Dorchester Abbey is a large church 8 miles southeast of Oxford in the village of Dorchester-on-Thames (pop. 1,000). Now an Anglican parish church, it began as a cathedral founded by St. Birinus in 635 AD and later became an Augustinian abbey. The present building dates from the 12th to 14th centuries and contains a variety of medieval artworks, from stained glass to sculpture to murals.
History of Dorchester Abbey
In about 630 AD, an Italian bishop named Birinus was encouraged by Pope Honorius to spread Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon barbarians in Britain. He was consecrated for this task by Archbishop Asterius of Milan.
Birinus arrived in 634, determined "to sow the seed of the holy faith in the inner parts beyond the English." But instead of heading for the remote areas of the island as originally planned, Birinus found the West Saxons to be so thoroughly pagan that he went no further.
Settling in Dorchester, Birinus began to preach the gospel. A great help to him came a year later in 635, when King Oswald of Northumbria — already converted to Christianity by Celtic missionaries — came to Dorchester to visit Cynegils, King of the West Saxons. Under the dual influence of Birinus and Oswald, King Cynegils converted to Christianity and was baptized, with King Oswald as his godfather.
The two kings then granted Birinus land in Dorchester for a cathedral, appointing him the first Bishop of Dorchester. The original cathedral was small and made of wood.
Birinus died and was buried in Dorchester in 650 AD and was canonized shortly thereafter. With a looming threat of war between Wessex and Mercia, both the bishopric and the relics of St. Birinus were moved to Winchester in 690. But in the Danish raids of the 870s, the bishopric was moved back to Dorchester under the Saxon Bishop Wulfwig.
In 1070, Remigius became bishop and built a Norman church at Dorchester, parts of which still surive. But by the time the Domesday Book was written in 1086, the bishopric had moved to Lincoln and Dorchester's church was used as a parish church.
In 1140, Bishop Alexander founded Dorchester Abbey as a monastery for Augustinian canons. The 12th-century abbey church, which still survives, had a long, simple nave with no aisles.
In the early 13th century, the tomb of St. Birinus was opened and supposedly some of his relics were found (this is unlikely). This made Dorchester Abbey a popular place of pilgrimage, and soon enough funds were raised from visiting pilgrims to significantly expand the abbey church.
The tower, choir aisles, and a new shrine of St. Birinus were added in the 13th century. In 1340, the sanctuary was extended to the east and filled with wonderful stained glass and carved stone sculptures. The People's Chapel, with its lovely mural that can still be seen today, was also added at this time for the use of local laymen.
Like all abbeys across England, Dorchester was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. In 1536, the monastery was closed and the shrine of St. Birinus was destroyed.
Thankfully, however, the abbey church was spared total destruction when a local wealthy man named Sir Richard Bewfforeste paid Henry VIII the value of the lead roof in order to preserve the church for use by the parish. Other abbey churches had their lead roofs stripped off and melted down by Henry's men.
The other monastery buildings were all destroyed, except for the abbey guest house that now serves as a museum and tea room. The church tower was rebuilt in 1602, major repairs were undertaken in the 18th century, and various restorations continue today.
What to See at Dorchester Abbey
Dorchester Abbey's exterior is impressively large, with a pleasing red roof and stout tower on the west end. The tower, which is not open to the public, contains eight bells in all, ranging in date from 1375 to 1867. The tenor bell weighs more than 840 kg and carries a Latin inscription from its donor: Protege Birine quos convoco tu sine fine Raf Rastlwold, "Do thou, Birinus, protect for ever those whom I summon. Raf Rastwold."
The approach to the south porch entrance is picturesquely lined with vines and passes through a churchyard full of weathered tombstones. Look for a carving of a man on his horse atop the gable just to the right of the porch.
Inside the entrance is a modern glass enclosure artfully engraved by Jane McDonald, and beyond that is the roomy People's Chapel, built in 1340 as a worship space for non-monks. On the east wall of this chapel is a delightful red-hued mural of the Crufixion of Christ with the two Marys, also from around 1340.
