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THE LOST PRIORY OF AMESBURY

The palatial 17thc mansion called Amesbury Abbey (now a private nursing home) stands in beautiful landscaped gardens near the curve of the Avon and on the edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Landscape.

The original monastic building from which it takes its name, the Fontrevraudine Priory of Amesbury, is long gone, a victim of Henry VIII’s Reformation—not one stone remains visible above  ground (although rumours abound that a piece of external wall along the perimeter of the property might be medieval.)   However, painted tiles dating between the 12th and 15th C often turn up when the gardeners do the rose-beds, along with fragments of glass and other relevant debris. This has recently led experts to pinpoint the probable position of the vanished priory church, standing slightly north of the present house.

The priory was originally built as a daughter house of Fontrevaud, after the town’s first abbey, founded in Saxon times by Queen Elfrida, was dissolved in 1177. The old Benedictine nuns were sent upon their way (most of them having supposedly lived scandalous lives!) and 21-24 nuns from Fontevraud in France were moved in, along with some English sisters from Worcestershire.

The early Plantagenets, who had a great affinity with Fontevraud, the final resting place of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I, greatly favoured the Amesbury daughter-house. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s foster daughter, Amiria, decided to take the veil there, and when Eleanor herself died in 1203, the prioress paid a rent from the Exchequer to the Abbess of Fontevrault to have a chaplain pray for Eleanor’s soul.

It was not all about religion. King John had rather secular dealings with the priory in 1215 when the barons were in revolt. He hid part of the royal treasury in the vaults for safekeeping.

In the reign of John’s son, Henry III, the priory seemed to come to renewed prominence. The king visited personally on several occasions and granted  the priory nuts, firewood, wine, and a communion cup.Henry’s son, Edward I kept a close connection  to the priory  and sent his daughter, Mary of Woodstock, to join the order as a young girl. Mary seemed to enjoy travelling and playing cards more than she enjoyed being a nun, however; she ran up huge gambling debts to the tune of £200 while attending her father’s court. The 7th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, also claimed to have had an affair with her. Her burial place is not known but it is very likely in Amesbury.

Mary’s cousin, Eleanor of Brittany also became a nun at Amesbury, but eventually she  migrated overseas to the Abbey of Fontrevrault itself, where she rose in the ranks to  become the abbess. There were a few conflicts with her cousin over the years, possibly because she disapproved of Mary’s less than nunly behaviour. Eleanor the Abbess of Fontevrault is not to be confused with an earlier Eleanor of Brittany, who willed her body to Amesbury after dying in a convent in Bristol. That Eleanor was the sister of Arthur of Brittany, most likely murdered by King John, and she was a prisoner for most of her adult life due to her closeness to the crown. Her remains might be in the older abbey (now the  parish church of St Mary and St Melor) rather than in the lost priory, as it was because of St Melor, whose life story mirrored that of her unfortunate brother, that she wished to be interred at Amesbury.

The most famous resident of Amesbury Priory was Henry III’s widow, Queen Eleanor of Provence, who was Mary and Eleanor’s grandmother. She may never have become a fully professed nun and had her own private quarters built for her use. Eleanor was a strong woman, beautiful but not popular with her English subjects, and had at one time been appointed regent of England in her husband’s absence.

Originally, Eleanor had intended to be buried next to Henry III in Westminster Abbey, when the time came. However, a problem arose. The space had been usurped by the body of Eleanor of Castile, wife to her son Edward I, who had predeceased her; so, when Eleanor died in 1291, the nuns were not quite certain what to do with the body. They waited several months for the king to arrive and decide where she would be buried. When he finally reached Amesbury, he allowed his mother to be interred before the high altar in the priory church,  with all due ceremony and many lords attending.

The last great lady of royal blood to reside in Amesbury priory was Isabel of Lancaster, daughter of Henry 3rd Earl of Lancaster. She arrived there in 1327 and ended up as prioress. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Crouchback, hence great granddaughter of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, showing that family connections were still strong.

The priory does not feature overmuch in records after the late 1300’s, although some of the floor tiles are 15th c. It is possible it fell on hard times during this period. After the death of her husband, Margaret, Lady Hungerford, resided at the priory between 1459 and 1463. While she was there her lodgings burnt down, destroying £1000 of her personal possessions. The nuns asked that she restore the damaged buildings; the cost to her was £20. In 1463 she Margaret left the convent when her son, Robert, 3rd Baron Hungerford, was executed at Newcastle after the Battle of Hexham. The Hungerford lands were seized by Edward IV,  and divided between Richard of Gloucester and Lord Wenlock.

