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The Medieval Church in Winchcombe

The Medieval Church in Winchcombe

The Hwicci, who occupied this part of England, were probably converted to Christianity about 670.  It seems likely that some kind of church-community centre was established in Winchcombe soon after.  It may well have been dedicated to St Pancras, as there is later evidence of a Church dedicated to St Pancras on the site of Winchcombe Abbey.  St Pancras was much favoured by such influential people as Pope Gregory the Great [540-604], who commissioned St Augustine’s mission to England (596-604) and Pope Vitalian (657-672), who sent some of his relics to the king of Northumbria.

A century or so later, Offa, King of Mercia (760-796), built several monasteries (or Minsters) and William Dugdale, the renowned 17thC historian noted that one of these was reputed to have been in Winchcombe (in 787), under the rule of an abbess.  Whatever the truth of this story, we do know that Kenulf, King of Mercia (796-822), whose family’s principal seat was in Winchcombe, built and endowed a fine minster here, with his daughter Qwenfryth as the first abbess.  He seems to have modelled the Winchcombe set up on the layout of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.  This had three churches, dedicated to St Peter, St Mary and St Pancras, roughly aligned from west to east (a sketch map of the Abbey precincts in the later medieval period is available here).

Minsters differed from the later Benedictine monasteries in a number of ways.  They were each governed by their own rules, made by the patron and his chosen abbess, who was often a relative.  They were intended to form spiritual hubs: private, quiet centres for prayer, study and devotion by both men and women.  The minsters underpinned both evangelism and pastoral care, with clergy being sent out to serve the local region, up to a distance of perhaps ten miles.  All clergy, including bishops, lived in such communities with – for those who were married - their wives and children.  These communities also attracted commercial activity as they were the key centres in a generally undeveloped countryside.  Additionally, the minsters had need of skilled craftsmen and so became local centres of excellence: Winchcombe stone masons were highly regarded, even being used for royal building work.

An Anglo-Saxon charter shows that Winchcombe Abbey was being ruled by an abbess until shortly before 897. (Later Benedictine chroniclers did not approve of these mixed communities; William of Malmesbury, writing in 1125 observed that “by the time of King Edgar (958-975) Winchcombe was almost a monastery in name alone.” He was no doubt scandalised that it was occupied by married secular canons, which had been the norm until at least 970.)

Nevertheless, following the death of King Kenulf, the kingdom of Mercia began to disintegrate, as a result of both internal power struggles and Viking incursions.  At about the same time the church in England fell into in a poor state, as can be judged by King Alfred’s (871-99) observations in about 890.

“I would have it be known that very often it has come to my mind what men of learning there were formerly throughout England, both in religious and secular orders .... and how eager were the religious orders both in teaching and in learning, and how nowadays, if we wished to acquire wisdom and instruction we would have to seek them outside. ... We have now lost the wealth as well as the wisdom, because we did not wish to set our minds to the track.”

In these circumstances it is not surprising that in 969, King Edgar (958-975) commanded Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Oswald bishop of Worcester and Aethelwold bishop of Winchester to expel the clerks from the larger monasteries in Mercia and replace them with Benedictine monks.  William of Malmesbury wrote that Winchcombe Abbey “was somewhat revived by the Blessed Oswald.  He made Germanus abbot there, whom he had brought with him from (the reformist Benedictine community of) Fleury, and Germanus was a great help both to the Abbey’s religious life and the rebuilding of its church.”

King Edgar’s later reflections (in about 973)

“I, Edgar, king of all Albion, [decided] I should rebuild all the holy monasteries throughout my kingdom, which, as they were visibly ruined … [and], what was still worse, they had become internally neglected, and almost destitute of the service of God.  Wherefore rejecting those illiterate clerks subject to the discipline of no regular order, in many places I have appointed pastors of a holier race, that is of the monastic [Benedictine] order, supplying them with ample means out of my royal revenues to repair their churches wherever ruined …”

confirm that that the spiritual quality of life in the minsters had left much to be desired

These Benedictine communities were of a single sex, withdrawn from the world, living disciplined lives of prayer, worship, study and work at set times.  They approximated to the style of monastic life we now are familiar with, though for another century or more the communities continued to be responsible for the pastoral care, teaching and sacramental ministry to the wider community.

A further development during Edgar’s reign was that local lords began increasingly to build chapels or churches attached to their manor houses.  Initially these were of timber, but by the turn of the century they were being rebuilt in stone.  It was also about this time that it became a requirement that burials should take place in minster churchyards, not at the local churches and chapels that were being built.  In 1050 the Bishop of Ramsbury visiting the Pope reported that “England is now being filled everywhere with churches, which are daily being added in new places.”  The first church at Sudeley dates from this period of expansion.