This chapel also contains a Romanesque baptismal font, which is the only monastic font in England to survive the Reformation. Made of lead and carved with images of Christ and the 11 apostles (no Judas), it dates from about 1170.
The nave is narrower than the People's Chancel, but very long, extending down to the beautiful East Window that incorporates both medieval and Victorian art. Most of the glass dates from the 14th century and was collected from other windows in about 1814. The rose window at the top was designed by William Butterfield, restorer of the church in 1846-50.
The East Window is flanked by two other magnificent windows, and all three contain elaborate tracery covered in small sculptures. The Jesse Window on the north wall is especially notable, as it skillfully combines the "multi-media" of stained glass, tracery and sculpture into the single theme of the family tree of Christ. Jesse, the father of King David, reclines on the windowsill at the bottom. The sculptures of the Virgin and Child at the bottom and of Christ at the top were smashed by Puritans during the Civil War.
On the south wall of the chancel are three 14th-century sedilia, seats reserved for the bishop and senior clergy. No longer used, they have magnificent stone canopies decorated with fine tracery and small figures of saints. Inside are three unique round windows, decorated with 3-petal flowers and a ball, and filled with stained glass, one representing the distribution of the sacraments at the Eucharist. Look also for very small but very realistic carvings of the seven deadly sins, presumably meant as a constant reminder of the temptations of this world.
The oldest stained glass in Dorchester Abbey can be found in the narrow, late-13th-century St. Birinius Chapel on the north side of the nave. In the center of the chapel's east window is a medallion of stained glass depicting St. Birinus being blessed by Archbishop Asterius of Milan before his mission to Britain. It dates from about 1250.
Across the nave from the St. Birinius Chapel on the south side is the Shrine Chapel, which contains the Shrine of St. Birinius. This is actually a modern and rather severe reconstruction, which the Abbey hopes to improve in a much more accurate manner in the near future. Of interest, though, are the painted vaults within the niches, which are the only survivors from the original shrine. They were found in a blocked-up doorway in the 1870s.
The Shrine Chapel also shelters two altars with stained glass windows and several interesting effigy tombs. The most notable of these is an effigy of a knight in chain mail, thought to be Sir William de Valance the Younger (died 1282), who probably went on a Crusade to the Holy Land.
This effigy is one of the best pieces of its kind in England, as it is well-preserved and uniquely lifelike. The knight is shown in the act of drawing his sword and his clothing and armor are carved in intricate detail. It was originally painted in bright blue, red and green, traces of which can still be seen in the folds of the cloak.
Other nearby effigies include: John de Stonor (died 1354), Lord Chief Justice of England under Edward III, whose descendants still live nearby in Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames; a knight in plate armour ca. 1400, probably a member of the Segrave family; and a bishop in the style of the early 14th century.
The Cloister Gallery, on the north side of the nave west of St. Birinus Chapel, is also worth a look on your way out. Enclosed by a modern wooden structure, this hall displays architectural fragments from the abbey buildings and church, along with informative and attractive signs about different architectural periods and features.
The St Birinus Pilgrimage takes place every year on the first Sunday in July. Hundreds of people from various Christian traditions assemble at Churn Knob, a hill 7 miles south-west of Dorchester where Birinus is said to have preached. From there the pilgrims walk cross-country to Dorchester Abbey for a packed and joyful united service in which local leaders of the Anglican, Catholic and Nonconformist churches take an active part.
Quick Facts on Dorchester Abbey
|Names:||Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul · Dorchester Abbey|
|Categories:||churches; abbeys; parish churches; abbey churches; Grade I listed buildings; England's Thousand Best Churches: Four Stars|
|Dedication:||St. Peter, St. Paul|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.643670° N, 1.164240° W|
|Hours:||365 days a year, 8am-6pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Dorchester Abbey|
- Personal visits (March 24, 2007 and November 4, 2007).
- Dorchester Abbey - official website
- St. Birinus (Berin) - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Dorchester-on-Thames - official village website
- How Christianity Came to the Thames Valley
- St. Birinus Pilgrimage
Map of Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
Below is a location map and aerial view of Dorchester Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.