Tewkesbury Abbey (offically the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Tewkesbury) is a large and magnificent parish church in a small market town just 10 miles north of Gloucester.
Built in the early 1100s, the abbey church boasts the largest Norman tower in the world and the largest exterior arch in Britain. Its interior is a breathtaking combination of stout Norman pillars and round arches with Decorated Gothic lierne vaulting and gilded bosses.
History of Tewkesbury Abbey
A Saxon Benedictine monastery was first founded on this site in the 8th century, which was thoroughly destroyed by the Danes. A new abbey, which still stands today, was founded by a Norman nobleman in 1092. Abbot Giraldus and 39 monks moved to Tewkesbury from Cranborne in Dorset in 1102. The nave was complete in 1121 and the entire church was completed by about 1150.
In the 14th century, the abbey church was given a Decorated Gothic makeover. The chancel was renovated and the nave roof was given magnificent lierne vaulting, with narrative and decorative bosses. The tombs and chantry chapels added around the chancel in 1350-1450 reflect the importance of such memorials to the local aristocracy.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538-41) meant the destruction of the monastic buildings of Tewkesbury Abbey in 1539, but the town saved the church by paying Henry VIII £459 for the property. Henry also sold eight bells to the parish for £142 (most monastic bells elsewhere were melted down to make cannons for his warships).
The great abbey church was thereafter used as the local Anglican parish church, as it still is today. The following centuries were relatively quiet, except when the wooden tower spire came crashing down in 1559. It has not been replaced, leaving the great Norman tower to receive all the attention it deserves. The present tracery of the west window was inserted in 1686.
Tewkesbury Abbey was thoroughly restored and renovated by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1875-9. Scott's alterations included the replacement of the screen with an open screen nearer the altar; moving the Milton Organ; stripping of the interior distemper; removing the 18th-century pews and transferring the monastic pews to the chancel; partially restoring the vaults; and the relaying of the floor throughout the church. In the same period, Revd. Charles Grove donated the west window stained glass, the lectern and the organ which is now named after him.
In recent years a number of conservation projects have been undertaken. In the last few decades, the nave vault has been cleaned, the roofs have been repaired, stained glass in both the chancel and west window has been conserved, the west window has been rebuilt and strengthened, and the Milton Organ has been restored.
What to See at Tewkesbury Abbey
The exterior of Tewkesbury Abbey has cathedral-sized proportions, with a long nave, east end ringed by chapels, and the largest Norman tower in the world (14 m square and 45 m high).
The west front has a unique recessed arch that soars 65 feet high, making it the largest exterior arch in the country. Entrance is through the great west door, which is uncommon in large churches nowadays (a side porch is more frequently used). The tracery of the west window dates from 1686; its glass from the Victorian restoration of 1886.
Inside, the nave features fourteen impressively stout Norman pillars that form eight bays of round arches. This very Romanesque architecture, graceful in its strong and simple austerity, is topped by a Decorated Gothic lierne vault.
The vault is delicately painted and studded with gilded bosses of musical angels and other figures. Happily these have gone untouched by either decay or iconoclasm in the seven centuries since they were installed. A mirror on a cart near the west door helps you get a better look. If you have a zoom lens or binoculars along, look for the Last Supper boss near the center of the nave.
The side aisles are narrow and also beautifully vaulted. Their side windows are all filled with Victorian glass. The two circular windows at the end of the aisles at the entrance to the ambulatory are also Victorian. See this diagram for details on their content and dates.
The choir has a beautiful scarlet and white ceiling with gilded bosses including a ring of shining suns, the emblem of the Yorkists. The suns are said to have been added by Edward IV after the defeat of the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury in 1471, the last important battle of the Wars of the Roses.
The stained glass windows of the choir are from the 14th century; they are the only medieval windows surviving in the church. They were given by Eleanor de Clare (d.1337), the wife of Hugh le Despenser and, after his death, of William de la Zouch. The left window centers on several of the church's patrons, which is unusual for medieval stained glass.
The organ on the south side of the choir has an illustrious past: it was played by the poet John Milton at Hampton Court when he was secretary to Oliver Cromwell. The Milton Organ, as it is known, was bought by the Tewkesbury townspeople in 1727.
Surrounding the chancel are a number of high-quality monuments and chantry chapels to some of Tewkesbury's greatest patrons, including the Fitzhamons, De Clares, Despensers, Beauchamps, Warwicks and Nevilles. Many of them include their own elaborately vaulted ceilings, reflecting the Abbey in miniature.
The best monuments belong to the Despensers, especially Sir Edward Dispenser (d.1375), who was standard-bearer to the Black Prince. His effigy kneels on the roof of the Trinity Chapel to the right of the high altar (best viewed from the north aisle). The Beauchamp Chapel (1422-38), to the left of the altar, features a fine fan vault.
The barrel vault of the south gallery chapel has a 12th-century fresco of a red foliate "boss." It was only fully uncovered and restored in 1996.
Worth a look in the ambulatory, which has a splendid scarlet and blue vault, is the macabre Wakeman Cenotaph, carved in the 15th century. Its history and the person it commemorates are both unknown. On it is depicted a decaying corpse being consumed by snakes and other creatures. Also in the ambulatory is a display of loose carved stones and other historic artifacts uncovered at the abbey.
Festivals and Events
Tewkesbury Abbey has excellent acoustics and regularly hosts musical concerts and plays. It has also been used for filming purposes on several occasions. See the official website for upcoming events.
Quick Facts on Tewkesbury Abbey
|Categories:||abbeys; parish churches; England's Thousand Best Churches: Five Stars|
|Dates:||early 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.968604° N, 1.928353° W|
|Hours:||Open daily year round.|
Mon, Tue, Thu, Sat: 8:30am-5:30pm
Wed, Fri: 7:30am-5:30pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tewkesbury Abbey|
- Personal visit (May 6, 2007).
- Rough Guide to England 7, 374-75.
- History and Architecture - official website of Tewkesbury Abbey
- Tewkesbury Abbey - Images of Medieval Art and Architecture
- Tewkesbury Abbey - Cotswolds Info
- Photos of Tewkesbury Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Tewkesbury Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Tewkesbury 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.