Hyde Abbey – Life of Abbot Aston Anecdotes

The following stories provide an insight to the lives of the monks under the rule of Abbot Aston. The script is provided and read by Nidel Bradshaw. There are 10 anecdotes each with a video of ‘Abbot Aston’ narrating the script. We needed to provide the 3D virtual backdrop scenes and film/edit to create the set of video narratives.


A monk’s life – it’s not supposed to be easy, you know. It requires great dedication to stick to the rule of St. Benedict; that means hours of prayer and chanting the psalms every day in church – including in the middle of the night. So our life as monks here in Hyde is governed by when we gather in the abbey church. Eight times a day.  Starting with Matins when it’s still dark – not much fun getting out of bed at that time in the morning, I can tell you, especially in winter. A quick dash back to bed and then up again for lauds just as dawn is breaking. You never get what you might call a full night’s sleep – maybe three or four hour’s maximum. And that is how our day goes on – intervals of prayer, then meals, some manual work, then back to prayer again. If you followed the rules correctly…it’s very strict way of life.   The abbots – people like me – are in charge of that. Sometimes it isn’t easy to enforce – but I like to think I’m fairly strong character and can find my own way through – but others who came after me, experienced great difficulty.  As time went on some of the monks became lax and even rebellious.  That’s why some years after my time the bishop of Winchester had to get involved and lay down the law.  “It is not permissible for anyone who is supposed to take part in these masses, at these hours, to be absent from them or, once they have started, to leave before their completion, except for a reason legitimate or unavoidable,”  – the words of the bishop himself.  There are punishments for sluggards and to those monks who don’t comply with the rule of St. Benedict. Mostly that consists of cutting their food rations for a week; just as a reminder that monks are here to work for salvation; not enjoy to enjoy a holiday! Mind you that was the theory – whether it happened in practice, all of the time, here in Hyde, well, I’m not so sure! Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LT0Lipvi26Y


Fashion…the fashion of our time. Not what you’d expected to hear from a 13th century abbot I would imagine. Well there are a certain number of our monks at Hyde Abbey who are as interested in their appearance as you are today. Although St Benedict whose rule we abide by made it clear that one heavy robe for winter and a lighter robe for summer, held in by a simple belt, would suffice, that there should be no argument about their colours or the coarseness of the material and to accept, with the guidance of their abbot, whatever is available and can be bought cheaply within the region where they live. Now we live in Winchester, the capital of England, King John regularly stayed here, King Henry 3rd was educated here, we were used to seeing the great and good of England wear the latest silks, satins, brocades and velvets brought back from Europe and the crusades. Fashion feasts our eyes. There happens to live in the brooks area of the city, Juliana, a washerwoman, who from the elderberries she collects, makes a blue dye. Thomas a monk I know since my early days at the Abbey, asked permission if he could have his leather belt dyed that colour, it was a small adornment which I thought could do little harm. The fashion caught on and several of the younger monks in particular wanted it too…the blue was a rich, deep azure, I can see it now, it’s the colour of God’s sky. Peter our Bishop came to the Abbey to discuss our forthcoming journey to London to witness the resigning of the Magna Carta and saw several of our monks wearing their newly died belts, in fact I pointed them out to him, saying isn’t that finest blue you’ve ever seen on leather. He exploded with such rage, saying this is completely against the rule of St Benedict and I’ll take to a higher authority if you don’t have them returned back to the undyed leather of before. He said it’s a disgrace for the monks of Hyde Abbey, who are coming with us on this important journey to London, to be so attired. I reminded him as a mitred abbot in particular, under the rule of St Benedict; it was at my discretion to grant. And I reminded myself of that other great rule of St Benedict…whenever you have a quarrel with another; seek peace before the sun goes down. During his third jug of mead he finally calmed and I told him they wouldn’t adorn the belts on our journey to Westminster. Early the following morning in the Chapter House I said to the younger monks how the Bishop was less than pleased. However, for certain occasions, I said… “They could still wear blue”! Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07K8crJpRyw


“I want to let you in to a rather embarrassing secret. There was a time at Hyde Abbey when our monks were not the brightest stars in the heavens. This came to the attention of the Bishop during one of his regular inspections. He was not impressed when he heard the monks reading aloud from the Holy Bible – and, as you probably know, we do quite a lot of that around here. So when he heard not one monk, but several, mispronouncing words, stumbling over sentences and giving a garbled version of the parables he got rather cross and insisted we take action. In truth, he got very angry. Get better teachers he said, these novice monks need finer instruction to lift the scales from their eyes, to vanquish their clouds of ignorance. They are slow, lazy, mumbling readers they have to acquire nimbler minds to spread the word of God. He was not happy and he properly put us in our place. Mmm…‘Nimbler minds’ – I rather liked that! As he did have a point. Most of our novices preferred throwing the dice to reading the good book! Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC3iMoV1Buo