The Norman Conquest introduced significant cultural changes.  Anglo-Saxon bishops, abbots and abbesses were replaced by Normans as were many Anglo Saxon lords and over-lords.  They wanted their buildings to proclaim their dominance as well as to reflect their culture and started a major rebuilding programme for both churches and castles. Perhaps more significantly for the church, women were increasingly side-lined and made subservient to men. This, combined with the ever stronger insistence on celibacy by monks, nuns and clergy, led to increasing misogyny amongst the clergy. This in turn led to a denial of the contributions made by women to the Anglo-Saxon church and to the vilification of key figures, such as the previously well-respected abbess Qwenfrith.

These changes had significant effect on the church in Winchcombe. The pre-existing model of Minster Communities, intended to serve as the spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and liturgical hub of the surrounding area, with their clergy ministering at local preaching crosses, was no longer acceptable.  Moreover, as local lords rebuilt their own castles and manor houses and provided these with their own chapels, tensions developed over restrictions (for example over local burials) and fee structures designed to support the minster model.

Change in Winchcombe may have been precipitated by a lightning strike on the tower of the Abbey church of St Mary in 1091.  This opened up a huge crack in the walls, large enough for a man to pass through and destroyed one of the beams: major reconstruction became both inevitable and pressing.  Archaeological remains show the massive bases of the nave piers in the new Norman style Abbey – similar in scale to those at Gloucester and Tewkesbury, which were built between 1089 and 1130.  It is not clear whether all of the Abbey buildings were reconstructed at this time: William of Malmesbury in 1120 that the church which Kenulf had built “yet remains”, which might mean that the Anglo-Saxon chapels of St Peter and St Pancras remained unchanged.

Organisational change was accelerated by a decision of the Lateran Council (1122) which prohibited monks from acting as parish priests, on the grounds that they were poorly equipped for this task and that it would distract them from their true vocation.  In future parish churches had to be managed by secular (that is, belonging to no religious order) priests, although their costs were to fall on the local monasteries.  After a shaky start when abbeys appointed poorly paid priests with no security of tenure – and got what little they had they paid for – a further Council in 1174 ordered that such priests be given security of tenure and decent pay.  As a result a recognisable parochial system, with clear boundaries and the responsibilities of clergy and laity well defined, was established by 1180.

Evidence of this change can be seen in the Abbey’s Landboc (its book of deeds started about 1200 but including some earlier material) where the names of secular priests, or clerks, often identified by their village or church, crop up frequently.  The first recorded ‘persona’ or Parson of St Peter’s is William (1140 -1180).  Ralph appears from the 1150s and in 1182 is referred to as the Parson of St Peter’s, presumably having succeeded William.  The Landboc similarly gives names for priests appointed to Sudeley, Toddington and Haseley in the 1170s; to Greet in 1190; and to Gretton to 1216.

During this period of organisational change, Winchcombe was caught up in the civil war in King Stephen’s reign (1139-1147).  In 1140 the town was besieged, captured and the northern part deliberately set on fire.  This destroyed the Church of St Nicholas, believed to have been in the Chandos Street/Bull Lane area.  Rather than rebuilding it, the town’s people obtained an extension of St Peter’s churchyard from the Abbey and erected a north aisle, with a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas at the east end.  Remarkably the join of the churchyard extension can still be seen in the present wall.  It is likely that the parish continued to function in its own right, with the north aisle of St Peter’s as its parish church, because a roll from Henry VIII’s reign lists a tenement as being in the parish of St Nicholas.  (The present Roman Catholic church of St Nicholas in Chandos Street dates from 1915.)

At the same time the area around Postlip became so dangerous that in the 1140s the Lord of Postlip built St James’ Chapel for his tenants. The Abbey undertook to conduct services there in exchange for tithes on his lands and it was listed in several Papal documents as one of the Abbey’s possessions.  (After the dissolution of the monasteries, it passed into lay hands, eventually being reduced to serving as a cattle shed and sheep pen. It was restored in 1891 as a private Roman Catholic chapel and is now attached to the parish of Chipping Campden.)

In 1150, well after the end of the Civil War in King Stephen’s reign, an accidental fire badly damaged the Abbey.  According to the Landboc  the fire destroyed “all its vestments, books, deeds and all its buildings.”  Since there are only a few traces of fire damage on the surviving archaeology, it may be significant that the report does not specifically mention the church, so the damage may have been more to the domestic buildings than to St Mary’s Church.  A major fund raising and rebuilding programme followed, and in about 1200 the Abbey’s archives were reconstructed in its Landboc, which was kept up to date with greater or less efficiency for the next three hundred years.

Although the parishes of St Peter and St Nicholas (whose worshippers had been using the north aisle of St Peter’s since the destruction of their church) remained administratively separate until at least the Tudor period, some unification seems to have occurred in 1247.  The evidence for this is that the Bishop of Worcester was authorised to present Master Henry de Campden (the ‘priori’ of St Peter’s) to that portion, which William de Sancta Albana [of St Alban’s] had in the church of St Peter.  Perhaps related to this change is an application to the king in 1246 by Master Henry for planning permission to extend the chancel of St Peter’s and to enlarge the incomplete south aisle.  The king consulted a local jury, who advised against this proposal as it would encroach on the road, preventing two carts passing on market day.  Nevertheless, the king did grant permission provided that the entrance to the Abbey remained 30 foot and the roads 12 foot in width.  These considerations suggest that the alignment of the old St Peter’s differed from the present building and that it was situated closer to the Abbey entrance and to the main road.

