Monday, 19 May 2014

Croxden Abbey

Welcome back! Good grief, it feels like an age since I last made a posting here!

As you may or may not know, I'm currently doing a degree with the Open University, and have very nearly finished the first half of the second level, so am roughly halfway through the entire six-year process. Things have been a bit hectic of late, due to the increased workload, so I've not been able to post as often as I'd like. However, once the exam is out of the way on 4 June, I hope to be back with more interesting stuff!

For now, I'd like to share a short blog about one of my favourite English Heritage places, Croxden Abbey in Staffordshire. 

The abbey is quite literally breathtaking, with huge fragments of the west front and south transept jutting into the sky in the otherwise quiet farming countryside. Perhaps a little disconcerting, there is a road bisecting the abbey church, but there are still lots of remains to be discovered! 

The abbey was founded in 1176 as a daughter house of Aunay-sur-Odon, by the Norman baron Bertram of Verdun. While there is some information for the first few centuries of its existence, very little is known of Croxden's later history. This lack of record has led to the assumption that the abbey was never very wealthy. Aside from the fact that it was finally suppressed in 1538, in the first round of the dissolution, that's pretty much all there is to it!

But what the historical record doesn't tell us, the abbey itself can help to fill in some of the blanks. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the abbey was enlarged, and the dimensions of the remains would indicate that there was room for as many as 70 monks to live here. 

^ looking towards the dormitories and parlour

The fourteenth century saw the addition of a separate hall for the abbot. Nothing particularly novel here, as many abbots were building their own personal quarters in this period. Monasteries, of course, were among the wealthiest landowners in the country.

The most striking thing about Croxden Abbey, though, is the east end of the presbytery. Now nothing more than foundations with a small fragment, it was rebuilt shortly after the monastery was founded in a more continental fashion, with a curved ambulatory off which were five small chapels, forming a cinquefoil shape. 

The east end was also used as a burial place during the fourteenth century for esteemed patrons, rather than the more common Chapter House. Coffins can be seen dotted around in the above picture. 

^ the north transept, looking down the nave

The records for Croxden in the thirteenth century are really very interesting. As a Cistercian monastery, the abbot was required to attend the General Chapter held every year at Citeaux, near Dijon. Undertaking such a long journey could be extremely dangerous in the middle ages, and the tales associated with Croxden's abbots serve to underline this fact. In 1237 Abbot Ashbourne died on his way back, while in 1274, Abbot Houlton died while in Dijon, which at least gave him a magnificent funeral as over 400 Cistercian abbots were in attendance. In 1298, Edward I forbade any English abbot from attending the General Chapter, demanding the money that would have been spent on the journey instead be paid to the Crown. Being deep into his Scottish wars, this no doubt had more than just a patriotic, anti-French sentiment behind it. However, in 1308, Abbot Over just refused to go, and so in 1313 the mother house paid a visit to Croxden.

Economic problems soon set in as the fourteenth century wore on. By the mid-century, the abbey was in such financial state that the Abbot of Aunay personally investigated. The Abbot was deposed, and while the new abbot made some changes and began to turn the problems around, further plagues and bad harvests, followed by part of the abbey collapsing in 1369, led to the eventual decline of the abbey. By 1381 there were only six monks and the abbot in residence.

^ the cloister, looking towards the west front

The Valor Ecclesiasticus valued Croxden at £103 6s 7d, though it has been suggested that this was an under-valuation. At any rate, while it came within the 1536 criteria for dissolution, the abbey obtained a licence to stay open after paying a fine of £100. This didn't last, of course, and the abbey was forced to close on 17 September, 1538, the final valuation of the property being put at £163 8s 10d. The abbey was stripped of all valuables, and the site was leased to Francis Bassett, a servant of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. 

^ the Chapter House

The abbey is a bit convoluted to find, I thought - it is signposted (just about) from the B5030 near Uttoxeter, but it is secluded enough that it does take some persistence to find! However, I think you'll agree from the pictures here that it is well worth a visit! 

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