The priory was, naturally, dissolved in the Reformation. In 1540, it was given to Edward Seymour. A year later, the spire of the church was pulled down and the buildings roofs were torn off to take the lead.

Wind and weather soon took their toll and then later building and landscaping obliterated all that was left of this once-great religious house…which was not only a holy place, but the final resting place of a Queen.

Sources: A History of Wiltshire, Vol 3

 

TO BE CONTINUED

A GREENWOOD WEDDING ?

May 1 has just gone past–a date known in ancient Britain as the Feast of Beltaine, the ‘Fires of Bel (the Shining One)’. Of  all the old important pre-Christian dates, this is the one that the Church was never able to Christianise in any obvious way, retainings its traditions of merriment, dancing and bawdiness right down to the present. Even Halloween (All Hallows) had a vague Christian veneer placed over its supernatural and ancestral elements, and Midsummer’s Eve was associated with St John as well as with the summer Solstice several days earlier and the burning hilltop  bonfires.

It was of course on May 1 that Edward IV was supposed to have married Elizabeth Woodville, in a secret ceremony attended by her mother, a priest and child. The date is interesting, as May marriages were at one time considered to be unlucky. An old rhyme goes ‘Marry in the month of May and you will surely rue the day.’ The reason for this was that the time of the year was considered to be a frivolous one, connected with faithlessness and a lack of constancy.

May 1 in particular was the time for ‘greenwood weddings’–temporary ‘marriages’ that were of dubious legality. Often these, if they lasted longer than a few  nights, went on no longer than the traditional ‘year and a day’ of old-time fairy stories. The couple would then part, if they wished, and go on their seperate ways, no harm done.

Unless you were a king of England, of course, who may well have already pre-contracted a marriage in a similar style and who was expected to marry a foreign princess…

The fact that several sources quote May 1 as the date of Edward’s wedding is interesting. It may quite literally be the case…or it could well be that the writers (or those from whom they had gleaned the information from) were aware of the traditional significance of May 1 in regards to impermanent, irregular marriages.

Indeed, far be it from the idea some traditionalists seem to take, that Edward’s marriage was perfectly acceptable to all before Richard ‘invented’ the idea of a pre-contract, it seems that that many already had doubts of its legality. Mancini, for instance says that Elizabeth Woodville,  years before the events of 1483,  was  reproached with calumnies ‘namely that according to established usage she was not the legitimate wife of the king.’ He seemed to believe  this was because she had been married before and hence was not a virgin, but there was no such impediment to marriage within the English royal house–Eleanor of Aquitaine,for instance, had been married and had several children before espousing Henry II. So it had to be something else. Later Mancini mentions Edward being legally contracted to another woman. He mistakes this for Bona of Savoy, who Warwick sought as a bride for Edward, and he does not seem to doubt the veracity of  this ‘proxy marriage’, although he has the wrong woman.

Certainly, it seems that many people in late medieval England believed *something* was irregular about Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage, and giving it the traditional May 1st day may well be affirming that fact.

A recent article from History Today on Edward’s marriage and those of his infamous grandson Henry VIII:

http://www.historytoday.com/eric-ives/marrying-love-experience-edward-iv-and-henry-viiiedliz

 

 

