discovered, because the remains had been reinterred in the presbytery of the Norman church in 1091. Markers indicate the original sites of these tombs, which include those of Laurence (d.619), Mellitus (d.624) and Justus (d.634).
At the east end of the abbey church is the crypt of Abbot Wulfric's Rotunda, a multistorey octagonal structure built around 1050 to link the Church of St. Peter and Paul (the main church) with the Chapel of St. Mary. The abbot probably got the idea for the design during his visit to Rheims in France. A Norman choir was later built over top of it and it was only rediscovered in 1914.
East of the Rotunda is the Norman crypt, a half-story lower than the rest of the church. Built beneath the choir and High Altar, which was elevated, the crypt was used for worship and burials. It was the first part of the new Norman church to be built.
At the far east end is the 7th-century Church of St Pancras, one of three Anglo-Saxon churches built at St Augustine's Abbey. It is the best-preserved of the three because it did not interfere with the Norman rebuilding of the abbey church: it continued to be used as a cemetery church. Note the reused Roman brick, which indicates the original Anglo-Saxon parts (it was renovated in the 8th and 14th centuries).
Unlike most Benedictine monasteries, the cloister is on the north side of the church; this was probably to avoid disturbing an existing cemetery on the south. The cloister was laid out under Abbot Scolland in the 1070s, constructed mainly under Hugh of Fleury (1099-1124) and reached its final form under Abbot Thorne in 1276. It measures 122 x 117 feet.
The cloister is where the monks spent most of their time when not in the church. The south walkway was used for reading and meditation; the school for novices was on the west side. The building just right of center is the library of King's School, built by William Butterfield.
Quick Facts on St. Augustine's Abbey
|Names:||St. Augustine's Abbey|
|Categories:||shrines; monasteries; ruins; World Heritage Sites|
|Styles:||Romanesque; Anglo-Saxon Era|
|Dedication:||St. Augustine of Canterbury|
|Dates:||598; 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.278199° N, 1.087915° E|
|Address:||St. Augustine's Abbey|
|Hours:||Apr-Jun: Wed-Sun 10-5|
Jul-Aug: Daily 10-6
Sep-Mar: Sundays 11-5
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. Augustine's Abbey|
- Personal visit (November 18, 2007).
- Informational signs in the site museum.
- Judith Roebuck, St. Augustine's Abbey (English Heritage, 1997; reprint 2005).
- Photos of St. Augustine's Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury
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