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History of Gloucester Cathedral
by David Nash Ford

G L O U C E S T E R   C A T H E D R A L
An Abbey that Survived the Dissolution

Gloucester Cathedral from an Old Print

On August 1, 1534 Abbot William Malvern Parker acknowledged the Royal Supremacy of the Church in England. Within two years Parliament would pass an act to dissolve all monasteries with incomes under 200 per year; by 1539 the remaining monasteries were abolished and land seized by the crown. St. Peter's Abbey in Gloucester was officially closed on January 2, 1540. For many Abbey Churches and monastic houses, the Act of 1539 was the last judgement. Some churches were sold to local parishes and continued to function as spiritual centres, but during the Henrician Reformation at least seventeen Roman Catholic Cathedrals were destroyed. Henry VIII intended to create new Dioceses and to establish new Bishoprics in England. Of the intended twenty one new Bishoprics, Gloucester was one of six that was actually preserved. In September 1541 it was made the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Invisible Trinity in the newly created diocese of Gloucester. Why was St. Peter's Abbey spared the wrath of iconoclasts and Henry VIII? Although Gloucester was an important city, and the building itself is architecturally significant, its salvation was likely the result of its connection to the Monarchy, or the Monarchy's connection to it. Upon elevating the Abbey Church to a Cathedral, Henry VIII made the observation that 'considering the site of the late monastery in which the monument of our renowned ancestor the King of England [Edward II] is erected, is a fit and proper place...".

The city of Gloucester has been an important centre since the time of the Roman occupation; it was one of four known cities with colonia status. Roman ruins can be seen at the site of the Abbey as the main building is over top of the north west corner of the Roman wall. Roman habitation in Gloucester was encouraged by several important factors that continued to have influence for several hundred years after the Romans left the area. Until canals were developed, Gloucester was the most inland port. The position of the city is such that deep sea vessels can reach it due to the depth of the Severn River, but it is narrow enough to be bridged. This location made it King Osric founds St. Peter's Abbeyeasier to transport the iron ore that was mined in the nearby Forest of Dean. Gloucester was also an important centre of the wool trade. By the fourteenth century, the wool trade was so strong the city had money to put into church improvements. The city was also home to Kingsholm, a royal residence near the Abbey as well as a Norman castle. Gloucester remained an important city throughout the Saxon and Norman periods. Its importance declined somewhat after the Royal household became more sedentary, but it did not decline in its prestige, and remained an important market town: it is located on an important trade route.

The city of Gloucester survived the withdrawal of Roman support due to its trade links. Christianity continued and the Abbey of St. Peter was founded in AD 681 by Osric, a ruler of the Hwicce who was also a viceroy to King Ethelred of Mercia. By the ninth century the original wooden structure was replaced by stone and in 823 religious priests were replaced with secular ones. In 909 St. Oswald's relics were moved to Gloucester by Alfred's daughter ’thelflaed and her husband Aethelred, and a priory was erected in his name. Canute had the secular canons expelled in 1022 and on the advice of Wulstan I, Bishop of Worcester, had Benedictine monks brought in. Worcester continued to influence St. Peter's Abbey and Aldred, Bishop of Worcester, took charge in 1058 and rebuilt the Church on a more grand scale. Monastic reform in the Cluniac tradition had impact in England after the Norman invasion. By 1072 the last Saxon Abbot died, and Serlo was brought from Normandy. At the time of Serlo's arrival, the Abbey had been reduced to two monks and eight novices. Having arrived from Mont-St. Michel, one of the foremost monasteries on the continent, Serlo began to increase the prestige of the Abbey at Gloucester and attracted so many that further renovations were necessary. By the time of his death in 1104 the Abbey had gone from two monks and eight boys to more than 100 brethren.

Norman Columns in the NaveIn 1088, Aldred's building was destroyed by fire and Serlo supervised the construction of the new building which began with the crypt and main stone structure in 1089. The influences on the new building are Anglo-Saxon and Norman. Worcester Cathedral was begun in 1084 on the grand Romanesque style, so after the fire that destroyed Gloucester in 1088, Worcester served as the most readily available model. The massive cylindrical piers that line the nave are distinctly west-country and can be compared to the near contemporary Abbey at Tewkesbury, but the re-construction of the Abbey at Gloucester was based partially on the Norman style as seen on the continent. The combination of ambulatory, radiating chapels and the inclusion of a crypt are distinct to Rouen, Sainte-Wandrille and Mont-St. Michel; however, the style was used on four English churches before Gloucester: St. Augustine's Abbey (1081), Winchester Cathedral (1079), Bury St. Edmunds Abbey (1081) and Worcester Cathedral (1084).

