Abbey Church of St. Mary & St. Aethelflaed
by David Nash Ford
T H E A B B E Y C H U R C H O F
S T. M A R Y & S T. A E T H E L F L A E D
Romsey Abbey was founded by King Edward the
Elder in 907 for his daughter, Princess Aelflaed,
a nun at Wilton who became the first Abbess of
Romsey. There was an increase in interest in the
female monastic life around this time and the
King probably wanted to make extra provision for
widowed and unmarried ladies of the Royal family.
He had recently completed the building of the New
Minster in Winchester and perhaps he saw Romsey
as its sister foundation. The site was about
equidistant from the nunneries at Winchester and
Wilton and may have been chosen for its potential
development as a defensive burgh. Little
is known of this first Abbey, though it may have
received a grant of land in Kingsclere from King
Edmund the Magnificent in 943.
During the popular reformation of the late
10th century, Romsey Abbey was completely
re-founded under the Benedictine Rule by King
Edgar the Peacable (967). A pious noblewoman
named Merewenna was made Abbess and she was given
charge of the Queen's young step-daughter,
Aethelflaed. Both Ladies were successive Abbesses
and were also reverred as saints. King Edgar took
a special interest in Romseya nd his young son
was buried there. He gave the nuns the right to
choose their own Abbess after Merewenna died and
he also granted them lands in Edington
(Wiltshire) and large woodland estates in return
for which the nuns handed over gifts of a
"finely wrought dish, armlets splendidly
chased and a scabbard adorned with gold"
valued at £112 10s. Nobles like Ealdorman
Aethelmaer of Hampshire (d.982) also enhanced the
Abbey's coffers around this time. The Saxon Abbey
complex was destroyed by Sweyn Forkbeard and his
Viking soldiers during a raid in 994. The nuns,
apparently warned by divine intervention, were
able flee to the Nunnaminster in Winchester.
The Nuns may not have returned to Romsey until
the reign of King Canute around 1020. It is not
clear in what state they found the monastery
buildings, but ten years later the community was
thriving, as a unique census of fifty-four nuns
under Abbess Wulfwynn shows.
The Abbey continued to thrive until April
1539 when it was formerly disolved. The Abbey
Church was saved for future generations when it
was bought, for £100, by the parishioners of
Romsey for use as their Parish Church in February
Princess Aelflaed, Abbess of Romsey, d.959
St. Merewenna, Abbess of Romsey, d.c.970
Prince Edmund of England, d.971
Princess St. Aethelflaed, Abbess of
beautifully embroidered stole given by King
Athelstan to the Shrine of St. Cuthbert at
Chester-le-Street was discovered in the Saint's
coffin when it was opened at Durham in 1827.
Embroidered on it, in Latin, are the words
"Aelflaed had me made for the pious Bishop
Frithestan". The latter person is Bishop
Frithestan of Winchester and, though the lady in
question is usually assumed to be the King's
step-mother, it could easily have been her
daughter, Princess Aelflaed, the first Abbess of
Romsey. It seems highly probable that the stole
was made upon her instruction by the nuns of
Romsey, though the Winchester Nunnaminster is
Architecturally, Romsey Abbey is almost
entirely of the Norman period and a finer
example, you will be hard pushed to find.
However, amongst the stonework are some
extraordinary survivors from an earlier Saxon
the wall of the transept outside the Abbess'
Door, on the South side of the Abbey Church, is a
large high relief carving of Christ on the Cross
which dates from around 1000-1025. It may
origainlly have graced the east wall of the nave
of the old saxon Church. Christ is upright with
head erect and arms outstrecthed in welcoming.
While above, the Hand of God appears from the
clouds to acknowldge his son. The carving is
protected from the weather by a modern canopy.
Above the altar in St. Anne's Chapel, in the
South Quire Aisle of the Abbey Church, is a
second, this time low relief, carving of the
Crucifixion. With its Byzantine influences, it is
considered by many experts to be the oldest such
sculpture in the country. In detail, the carving
depicts Christ upon the Cross with two angels
watching over him. Either side are the haloed
figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John. Below,
two Roman soldiers thrust spears at Christ: one
with a vinegar soaked sponge on the end, in
response to the former's cries of "I
thurst". Christ's victory over death is
shown by the spouting tendrels which transform
the means of his execution into the Tree of Life.
The carving was once gilded and the eyes of the
figures would have been highlighted with precious
jewels. The high quality of the workmanship makes
it highly likely that this was the actual
crucifix recorded as given to the Abbey by King
Edgar the Peaceable in the 960s.
in 1900, as well as more formal excavations
undertaken in 1975 and 1979, have revealed much
about the early monastic buildings at Romsey.
Three Noble Saxon burials lying on beds of
charcoal and dating from the early 9th century
have been discovered adjoining the present
church. These are associated with the packed
chalk footings of an early building and indicate
that there was a church on this site even before
the foundation of the first Abbey.
When the nuns moved to the site,
early the following century, the earliest
building was replaced by an equal-armed
cross-shaped church, 28m long and wide, with a
large apse at the eastern end. The base of the
finely jointed ashlar blocks, which were brought
from the Isle of Wight to build the Abbey Church,
can still be seen just prodruding from where they
were excavated adjoining the north wall of the
present nave. The remains of the apsidal chancel
can be viewed beneath the tower crossing inside
the abbey. Further discoveries show that the
building would have been roofed with Purbeck
stone tiles and the walls would have had a
distinct pinkish tinge, both inside and out, from
old Roman brick ground into the mortar and
plasterwork. There was more decoration in the
form of carved scrolling vine friezes.
Residential buildings stood to the south.
Diana K Coldicott (1989) Hampshire Nunneries.
David Hugh Farmer (1987) The
Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
Jill Ivy (1992) Embroideries at Durham
M R James (1925) Abbeys.
Judy Walker (1988) Romsey Abbey.
Judy Walker (NK) The Benedictine Nunnery
of Romsey Abbey 907-1539 AD
Ann Williams, Alfred P Smyth & D P Kirby
(1991) A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age
David M Wilson (1984) Anglo-Saxon Art.