These works to extend St Peter’s as well as expensive improvement projects at the Abbey all had to be funded by an increasingly impoverished population.  Tithes were levied by the Abbey and St Peter’s, with the Abbey taking two thirds and the Vicar one third, with which he was expected to maintain himself and his vicarage; provide hospitality for travellers; and aid for the poor.  The Abbey was also a significant landowner in and around Winchcombe and therefore collected rents and other dues from many of the parishioners, as well as collecting market taxes on behalf of the king.   None of this tended to promote good relations between the Abbey, St Peter’s and the townspeople.  In addition the abbot and the vicar had a perennial dispute concerning responsibility for maintenance of St Peter’s chancel.

Matters did not improve during the late 13th/early 14th century.  The abbots of Winchcombe had spent greatly on enlarging and improving the east end of the Abbey church as well as taking out expensive loans to purchase more lands. As a consequence the Abbey urgently needed to raise more funds.  The Bishop of Worcester conducted a formal visitation in 1329 and his injunctions show that he found extravagance and inadequate self-discipline within the community.  They also hint at financial corruption, abuse of power and general mismanagement.

Worse was to follow as the 14th century moved forward.  In 1318 the Bishop was called upon to arbitrate in a dispute between the abbot and William de Preston the Vicar.   In 1337 Edward III went to war with France and to pay for this he demanded loans from land owners as well as higher taxes.  This increased the demands the Abbey made on the townspeople and their tenants. From 1340 – 1388 there are reports of armed men, including chaplains, breaking into the Abbey’s precincts and outlying manors, holding the monks captive and making off with their goods.  Then, to add to all these problems, in 1348/9 the Black Death swept across the country, reducing the population by about one third.  Farms and animals were left uncared for, further reducing the income available to both the Abbey and to St Peter’s.  By 1351 there are reports of dilapidations, alienation of property and complaints by some monks to the Bishop and Archbishop.  Two years later in 1353, the Abbey was, in effect, declared bankrupt and a royal commission appointed to manage it. Ten years later, in 1364 a whirlwind damaged the Abbey church and in 1366 the abbot and prior were found guilty of making fraudulent claims to property in the town.  John Brightman, who was the Perpetual Vicar of St Peter’s from 1366-89, sued the abbot for repairs to the chancel of St Peter’s.  On at least one occasion he took the law into his own hands, and with his curate and a party of townspeople he broke into the Abbey and assaulted some of the staff.

John Brightman was succeeded by Thomas Power (1389-1415), who continued the struggle to get the abbot to pay for the maintenance of the chancel. Thomas took his case first to the Bishop of Worcester and lost with costs, then to the Archbishop’s court and lost with further costs. Finally Power appealed to the Papal courts in Rome and lost for the last time.  Pope Urban’s ruling in 1389 not only confirmed the decisions of the lower courts but also removed of the vicar’s security of tenure, granting authority to the abbot and the monastic community to appoint and remove vicars at their pleasure (although there is no record that this power was ever used).  Having failed to obtain legal redress, Power, like his predecessor, took the law into his own hands and began ringing the church bells at times designed to disturb the monks’ sleep and their prayers.   The abbot appealed to the Pope, who ruled the bells should not be rung after the evening curfew nor before Prime, the morning act of worship, and should always be rung moderately.  In 1400 the Archdeacon found that the papal ruling was being ignored, so he excommunicated both vicar and parishioners.

The end for the old St Peter’s Church came in the reign of Henry V (1413 – 1422) when after 80 or 90 years of neglect the building was condemned as too dangerous to use.  (This may have been in 1415 when John Byll replaced Thomas Power as Vicar of St Peter’s.)  From then until the present building was completed some 60 or so years later, the townspeople worshipped in the Abbey church.  Whilst this arrangement may have been convenient for the town, it would no doubt have been most unsatisfactory for Alice, the widow of Thomas Boteler, Lord Sudeley, who had died in 1398 and had been buried in the old St Peter’s.  Two of her sons had also been buried there and she must have been ashamed that they had no appropriate resting place.  Dame Alice had retained possession of most of the family estates and was well placed to finance a new building.  However if St Peter’s was ruinous, the Abbey’s building can scarcely have been much better and it seems likely that all concerned accepted that the Abbey must be restored before St Peter’s could be rebuilt.  Almost certainly Dame Alice used her considerable fortune and influence to help finance the restoration of the Abbey and when she died in 1443 she was buried at the east end of the Abbey church in a chantry chapel – fragmentary stones from it survive.  It was left to her son Ralph to contribute to the rebuilding of St Peter’s, which is covered in a separate note.

Notes on the subsequent development of each of the four churches of Winchcombe parish may be found under their own pages on this website.

This note is based on research by the Rev John Stevinson.  He has also produced several more comprehensive studies, available from the bookstall in St Peter’s.