Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tewkesbury Abbey

Clara sang in Tewkesbury Abbey with the St. Michael's Singers in December, but it was evening, and the magnificent fourteenth-century stained glass was dark. I've been curious to see the abbey since seeing Shakespeare's Henry VI, since it was at Tewkesbury that the Lancastrians met their final defeat in May 1471. In the Battle of Tewkesbury, the Yorkist forces of Edward IV met the Lancastrian forces of Henry VI, led by his wife, Queen Margaret, and his son Edward, the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales was killed in the battle, and is buried in the quire of Tewkesbury Abbey. The Lancastrians who took refuge in the abbey were brutally slaughtered.

Tewkesbury Abbey from the north side.

It's difficult to imagine war and bloodshed within the peaceful walls of Tewkesbury Abbey. The nave is a stunning combination of heavy Norman columns and arches from the twelfth century, and ornate mid-fourteenth century Decorated Gothic vaulting in the roof. Much of the Gothic decoration dates from the time of Hugh Le Despenser, who fought with Edward III at Crécy and is buried in the remarkable tomb pictured at left. Three generations, and not quite a century later, the Beauchamp Chantry (or "Warwick Chapel," pictured right) was built by Isabella le Despenser (see yesterday's post). Both the Le Despenser Tomb and the Beauchamp Chantry are on the left (north) side of the presbytery.

The presbytery, with the Le Despenser Tomb and high altar.

The east window (The Last Judgement). Click to enlarge for more detail.

The glory of the Tewkesbury presbytery (the area that contains the high altar) are the mid-fouteenth century stained glass windows. The main east window, with its crowning rose, depicts the Last Judgement, and contains a portrait of the window's donor, Eleanor le Despenser. Her husband, Hugh (the father of the Hugh mentioned above), was a favorite of the unpopular Edward II. His influence on the king led to his execution at the hands of disgruntled barons in 1326.

In 1540, when Henry VIII dissolved the Benedictine religious community at Tewkesbury Abbey, the citizens of Tewkesbury banded together and raised £453 to purchase the building for use as a parish church.

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