The Ruins of the Abbey of St. Mary the Virgin
On a drizzly afternoon earlier this week, a crew from the Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society was out in Abbey Fields, using a resistivity meter to map the buried ruins of the Abbey of St. Mary the Virgin—founded by Geoffrey de Clinton in 1119 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. Little of the abbey, once the richest in all of England, remains above ground. Among the Victorian stones in the churchyard of St. Nicholas lie the exposed foundation walls of the nave and north transept of the abbey church, as well as the ruins of a gatehouse (known as the Tantara Gate) and a complete medieval barn. Portions of the abbey excavated in 1840, 1890 and 1922 (including the graves of the former abbots) were reburied in 1966. The pictures here show the gatehouse and the remains of the north transept of the abbey church. At the smaller archway to the right of the large main gate, the poor may have come to receive alms from the monks of the abbey. The red sandstone is covered now with carved initials from centuries of visitors to the ruins. The north transept, watched over by this faceless medieval saint, is now a “garden of remembrance.”
In 1953, Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, a thick book about the age-old fascination that people have had with ruins. Her own interest in ruins was perhaps intensified by the “new ruins” she saw around her after World War II—the blitzed ruins of London, the charred skeleton of Coventry Cathredral. The book is a compendium of responses to architectural ruins, from Julius Caesar wandering over the dusty plain of Troy to the nineteenth-century British travelers who came home from the Grand Tour to erect classical ruins in their own English gardens. Often ruins elicit meditations on mortality or inspire imaginative reconstructions of the past. Or they inspire the urge to plunder or deface, to chip off a piece of statue as a souvenir or carve one’s name in the soft red sandstone of the castle. But for Macaulay, the ruins of “the lost abbeys and priories that once so richly bejeweled Britain” also inspired rage. She was enraged by the “cold greed and rapacity” that persuaded Henry VIII to dissolve the abbeys in 1538—to sieze their lands and assets, and to consign the monastic buildings themselves to ruin. To Macaulay, the medieval abbeys represented “the enshrining of an idea,” and with the loss of the medieval monastic idea, England had lost “the splendour and incomparable grace of the buildings, libraries, the manuscripts, the fishponds, the vineyards, the grange barns, the ordered beauty of the religious services, the hospitality, the charity at the gates, the great bells that pealed over the countryside.” Macaulay saw in the Dissolution the destruction of the well-ordered communal ideal of medieval monasticism at the hands of the secular, military and commercial early modern state.
Within a few years, most of the splendor of the medieval abbeys was gone. The fabric of some of the abbeys was incorporated in new stately homes, like Stoneleigh Abbey and Coombe Abbey, but most of the abbeys and priories were demolished, their stones and the melted-down lead of their roofs used as building material for castles and great houses. Robert Dudley used many of the building stones from Kenilworth’s abbey to build up his castle. In the church of St. Nicholas there is to this day a “pig” of lead from the roof of the abbey, stamped with the mark of Henry VIII’s commissioners. A few ruined abbeys—Fountains and Rievaulx in the north of England, Tintern Abbey in southeast Wales—have had an illustrious afterlife as majestic ruins, but many—like Kenilworth’s Abbey of St. Mary—have disappeared into the earth.
After the Dissolution in 1538, the former church lands were distributed as bonuses to Henry VIII’s favorites. The land once belonging to Kenilworth’s abbey was given to the king’s standard bearer, Sir Andrew Flamock, known as “a merry conceyted man and apt to skoffe.” Flamock (or Flammock) is otherwise known for two anecdotes in George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie (1589). In the first anecdote, Flamock is at Henry’s side as the king blows his trumpet on entering Greenwich park. The gaseous Sir Andrew,
hauing his belly full, and his tayle at commaundement, gaue out a rappe nothing faintly, that the king turned him about a said how now sirra? Flamock not well knowing how to excuse his vnmannerly act, if it please you Sir quoth he, your Maiesty blew one blast for the keeper and I another for his man.
At this, the king laughed heartily. Henry did not, however, find Sir Andrew’s flatulence so humorous on another occasion, when the two men were travelling on a barge from Westminster to Greenwich Park, this time to visit a fair lady who lived in a tower there. The king, in goood spirits, began to compose a poem for the lady, and asked Sir Andrew to complete the verses. King Henry began:
Within this tower
There lieth a flower
That hath my heart...
Sir Andrew, true to form, continued:
Within this hour
She pissed full sour
And let a fart.
Sir Andrew was ahead of his time. In another four and a half centuries, he would have had his own Thursday night comedy programme on BBC2. But in sixteenth-century England, there was still enough of chivalry left that the king was not amused. But an apology must have been accepted, because in 1539 we find Sir Andrew Flamock acquiring from the king the lands seized from both the Abbey of St. Mary the Virgin in Kenilworth and the chantry at Guy’s Cliffe (see September 9).
There was allegedly a curse on all those who came into possession of former abbey lands, and within twenty years of acquiring the abbey, Sir Andrew was dead and his male line extinguished. Within another decade, the husband of his fifteen-year old granddaughter had lost the estate through failure to pay the required tithe. The abbey then passed to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who plundered it for building stone.
In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I was lavishly entertained at Kenilworth Castle. She would have passed the abbey ruins as she entered St. Nicholas church to hear a most edifying sermon. She would have entered the church by the western door (pictured here), once thought to be Norman (“the most sumptuous Norman doorway in Warwickshire,” wrote Nicholas Pevsner), but now believed to have been constructed by Dudley for the Queen’s visit out of Norman materials from the ruined abbey. The Queen also would have dined and slept among the stones of the abbey incorporated into the new buildings that Dudley built at the castle to receive her. Within seventy-five years of that visit—immortalized by Sir Walter Scott in Kenilworth—the castle itself was in ruins in the wake of the English Civil War. Sic transit gloria mundi.