In July 15, 1100 the new building was consecrated, although it was just the eastern arm that was finished. The first century after consecration was not a successful one; just 22 years later, another fire ripped through the Abbey which destroyed much of the Norman church. There are no records that indicate the vast repairs that would have been required following the fire, so the rebuilding was slow and repairs were completed by the monks themselves as necessary and as funds were available. The southern tower of the west front of the Abbey collapsed in 1170. The structural repairs were delayed because the monastery was in financial trouble. Robert Earl of Gloucester was Empress Matilda's half brother and champion during the civil war, and his headquarters were in the city of Gloucester. Matilda also benefitted from the support of Abbot Foliot (1139 - 1148), but the Abbey did not. In 1194 the monks were forced to sell their silver to ransom King Richard I and, thirteen years later, John seized one third of their property. The monks surely continued to rebuild the Church following the fire and the collapse of the south tower. The rebuilding must have been adequately complete for the crowning of the young Henry III in 1216. The coronation of the young King in 1216 was a revitalization of royal interest in the Abbey Church.

Previous to the coronation of Henry III, St. Peter's Abbey in Gloucester had been important during the Norman rule, particularly the reign of William I. In 1085 William faced an invasion from Canute IV of Scandinavia, and moved his court to Gloucester: a city on the Welsh border. The meetings of the King's Curia were usually at Christian holidays, and included full courtly splendour and regalia. It has been said that it was at one such festivity at St. Peter's Abbey that the Domesday Book was ordered. Domesday Book was ordered by William I at Christmas, 1085, while he was staying in Gloucester. There is dispute over where the actual order was given from but the mere nature of the controversy supports the fact that the Abbey was an important centre that enjoyed the company of the King. William I also called an Ecclesiastical council in Gloucester shortly after the announcement of the Domesday Survey. St. Peter's Abbey at Gloucester was not held by military tenure or in exchange for military service. The Domesday survey noted that "This manor was always exempt from tax and from all royal service". The Abbey regained lost ground during the Investiture controversy and the during the Interdict of King John's reign. The Abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester was allowed to manage their own property and permitted to keep a rationabile estuverium (a "reasonable allowance") for themselves. This gave the Abbots Monument to Prince Robert, Duke of Normandya greater control over their resources, allowing the repairs to the building to be sufficiently completed for the coronation of Henry III in 1216. By the time Richard II held Parliament there in 1378, the Abbey was an important architectural show piece and a popular pilgrimage destination.

The city of Gloucester and the Abbey benefitted from the monarchy not just by William I's court and Ecclesiastical Council, tax concessions documented in Domesday Book, economic freedom granted by John, and the coronation of Henry III. Some kings, such as William I, helped to promote the prestige of the Abbey while they were alive, but others, like Edward II, were more beneficial to Abbey coffers after their death. As would be expected, the Abbey Church at Gloucester has many important people buried there. In addition to abbots and other ecclesiastical officials, William the Conqueror's eldest son, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, was buried at St. Peter's Abbey (in the Chapter House). These burial sites and the various other encounters with the monarchy pale in the sight of what the tomb of the murdered king Edward II has done for the prestige of the institution.

By the early fourteenth century, many churches and monastic houses were on the brink of insolvency. The shrine of Edward II at Gloucester was a significant source of revenue. The money brought in by the pilgrims financed the construction of the Chapel of St. Andrew "from the foundation to the end". Donations included a relic piece of the "true cross" set in gold from the Edward the Black Prince. Queen Philippa gave relics set in gold and Queen Joan gave a great ruby. Edward III made generous donations to the abbey to Detail of the Carving on the 'Caged' Canopy over King Edward IIensure that his father was properly commemorated. These gifts coupled with the gifts of visitors to the tomb of the late king gave Abbot Wigmore the financial means necessary to have the master court mason, William Ramsey, create the decorative cage that encloses the effigy of Edward II. The cage and related improvements changed the appearance of the Choir and influenced English Gothic for over 200 years. His effigy is in the arcade north of the high altar. It is one of the earliest alabaster carvings in England. The burial of Edward II and the patronage of his son and successor Edward III made the abbey more prestigious and worthy of further endowments.

Part 2: Architectural Development of Gloucester Cathedral

Related Pages:
History of Gloucester
History of St. Oswald's Priory
Tour of the Ancient Severn Vale
Tour Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester City Page
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