Article on Evesham Abbey by David Cox PhD FSA
This article was initially prepared by David Cox, PhD FSA, as a memorandum for the Vale of Evesham Civic Society with a view to the production of a conservation management plan for the site of Evesham Abbey. This material is copyright by Dr David Cox, who is a patron of the trust, and reproduced with his permission.
Evesham abbey was founded as a minster, c.701; it became a Benedictine abbey in the tenth century and survived as an abbey to 1540. Few great abbeys can claim such a long and continuous history. Westminster abbey, for instance, dates only from the eleventh century, and such famous abbeys as Tintern and Fountains were not founded until the twelfth.
Nineteenth-century property boundaries at Evesham enable us to define the medieval abbey precinct as a squarish area bounded by the Market Place, Vine Street, Little Abbey Lane, and the Upper Abbey Park (see the unpublished plan below). Before 1066 the boundary was marked by a high thorn hedge, and that was replaced by a wall in the twelfth century; later the wall was extended east and west to the river bank. The precinct was in two parts: on the north the graveyard (still in use) and on the south the church, cloister, courtyard, and associated buildings.
Evesham abbey has the special advantage that the precinct south of the graveyard is no longer a working religious site; it is thus unlike Pershore abbey or Gloucester cathedral (a monastery in the Middle Ages), both of which were also Anglo-Saxon foundations. That means that, unusually, archaeological investigation can be conducted at Evesham abbey without damaging or disrupting the work of existing religious buildings. There have been a few modern encroachments on the site of the abbey courtyard, but the damage has been limited until now.
At Evesham nineteenth-century excavations on the site of the abbey church and on a small part of the cloister did not penetrate below the post-Conquest remains. The abbey precinct is thus a rare survival as the accessible site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery and of its associated buildings. Because such sites are rare nationally, we still know too little about how a very early Anglo-Saxon monastery was laid out. And below the Anglo-Saxon monastery there are believed to be Romano-British remains, at present little understood. The abbey precinct thus holds precious information, of national interest but yet to be uncovered, about the transition from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon culture.
The later history of Evesham abbey, which is well documented, was also played out within the square precinct: royal visits (King Henry II came at least three times); the deposition of the wicked Abbot Norreis (1213); Simon de Montfort’s preparations for the battle of Evesham, and his burial immediately afterwards (1265); the moment of dissolution when Henry VIII’s officers entered the abbey church and stopped the monks in mid-service (1540). Less dramatically, but significantly in cultural and social terms, the monks produced manuscripts and works of literature there, ran a school for local boys, gave alms to the poor, and from the abbey managed their agricultural estates and churches in the surrounding countryside.
What is special about Evesham is that there are very few great abbeys (Glastonbury is one) where the archaeology, not only of the church but of all the precinct buildings, is both accessible and of national academic interest. The planning process should therefore look beyond the purely local environment and recognize that, in this case, Evesham abbey is not just another monastic site of local interest. It is nationally important.
The figure below shows the conjectural boundary of the pre-Conquest minster precinct (superimposed on OS Plan 1/2,500, Worcs. XLIX.3 (1904 edn)).