RICARDIAN AND MEDIEVAL NORTHAMPTON

When people think of places connected with Richard III, they sometimes think of Northamptonshire due to his birthplace at Fotheringhay…but seldom of the town of Northampton itself.
However, the town, although having lost in grandest medieval structures in two devastating fires, still has features of interest to Ricardians, Wars of the Roses students and medievalists. It was a highly important place in the Middle Ages, though declining in fortunes after the Black Death, due to its strategic location.
The following is a short guide to extant places and to places long gone, which Richard may have seen or passed on his brief but important stay in the town:
St James Abbey: At the foot of the former lift-testing tower known as the Lighthouse, once stood the important Abbey of St James. The scallop was its symbol, denoting an affinity with pilgrims on the way to the shrine of St James de Compostela in Spain. In his will written before his execution at Pontefract Castle, Anthony Rivers mentions this abbey; apparently he had taken some land from the monks and was trying at the last to make amends. The abbey was completely razed in the Reformation; modern day archaeologists could only guess at the plan when excavated. Over 250 burials were discovered, some high status.
Northampton Castle: Now the site of the railway, the castle was once a great royal residence. Several parliaments were held here. Henry II came face to face with Thomas a Becket in the castle and uttered his famous line, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ King John stayed here while buying a pair of boots from the town’s famous cordwainers. By Richard’s time, the castle, like many others across England, was beginning to decline and was being used more and more as a prison. It is unlikely he stayed in the decaying pile when, as Duke of Gloucester, he arrived in Northampton in 1483, expecting to meet Rivers and Edward V.
In 1662 much of the castle was demolished, though some parts remained as a gaol. Some earthworks and masonry survived into the 1860’s but the coming of the railways saw those scant remains razed. All that remains today is the postern gate, no longer in its original position, and earthworks on either side of St Andrew’s Road. One of these mounds does contain chambers that were excavated then refilled for preservation.
St Peter’s Church: Standing near the castle, St Peter’s is a fine medieval church, built around 1130 by Simon de Senlis II, and a happy survivor of the great fire. It is situated near the site of a Saxon royal palace, and inside is a large Saxon coffin lid decorated with a Green Man. Norman arches abound and the capitals of the pillars are heavily decorated with foliage, scrolls, and beasts. One carving shows a man being swallowed by amonster, perhaps representing Jonah and the Whale.
St Gregory’s Church: A little further down Marefair, is Freeschool Street. Here lies a large heap of rubble and brick behind fencing, overgrown and rubbish-strewn. On this site stood St Gregory’s church; at the corners of the pile a small amount of ashlar blocks can be traced and other remains have been found in nearby cellars. In 1980’s digs a charnel house was found nearby, belonging either to St Gregory’s or the chapel of Mary Magdalene. St Gregory’s also had an interesting legend: it housed a relic called The Holy Rood in the Wall, supposedly brought back to England by a pilgrim who found it near the spot where Christ was crucified. An angel appeared to the pilgrim when he reached Northampton, telling him that here in the heart of England a church must be built. The church has a Ricardian association—it was in the patronage of the Hastings family, who founded a Guild in 1473 for the Holy Rood in the Wall, and it may be the church where King Richard appointed a chaplain to ‘pray for him in a chapel before the Holy Rood at Northampton.’
All Saint’s Church: Passing further into the town, medieval street names appear such as Gold and Silver Street and the Drapery. The central church in town is All Saints or All Hallows. The original medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of Northampton, leaving just tower and crypt; the present building dates from around 1680. It was the largest church in town and thought to be where the Barons swore oaths to Henry I to support his daughter Matilda as Queen. One lord who swore the oath was Stephen of Blois; he ended up taking the crown for himself, and the country was plunged into civil war. There was also an incident when a thief and murderer was wrongly ascribed saintly miracles at his tomb within the church…a riot ensued over it and swords drawn in church before the St Hugh of Lincoln halted the fracas by leaping on the tomb and waving his crozier.
The Market Square: The churchyard of All Saints was originally used for market trading; this expanded into the present Market Square after Henry III forbade the use of the churchyard. It is one of the largest Market Squares in England and here in 1469 William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Sir Richard were executed by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, after the battle of Edgcote. It is probable that this area, near the now-vanished 14th c Guildhall was full of hostelries, and it may be in this area where Richard of Gloucester and the Duke of Buckingham met Anthony Woodville and found he had not brought young Edward V with him as agreed. His excuse was that the town might be too crowded with so many men arriving, but this was a poor excuse as Northampton had held parliaments; his words would have aroused immediate suspicion in the two Dukes.
St Katherine: This chapel of ease in College Lane was built for prayers for the souls of plague victims (Northampton was heavily affected by the plague, which sent the town into steep decline…Richard III reduced the town’s fee farm in 1484 due to the hardship still experienced there.)  St Katherine’s walls have gone but the churchyard with some flattened graves remains and retains a gloomy atmosphere. The college of All Saints, founded by Henry VI, once stood in this area too; not to be confused with the earlier Northampton College that once rivalled Oxford and Cambridge. Its licence however was revoked in the time of Henry III.
Greyfriars: Largest and most lavish of Northampton’s monastic buildings, Greyfriars stood on the site of Greyfriars bus station, now also demolished. It had a church, two cloisters and a school. Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, grandfather of Henry Stafford, was interred here after his death at the battle of Northampton in 1460. Several burials were discovered in 1972 excavations and occasionally surrounding roads have been known to collapse into hidden underground chambers.
St John’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals: St John’s is a fine medieval building at the bottom of Bridge Street near the site of the old town walls, the only non-religious medieval structure still extant in Northampton. It is said some of the dead from the Battle of Northmpton were brought here. St Thomas’s Hospital, built in 1450 and dedicated to Thomas Becket, also stood nearby in a dilapidated condition till the Victorians destroyed it completely. One window at St John’s contains a male figure and the name Richard Sherd—he was master there in 1474.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Situated on Sheep Street, this church is one of only four round medieval churches in England. It was built by Simon de Senlis I after he went on Crusade and visited Jerusalem. Made in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there, it is roughly half the size of the original.
Other sites: St Giles is another remaining medieval church but has few notable features. At least 6 or 7 other churches and chapels existed, along with the smaller religious houses such as those of the Poor Clares and Friars of the Sack. A leper hospital, St Leonard’s, stood outside the main centre at Cotton End. Another major priory, St Andrews, stood on the far side of the castle near the river, and it was here Becket stayed while awaiting trial. Not one stone remains, although some buildings survived the Dissolution.
Delapre Abbey and the site of the Battle of Northampton: Simon de Senlis built St Mary de la Pre, near Hardingstone, during the reign of King Stephen. It was the only house of Cluniac nuns in England. The body of Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, rested at Delapre for a night and an Eleanor Cross still stands a little up the road, its top broken by lightning. The present building at Delapre is a more modern house but the lower floors follow the line of the nunnery cloisters, and there is at least one medieval door/staircase and a medieval stone lamp.
In 1460 the Battle of Northamptom was fought in the nearby fields, a major battle of the Wars of the Roses. Here Edward Earl of March, along with the Earl of Warwick, faced the forces of Henry VI. Lord Grey of Ruthin betrayed his Lancastrian lords and allowed the Yorkists access to the enemy camp. The Duke of Buckingham, Lord Egremont, Lord Beaumont and the earl of Shrewbury were Lancastrian notables who died protecting the King’s tent. Other Lancastrians were driven back into the river and slain. Henry VI was captured, housed for the night in the abbey, then taken to the Tower of London. Some of the dead from the battle were probably interred in the abbey.

