Building of the Abbey

Stages in the building (and re-building) of Evesham Abbey

This section discusses key periods in the history of the construction, and re-construction, of Evesham Abbey. Based on extant documentary evidence, there were six major periods of building (and rebuilding) during the life of the abbey:

  1. Saxon foundation, probably originally a series of wooden structures which were slowly replaced by stone buildings.
  2. Abbot Walter (1077-86) rebuilt the abbey in the Norman (Romanesque) style.
  3. Abbot Randulfus (1214-29) and Abbot Thomas of Marlborough (1230-36) oversaw major repairs and embellishments.
  4. Abbot John de Brokehampton (1282-1316) built the Chapter House and undertook other embellishments and repairs.
  5. Abbot Chyryton (1317-44) built the Great Gateway and completed the boundary wall.
  6. Abbot Clement Lichfield (1513-39) built the new Bell Tower, added to the two parish churches, and further embellished the abbey.

Saxon Evesham (c.700 to c.975)

Byrhtferth recorded that St Ecgwine’s church (of c.700) was still standing during the abbacy of Osward (c.970-975) when it collapsed, damaging much of the interior with the exception of the feretory containing the relics of St Ecgwine.[1] The original minster was likely made of wood, but potentially fabricated with re-used Roman stone from the ancient British church mentioned by William of Malmesbury. Saxon monastic layouts were not formalised. In absence of a major archaeological dig, it is impossible to determine the layout or structure of monastic Evesham.

Abbot Æthelwig (1058-78)

Abbot Æthelwig (1058-78) decided to replace the Anglo-Saxon minster and left “five caskets full of silver for the erection of a new church which he had planned to build.”[2].

Abbot Walter (1078-1104)

Abbot Walter (1078-1104), Evesham’s first Norman abbot, took on the task of replacing the old Anglo-Saxon minster with a new Romanesque church, building the crypt and the upper church as far as the nave, plus the arches and the first windows of the tower.[3] Dr David Cox, the authority on Evesham Abbey and a patron of the trust, has written:

“Abbot Walter’s Evesham seems to have been an enhanced version of Lanfranc’s churches at Caen and Canterbury, having a longer and wider east arm (with columnar piers and an ‘extensive’ crypt as at St Augustine’s) and a wider nave.”[4]

The approach to this work was constrained by the buildings already on the site:

“Walter did not have a clear site, however, for the abbey precinct already contained a group of pre-Conquest churches; we hear of the abbey church with its crypt, the church of St Mary the Virgin (perhaps the same, and the church of the Holy Trinity, and of a chapel of St Nicholas.[5] Nor could Walter simply clear them all way at once: at least one church would have to be left standing until the presbytery and liturgical choir of the new church (and perhaps its nave, too) were ready for use. His strategy was therefore to pull down the old buildings in phases as they were replaced. In due course the Anglo-Saxon crypt would be filled with rubble from the old abbey church above;[6] Walter’s new east arm, which had its own crypt, would thus rise separately from the old church, whence eventually the monks could transfer their services, without interruption, to the new presbytery and liturgical choir.”

When the funds were consumed, Abbot Walter sent the relics of St Ecgwine on a tour of England to attract new donations; allowing him to complete the works east of the projected nave. While the abbey nave was complete, the remainder of the abbey church was still to be rebuilt. David Cox points out that the length of the nave at Evesham is similar to that of Lanfranc’s church at St-Étienne:

“The nave length at Evesham was therefore presumably determined in the time of Abbot Walter, for he was the only post-Conquest abbot of Evesham with a personal link to St-Étienne, and no other Romanesque nave that he might have known seems to have had that precise length.”[7]

There may have been galleries over the aisles of the east arm.[8] These might have been the “upper parts of the church” (superiores ecclesiae loci) near the high altar and from which a servant fell in the early 12th century.[9] By 1104 the tower had risen high enough to abut the roofs of the east arm and transepts of the intended nave to house some bells.[10]

Abbot Reynold Foliot (1130-49)

Apparently no further work was done on the church before the arrival of Abbot Reynold (1130-49).[11]  This would have meant that the church would have appeared incomplete:

“Building had stopped at the crossing and transepts by 1104 and the nave was apparently not started until 1130 or later, so the three openings from the crossing and transepts into the proposed nave must in the meantime have been closed up, unless they were somehow covered by a part of the Anglo-Saxon church still in use.”[12]

Abbot Reynold oversaw the building of the greater part of the nave walls.[13] Reynold also fortified the whole of the abbey and graveyard with a wall.

Abbot Adam de Senlis (1161-89)

Abbot Adam (1161-89) completed the cloisters and the nave of the church and provided many glass windows.[14] The design of the west front was presumably built for Abbot Adam. In 1183 the abbot translated the relics of St Ecgwine to the new feretory in the presence of five neighbouring abbots and the prior of Worcester.

Abbot Roger Norreis (1190-1213)

Abbot Roger Norreis (1190-1213) built a tower for the church which was finished c.1201.[15] The church was only recently completed when, in 1210, part of the tower collapsed onto the east arm. A similar collapse was experienced in 1229. This was followed by a remodelling and rebuilding of the east end which now included an ambulatory.[16] Evesham’s two parish churches – St Lawrence and All Saints – appear to have been founded soon after the completion of the abbey church. St Lawrence’s was in use by c.1197 and has no earlier fabric. The oldest datable feature of All Saints is the original west doorway dating from c.1200 or perhaps c.1180.[17]

Abbot Thomas of Marlborough (1230-36)

Abbot Thomas of Marlborough (1230-36) altered the east arm “to provide an ambulatory around the presbytery, a feature not existing previously.”.[18] The Romanesque church of Evesham would therefore appear to have had a three-apsed plan (with the apse of the north transept revealed by previous archaeology). Bases (throni) were built for the reliquaries of St Ecgwine and St Wigston.[19]

Later Romanesque work

Towers were added to the presbytery after 1218.[20] In 1261 the top of the tower was damaged by fire following a lightning strike. A Lady Chapel was added between 1275 and 1295. The rest of the upper east arm was rebuilt between 1395 and 1418. There were no further significant changes. At the date of the Dissolution, Evesham Abbey stood as a fine Romanesque church.[21]

Footnotes

[1]         David Kendrick, Evesham Abbey (Worcester: Privately published, 2010), p.16 & p.77.

[2]         D.C. Cox, ‘Evesham Abbey: The Romanesque Church’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association (JBAA), vol. 163 (2010), p.24 (pp.24-71).

[3]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid, p.24. On page 53 Cox notes that the gesta abbatum says that Walter built westwards as far as the nave: usque ad nauem (Marlborough, History, p.178).

[4]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid, p.35.

[5]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid, p.24.

[6]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.48.

[7]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid, p.24.

[8]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.41.

[9]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.41

[10]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.60.

[11]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.24.

[12]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.48.

[13]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.24.

[14]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.24 & p.27.

[15]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.24 & p.27.

[16]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.27.

[17]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.61.

[18]       D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.40.

[19]       D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.59.

[20]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.35.

[21]        D.C. Cox (2010), ibid., p.27.

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