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Tours > Gloucester > Tewkesbury Inside the Abbey Church

Tewkesbury Inside the Abbey Church
Nave of Tewkesbury Abbey

Entry to Tewkesbury Abbey is by donation. If you wish to take photographs (by permit only) or buy a guidebook, you must quickly rush up the north aisle to the abbey shop, but return here and to the nave in front to begin the tour. The history and development of Tewkesbury Abbey is closed tied to the Barons of the Honour of Tewkesbury: a number of rich and important manors in the area. The Lords themselves - the FitzHamons, the De Clares, the Despensers, the Beauchamps and the Clarences - were politically important men in the country and their wealth enabled them to be generous benefactors to the church and monastery which became their own private mausoleum. The building of the original late 11th century church was begun by Robert FitzHamon, one of the most powerful barons of the new Norman Regime in England. He died before its completion and was buried in the Chapter House which stood just south of the South Transept. His patronage was continued by his son-in-law, Robert FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of King Henry I. His power in the country was second only to King Stephen and his support for his half-sister, Matilda, was the main force behind her push for the throne. The round Norman columns of the Nave belong to this first period of construction. Though plain today, they would originally have been highly painted. They are the tallest such supports in the country, each rising to a height of over thirty feet, and make a dramatic initial view of the church's interior. The liern-vaulting above is two hundred years later in date and probably replaced a previous wooden ceiling. The bosses are rather fascinating. Those along the central rib depict the life of Christ. A mirror at this point enables you to view them without straining your neck.

Lady Eleanor's Window showing FitzHamonWalking up the nave towards the Victorian rood-screen, note the ramp which hides a small step below. This marks the position of the original, and much larger, medieval rood which divided the monastic area of the church ahead of you from that where the ordinary residents of the parish were allowed to worship. Signs of the stairs to the top can still be discerned on the pillars here. Just before the present screen are a few of the original choir stalls of the medieval abbey with vigorously carved misericords for the monks to rest their bottoms on during long services. The choir itself is beyond, below the tower-crossing, within the locked area of the presbytery. However, there is a fine view from the screen gates of the treasures inside. Though there are no signs to show it, in the centre of the choir was buried Edward, Prince of Wales, the only son of King Henry VI. He was the last of the Lancastrians and it is extremely unlikely that he ever had any sort of monument. The poor lad was killed either during the disastrous Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 or, as popular legend says, was murdered immediately afterward. Turn and face the nave once more to imagine the scene at the end of perhaps the bloodiest of the dynastic battles fought for the Crown during the Wars of the Roses. The sound of fighting has brought Abbot Strensham racing down the centre of his church holding the sacrament high. He finds the Yorkist King Edward IV and his brothers, Clarence and Gloucester, butchering Lancastrian soldiers who had fled into the sanctity of the abbey church. Bodies lay scattered between the columns and the nave runs with blood. Only the Abbot's cries manage to end the slaughter. It was not the most sedate episode in the Abbey's long history, but it was certainly the most dramatic. The most obvious memorial to the battle, to be found in the church, is the 'strong-room' door to the sacristy which is covered in plate armour recovered from the battle-field. It is a great shame, therefore, that this, probably the most fascinating of the abbey's curiosities, is not on view to the general public. A leaflet explaining a self-guided walk around the battlefield is available in the abbey shop.

Look up to the ceiling of the crossing and the presbytery shows clearly the more brightly coloured times which the abbey has largely lost. This fine liern-vaulting includes many a 'sun-in-splendour,' the symbol of the Yorkist Kings added after the Battle of Tewkesbury. By this time, Edward IV's brother, the previously mentioned irreverent Duke of Clarence, had inherited the Honour of Tewkesbury through his wife. The vaulting was inserted in 1344, by Lady Eleanor le Despenser, last of the De Clare heirs of the FitzRoys. She had the whole area remodelled in the decorated style with a series of seven beautiful stained glass windows: the great treasure of the abbey. The east window shows Christ enthroned, but its interest is held in the small blue and white striped bottom-right panel. Here is the kneeling figure of Lady Eleanor herself, stripped of all her earthly possessions. Many members of her family and ancestry, mostly De Clares, are depicted in the two western most of the other windows, making a unique family record from the early 14th century. These are best seen from the ambulatory further on, along with the monuments of various patrons scattered between the cut-down Norman columns. Before heading off The Milton Organthough, look to the left where, just before the altar rail, can be glimpsed the remains of the brass of Maud De Clare, Countess of Gloucester. To the right of the choir is also the abbey's great organ. Not the most inspiring of fittings in a church, these instruments are often overlooked by the casual visitor. However, here at Tewkesbury, we have a real gem. It was built in the early 17th century for Magdalen College, Oxford and spent a brief period, during the Commonwealth, at Hampton Court Palace where it was played by the poet, John Milton who was Cromwell's Latin Secretary. The Abbey purchased the organ some hundred years later.

