St Benedict’s and St Margaret’s
In St Benedict’s you see two open aspects: one to the east and towards the original high altar; the other to the south and the cloister (140 feet square, approximately 43 metres) and the remains of its buildings. The layout of the claustral buildings is nearly always the same in Europe, particularly for Benedictine inner courts. Although it is now difficult to identify some of the buildings of the whole precinct, the same ground plan for that inner court was followed by most European orders albeit with some alterations to accommodate their particular needs. The Benedictine plan was the idealized plan now known as that of St Gall.
The ruins opposite St Benedict’s are what is left of the refectory. The mound to the left and next to the Chapter House, was the dormitory on the upper floor with a warming room below. The bathhouse and latrines continued on beyond the south end. (Fresh water was drawn in from the north of the site and dirty water discharged at the south into the Tiffey). The Chapter House abuts the cloister at right angles, the huge rear window still visible. Here a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict was read aloud to the monks every day, hence its name. To the right returning to the church, and less easy to pick out, was the cellarer’s range at ground level, and was like a larder. Above would have been accommodation, possibly for the prior in the early years.
It’s worth considering that when the Abbey was closed down in 1538 by order of Henry VIII, health and educational provision went with it, as did a large number of jobs of various kinds, and support industries. A modern comparison might be if a large car manufacturer were to suddenly shut down, such as Ford at Dagenham where the town itself is directly and indirectly dependent upon the factory.
One of the many surprises discovered during the archaeological digs prior to the new extensions, was the discovery of an inscribed design for a window in one of the stones. One of the archaeologists, Dr Roland B Harris, describes it like this:
The incised design measures 1.9m x 1.3m and is a scale drawing for a gable and window tracery: the window combines a central rose over a pair of two-light windows, with each pair surmounted by an eight-cusped oculus. The design is largely complete, with gaps in the lines mostly due to surviving patches of later medieval paint, and includes various setting-out lines, circles and points. In addition to the main window design, the lower part of the respond is inscribed with another simple arch and numerous graffiti, including a grotesque head, compass circle and daisy wheel designs.
Students of architectural history have been very excited by this find because of its rarity and its possibly being at the ‘forefront’ of this kind of design. No such design is found within the church thus it is concluded that it was intended for the eastern end of the church, that part now dismantled.
The Ruined East Tower
When the top of the crossing tower was found to be unstable (a frequent fault in Norman crossing towers) in the later fourteenth century, the priory began the construction of a new tower before the old one became dangerous – Ely’s had already collapsed, fortunately at night when there was no-one in the cathedral. It was built west of, but adjacent to, the crossing tower over the monks’ choir.
Looking at the wall behind you, it forms the eastern end of the nave and was built to strengthen that side of the tower but had the effect of separating the two churches. The south aisle was blocked off around the time of the tower’s completion in 1385 to 1390. Only the prior had the key to the doors, which you can still see in that wall. It was these doors that were boarded shut by parishioners to prevent the monks from entering the church as a result of one of the more serious bell-ringing disputes.
Looking east you can just see the plaque installed to the memory of the founder, William d’Aubigny. It stands where the high altar is thought to have been. During archaeological excavations of 1833 and 1834, a brick-lined grave was revealed containing two lead-lined coffins: one of a woman and one of an unborn child, to the east end of the monk’s church. Partly because of the siting of the grave, these were taken to be those of Maud d’Aubigny, née Bigod, wife of William the founder of the priory, who may have died in childbirth, and was the first of the d’Aubigny burials at the priory. The records show that William attended her funeral there in some distress in 1125.
This tower along with the meadows to the south of the church were bought by Reverend Papillon in 1822 from a private owner and the tower was given to the benefice in 1833. The meadows remain in the care of the Papillon Trust. It was also Papillon who built the ha-ha. In 1826, he instigated a slight diversion of Becketswell Road to the north along its present line. It widened the graveyard to the north, and, as the Abbey was further back from the road it would look more impressive.
The east tower was one of the first of the major changes made to the church, and these extensions of 2015 were the last. Some 600 years have passed between the first and the last major change, and still the drive to invest in this place of worship continues. For all of the changes that have taken place both in material and spiritual terms, one thing remains the same: the urge to dedicate human resources to God.
If you were to come to the Abbey for a guided tour, we would ask for a small fee that would go towards the cost of keeping the Abbey open. If you have enjoyed this tour or have found it useful, perhaps you would feel inclined to make a donation here.