NorthamptonMap_1610

Broom Sweeps Clean

The name Plantagenet came from Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who was reputed to wear a sprig of the yellow ‘planta genista’ (also known as the Broom plant) in his hat. However, the Encyclopedia Britannica has speculated that the Plantagenet name ‘more likely’ arose because Geoffrey supposedly planted broom to improve his hunting covers.

He married Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England and they had three children, including Henry, who succeeded to the English throne, founding the Plantagenet dynasty, as Henry II.

Geoffrey was described as handsome and red headed, jovial and a great warrior. He was born on 24th August 1113 and died after a sudden fever on 7th September 1152, aged 38, in Le Mans, where he was buried.

But what of the plant which gave him his nickname and the dynastic name of the Plantagenets?

There are many species of broom, but the particular one which Geoffrey wore is the Genista scoparius aka the Cytisus scoparius. It is a tough shrub with dense, slender green stems and very small leaves, which are adaptations to dry growing conditions. It still grows in the dry areas around Anjou and is common all over Western Europe. The flowers are small and yellow and bloom in spring and summer, preferring dry, sandy soil. The Genista scoparius is the Common broom and the most hardy, surviving temperatures as low as -25 degrees. It grows to an average of 1 -3 metres, occasionally 4 metres, high.

Its tough branches were ideal to use as a besom broom which is where its common name arises, but it was thought to be unlucky to use them for menial purposes when in full bloom.

Apparently, an old Suffolk tradition states:

‘If you sweep the house with blossomed Broom in May

You are sure to sweep the head of the house away.’

picture of Broom plant

It seems to have been used in a medicinal or herbal way as a decoction or tincture and was thought to cure kidney problems, gout, sciatica and joint and hip pain. If you would like to learn more about its medicinal and other qualities her is a very interesting link to a Modern Herbal:

http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/broom-70.html

Richard’s ancestress on a rugby shirt

As the European rugby season enters another phase this week, we can focus on Blanche de Castile (1188-1252), granddaughter of Henry II, wife of Louis VIII, mother of and regent to (St.) Louis IX and great-grandmother of Isabelle, who married Edward II to become Richard III’s great-great-great-grandmother.