Take the passage round towards the south transept. Here is the simplistic and tranquil Lady Chapel housed in the only remain apse from the old Norman church. Along the ambulatory, look up to see the patrons depicted in the window opposite: Robert FitRoy; Lady Eleanor's brother, Gilbert De Clare, 4th Earl of Gloucester; her first husband, Lord Hugh Le Despenser and Robert FitzHamon. To your left appears the famous Despenser Chantry Chapel, built in memory of Lady Eleanor's nephew, Lord Edward Le Despenser. It houses a rare example of a painting on gold leaf, here depicting the Holy Trinity. Stand back to admire the 'kneeling knight': a colourful life-size kneeling effigy of Lord The 'Kneeling Knight' - Lord Edward Le Despenser Edward in full armour adorning the top of the chapel. It is the only surviving example of a type of memorial which would probably have looked far less curious to the medieval eye. Moving on to the end of the church, rounded chapels begin to explode from the building's walls: St. Catherine's & St. John's, St. Faith's, St. Dunstan's, St. Edmund's and St. Margaret's. As you follow the curve of the ambulatory notice the many niched monument, on your left, to Lady Eleanor's first husband, Lord Hugh Le Despenser: a favourite of King Edward II who was executed at Hereford by the Rebel Barons. This once fine tomb would once have been literally covered with highly painted statues of innumerable saints. They were torn down during the reformation and the monument as a whole is now in a very poor state.

Immediately behind the High Altar a brass plaque in the floor informs us that below is the Royal vault housing the bodies of Prince George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabelle, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and the Tewkesbury heiress. Th former was a bad tactician in the politics of the day and ended up being executed by drowning in a 'Butt of Malmsey Wine'! The Lady Chapel once extended eastward from here, but this has long gone. Nearby, at the entrance to St. Dunstan's Chapel, is the macabre monument to the last Abbot of Tewkesbury, John Wakeman. In the height of contemporary fashion, he prepared, as its main feature, an effigy of his rotting corpse to emphasise the mortality of man. It is the most gruesome cadaver you will find in Britain: with slugs and snakes and other creepy crawlies shown devouring the flesh. Despite this extravagance, the grave below is thought to be empty, for Abbot Wakeman went on to become the first Bishop of Gloucester, leaving Tewkesbury and his cenotaph behind. There are more spectacular monuments as you turn towards the north aisle. On either side, multiple tiered canopies remind us of King Edward II's monument in Gloucester Cathedral, which they are clearly meant to imitate, though with only partial success. On the left are the effigies of Lady Eleanor's son, Hugh le Despenser (1348) and his wife Elizabeth (1359). On the right is the latter's second husband, Sir Guy de Brien (1390). Views of the 'Kneeling Knight' can be seen from here across the presbytery. Next comes a late chantry erected in memory of FitzHamon, the Abbey's founder, followed by the, still colourful, Beauchamp Chantry. It was built for Lady Isabelle, the last of the Despensers, for priests to pray for the soles of herself and her two husbands: cousins, both named Richard Beauchamp, one the Earl of Worcester, the other of Warwick. The latter was father-in-law to Warwick the Kingmaker and is buried beneath the fine gilt-bronze monument in Warwick Collegiate Church. As can be seen, the Tewkesbury chantry had an upper floor. This probably once held kneeling effigies like the famous knight opposite. Lady Isabelle also had her own monument in the centre of the presbytery, but this has ong disappeared. You have reached the small Abbey shop, with an array of guides and gifts to buy. Down the north aisle brings you back out into the fresh air, but do not forget to loo up at the last of the presbytery windows. Lady Eleanor's father, grandfather and great grandfather, two Gilberts and a Richard De Clares, Earls of Gloucester and her second husband, William De La Zouche of Richard's Castle, are immortalised in glass.
The Wakeman Cenotaph

Next Stop: Deerhurst Parish Church

Related Pages:
Short History of Tewkesbury