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Thursday, April 15, 2010
Take a drive through the south Lincolnshire fens. The abbey dominates the flat landscape for miles around, a memorable sight silhouetted against the horizon. Croyland Abbey is a landmark that has stood for more than a thousand years.
The town of Crowland sits between Spalding and Peterborough. Croyland is the original name of the settlement, retained for ecclesiastical use. This was the name abbey founder St Guthlac used in the late seventh century when his boat first arrived at an isolated island in the marshy fens. It was wet and wild country then, and stayed that way for centuries until land reclamation and diverted rivers left it high and dry. The abbey has survived the Vikings, Oliver Cromwells guns and two terrible fires but the wear and tear of a millennium has left it needing renovation.
It might as well have been. In 699AD, the date given for the saints arrival, it was an island of high ground in the trackless marshes and waterways of the dreaded fens. Reputed as the haunt of outlaws and ghosts, it was a place few noblemen such as Guthlac visited. A high-born Mercian (the kingdom roughly corresponding to the modern Midlands) he had been a soldier until he traded the sword for a monks habit. His contemporary biographer, St Felix, tells us he was accompanied by two companions when he sought out the most desolate spot he could find for a life of simple prayer and contemplation. According to Felix, Guthlac lived on a scrap of bread and cup of marshy water a day. His story is told in graphic form in the Guthlac Roll, a series of later drawings, copies of which you can see in the abbey. Warming to his theme, Felix tells us the island was inhabited by devils with great heads, long beards, thin faces, yellow complexions, shaggy ears, throats vomiting flames... Well, you get the idea. Perhaps it was the marsh fever or bad water getting the better of Guthlac that made him see demons. Either way, close to death and carried to the gates of hell by devils, he had a vision of St Bartholomew, who gave him a whip to ward off his attackers. Today St Guthlacs whip and the knives which symbolise Bartholomews martyrdom (he was skinned alive, poor thing) are featured on the abbeys coat of arms.
Despite this, Guthlacs reputation grew and he befriended Ethelbald, pretender to the Mercian throne, then a refugee. Guthlac predicted he would become king, and when his fortunes revived and this happened, Ethelbald built an abbey on the spot where the saint died in 714. The Croyland Chronicle, compiled by monks, tells us the first abbey was built of wood or wattle with thatched roofs. None of this survives as the invading Danes destroyed it in 870, murdering the abbot and the monks and leaving just a 10-year-old boy alive. Like other monasteries in East Anglia, it took decades to recover. When it did Turketyl, the kings chancellor, who, like Guthlac, gave up the secular for the monastic life, built a new Benedictine abbey. At its peak, 62 monks lived there, and the Saxon resistance leader Hereward the Wake was said to be buried at the abbey, but a great fire in 1091 destroyed everything.
French abbot Joffrid of Orleans built a third abbey in 1109, this time in Norman stone. To celebrate, a feast was laid on for 5,000 people. Natural disasters struck again an earthquake in 1118 and a second great blaze 25 years later were setbacks, but the abbey lived on. As late as the 15th century work was still ongoing. A rare monument to William of Wermington, master mason, survives from 1427. William is seen wearing a masons coif (headgear) and carrying the tools of his trade a pair of compasses and a square. Live within your means (or compasses) reads the punning inscription. By now the abbey was wealthy, earning more than 1,000 a year, owning land in six counties. The abbots acted like feudal lords despite their individual vows of poverty, being involved in legal and financial disputes with their neighbours.
Many people resented the power of the monasteries. During the Reformation, King Henry VIII seized their property, and Croyland was no exception. It surrendered in December, 1539 and the monks and abbot were pensioned off (Abbot John Wells got 133 6s 8d). The choir, transepts, central tower and administrative monastic buildings were destroyed. The west front was kept as a parish church; the rest left to slowly decay. During the Civil War, Crowland was Royalist while neighbouring Spalding was a Puritan stronghold. In 1643 their respective ministers instigated armed conflict, with Spaldonian hostages used as a human shield. Eventually Oliver Cromwell himself laid siege to Crowland. Legend has it his artillery bombarded the abbey, although this is not proven. Certainly there are some headless and defaced statues lying around which look like the work of his iconoclastic troopers.
In the early 18th century the longinsecure painted nave roof finally collapsed. By 1743 the remaining parish church was just one eighth the size of the old monastery. Local people cannibalised the site for their own houses. It was not until the late 19th century that 3,000 was raised to conserve the building and save it from total collapse. Renovation has been ongoing since, and a great deal of money is needed for upkeep. The iconic sight of Croyland Abbey has been a source of inspiration for artists and travellers in the area for generations. In the present church, look out for a small room within the porch. It was used as a prison in 1732 for Christopher Kitchen, a mad man, chained to a post in the mortuary. Maybe those devils were still at work in some peoples minds.
Crowland is off the A1073 between Spalding and Peterborough.