In 2008, Stade Francais developed a new third choice shirt, festooned with images of Blanche on their usual blue and pink colours. Those of our readers who are colourblind will wonder what the fuss is about:

StadeFrancais

A little of the history of Dartmouth in Devon….

My recent research into the comings and goings of those involved in the Perkin Warbeck mystery revealed some interesting facts about the history of Dartmouth, now famous and loved for the coastal beauty that brings thousands of people to see it every summer. In the course of delving around for information, I came upon what is to me an exceedingly interesting piece from the By the Dart website. http://www.bythedart.co.uk/Triangular%20Trade%20-%20The%20Making%20of%20Dartmouth/ and have taken the liberty of reproducing some of it here. I take no credit at all for the contents, which is all down to the folk at By the Dart.

Maybe it does not mention Richard III, but it does give a glimpse of what Dartmouth was like during his time. The town’s past was as colourful as its present.

cog ship - 15th century - Dartmouth, Devon

Triangular Trade – The Making of Dartmouth

In the 13th Century, Dartmouth’s rich became wealthy often by participating in the Bordeaux wine trade.

The King, Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart and the cowardly John – he of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame – ruled a large area of France, including Aquitaine and Bordeaux.

This led to a rather handy situation in which imports of the famous Bordeaux wine were not subject to import duties. Men with ships capable of sailing back and forth across the unpredictable Bay of Biscay – such as John Hauley, the town’s Mayor, MP and brigand for hire – probably made their fortune from this trade.

But then in 1453, Bordeaux fell to the French, thanks to the inept rule of Henry VI, and suddenly rich merchants had nowhere with which to trade for free….

But then came Newfoundland.

From the early 16th century, fishermen had been travelling from Dartmouth, across the Atlantic in tiny boats, and spending the summer months fishing in the abundant fishing grounds off Canada’s Newfoundland shore.

For most of that time they had shared the fishing grounds with Spanish ships, and were in fact outnumbered by them. But then the Spanish confiscated a number of British ships in a Dutch harbour and gave the Crown a great excuse to throw its weight around. Many of the Spanish ships fishing the Newfoundland shore were boarded and taken to England. Spain, stretched by a protracted war in Europe, left the area completely undefended.

Suddenly there was a chance to make the fishing grounds really pay – and Dartmouth sailors were at the forefront of the charge to do so. The triangular trade was born.

24 ships would set out each spring, collect salt from the Bay of Biscay, and then sail for the Newfoundland shores – 16 would fish and 8 would prepare the catch using the salt and collect other valuable products such as oil for lamps and soap from the fishes’ livers.

The ships would be packed over the season and then would sail to the Mediterranean or sometimes to the Caribbean. They would exchange the fish products for wine, fruit or sugar – and then sail back to England to sell these valuable products, along with some of the fish. Boats would flock to Dartmouth to buy the fish and other products. The people of Dartmouth bought wood and high quality products including beautiful cloth, and began to lead an easier life.

They also began to build the town’s infrastructure which we see around us today.

This trade started around the same time that Britain was creating strong ties with Portugal – the two countries fought together against their common enemy Spain – and so British traders were  spared heavy import and export duties on goods.

Portuguese wine was discovered to ‘age’ well into Port after being used as ballast in some of the boats on their two leg trading mission. Dartmouth ships began to have their holds stocked with the stuff to age as they sailed across the Atlantic and then sold on for a high profit.

It was on this ‘triangle of trade’ that Dartmouth’s wealth was based for the next two centuries . . . .

. . . . Brave men sailed across a wide and merciless sea in ships modern sailors would hesitate to take around to Torbay for this influential trade. Hard work, detailed planning and a determination to bring prosperity to their community resulted in the remarkable growth and development of Dartmouth.

First Published June 2011 By The Dart

– See more at: http://www.bythedart.co.uk/Triangular%20Trade%20-%20The%20Making%20of%20Dartmouth/#sthash.nLmfJzwT.dpuf

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