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Oh, the bells, the bells….!

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Natural disasters were not to only thing to bring chaos to the great Benedictine abbey at beautiful Winchcombe in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. Not just the 1091 lightning strike on the tower of the Abbey church of St Mary, which opened up “a huge crack in the walls, large enough for a man to pass through and destroyed one of the beams: major reconstruction became both inevitable and pressing”. Not even the 1363 “whirlwind [that] damaged the Abbey church”. Indeed not, because humankind created rather large disturbances of its own.

The following is from http://www.winchcombeparish.org.uk/winchcombe-parish/our-churches/historical-notes/

“During the late 13th/early 14th century, the abbots of Winchcombe had spent greatly on enlarging and improving the east end of the Abbey church, as well as taking out expensive loans to purchase more lands. As a consequence the Abbey urgently needed to raise more funds.  The Bishop of Worcester conducted a formal visitation in 1329 and his injunctions show that he found extravagance and inadequate self-discipline within the community.  They also hint at financial corruption, abuse of power and general mismanagement. (Me: Oh, dear!)

“Worse was to follow as the 14th century moved forward.  In 1318 the Bishop was called upon to arbitrate in a dispute between the abbot and William de Preston the Vicar.   In 1337 Edward III went to war with France and to pay for this he demanded loans from land owners as well as higher taxes.  This increased the demands the Abbey made on the townspeople and their tenants. From 1340 – 1388 there are reports of armed men, including chaplains, breaking into the Abbey’s precincts and outlying manors, holding the monks captive and making off with their goods.

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“Then, to add to all these problems, in 1348/9 the Black Death swept across the country, reducing the population by about one third.  Farms and animals were left uncared for, further reducing the income available to both the Abbey and to St Peter’s.  By 1351 there are reports of dilapidations, alienation of property and complaints by some monks to the Bishop and Archbishop.  Two years later in 1353, the Abbey was, in effect, declared bankrupt and a royal commission appointed to manage it.

“Ten years later, in 1364, a whirlwind damaged the Abbey church and in 1366 the abbot and prior were found guilty of making fraudulent claims to property in the town.  John Brightman, who was the Perpetual Vicar of St Peter’s from 1366-89, sued the abbot for repairs to the chancel of St Peter’s.  On at least one occasion he took the law into his own hands, and with his curate and a party of townspeople he broke into the Abbey and assaulted some of the staff. (Me: How very Christian!)

“John Brightman was succeeded by Thomas Power (1389-1415), who continued the struggle to get the abbot to pay for the maintenance of the chancel. Thomas took his case first to the Bishop of Worcester and lost with costs, then to the Archbishop’s court and lost with further costs. Finally Power appealed to the Papal courts in Rome and lost for the last time.  Pope Urban’s ruling in 1389 not only confirmed the decisions of the lower courts but also removed of the vicar’s security of tenure, granting authority to the abbot and the monastic community to appoint and remove vicars at their pleasure (although there is no record that this power was ever used). “Having failed to obtain legal redress, Power, like his predecessor, took the law into his own hands and began ringing the church bells at times designed to disturb the monks’ sleep and their prayers.   bell-ringing - 2-

The abbot appealed to the Pope, who ruled the bells should not be rung after the evening curfew nor before Prime, the morning act of worship, and should always be rung moderately.  In 1400 the Archdeacon found that the papal ruling was being ignored, so he excommunicated both vicar and parishioners.”

It was, of course, Henry VIII who had the final say.

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