Just before I became Abbot here in 1222 there was a big council held, near Oxford, by Stephen Langton, our archbishop of Canterbury. Had it been a few months later I would have been there myself – but there you go,I missed out. After it was all over the archbishop issued what’s called; the Oxford Constitution – a statement of detailed laws about how the church should be run. It had many rules – too many to mention here – it talked about food in monasteries and the need to all eat together with my good self in attendance. It said we shouldn’t give too much attention to what we eat, so long as we eat healthily. After all Christ said; “man does not live by bread alone”. Now according to the rule of Benedict each monk should have a pound of bread a day. “There mustn’t be a danger of overeating so no monk is overtaken by indigestion – there is nothing so opposed to Christian life, as overeating.” That said, there was always to be a choice of two or even three dishes, eaten at midday in the abbey refectory – served with vegetables. I loved vegetables; so pretty fair wouldn’t you say? This all worked very well…but I’m sad to say, for some of the monks who came after me, it wasn’t good enough. They forgot all about these rules. Many didn’t stay in the abbey to eat their meals at all. Three quarters of them were off in the town to bath houses or hostelries – and who knows what they ate there! As usual when this came to the ears of the bishop he was furious. He said; “if monks don’t keep to the rules then in the future they should go hungry, and have only servants’ portions of bread and vegetables”.  Hmm – I’m not sure what the servants felt about that! But it certainly led to some thinner monks. Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjCADEUjYFw


I suppose that we all like to have a good chit-chat from time to time. But that’s one of the things we have to give up when we become monks. As good St. Benedict in his rule says, “If you talk a lot you will not escape falling into sin. Though he also said, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” So there we have it. For most of our day – apart, of course, from when we are singing the holy psalms or having holy readings – we are supposed to keep our mouths shut. The exception, of course, being me! I can talk as much as I like given that I have to manage the affairs of the abbey both inside and out.  But as to my monks, well, quietude was the rule which they found the hardest to stick to. I had been away on a visit to Reading Abbey. On my return, Mathew, one of my senor monks, informed me that the bishop had made an unannounced appearance – he knew I was in Reading and I suspect was using the occasion to have a thoroughly good ‘snoop’. Several of the monks were chatting in the cloisters and as you can imagine he wasn’t best pleased! On my return I received a note. Well it was more than a note – it was a clerical rollicking of a high order. “In our visit,” he said, “we clearly found that silence – to which you are bound in due place and time by the rule of St. Benedict, was banished and not observed, and in breach of monastic life.” “We instruct you jointly and individually that you observe the rules of silence and abstain totally from silly and frivolous conversations. We order that those who do not observe this should be dealt with severely, with the appropriate punishment administered.” The bishop and I have rather different interpretations of the rule of St Benedict. I send him a message assuring the ‘chattering monks’ had been dealt with, having being deprived of their wine portion for 7 days.  That’s not easy for some of my monks! In the message I took the opportunity to remind him of the conversation we’d had with Stephen our archbishop, who shared with us a phrase he’d heard from a returning pilgrim; how it helped him find the ‘wisdom of interpretation’. To know what Benedict was guiding us toward, when he said; ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’ it is: “Speech is silver, silence is golden”. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9ZyqTO37W8


You’ll know by now that our church here in the abbey is large – very large in fact. And within it we preserve many treasures of great value and not just in the worldly sense. We have a considerable collection of precious, holy relics – St. Josse, St. Valentine and many others; some of our relics are contained in beautiful, jewel encrusted, gold and silver boxes. But as you might expect once you have a treasure trove you have treasure hunters. So our abbey became a target for all sorts of rogues and suspicious types, hanging around – getting up to no good; giving us much worry and concern. I have to admit the security at the Abbey was not as ideal as it should have been. One clever cove took endless delight in finding fault with how the abbey was run pointing out everything we were doing wrong. “Your church entrances and doors are not guarded or bolted at the right times or in the right way,” he said. “The guardianship of the Abbey is often omitted altogether, at best it’s carried out in a casual way, to such an extent that suspicious characters, often dishonestly make their way through the church and the cloister in darkness and shadow, it is inappropriate to the life of the Abbey. As a result, losses and scandals have frequently happened and, in all likelihood, will happen again.” As you might guess, the clever cove, was the bishop and he had his usual long list of instructions as to how we should do better in future. Doors had to be locked and bolted at the proper times and servants were to be put on watch to guard them. There were to be detailed searches to check no-one was hiding in any dark corners of the Abbey. Most important of all, there was to be just one person with responsibility for holding all the keys. The buck stopped with him and he would be answerable to the bishop – and punished – if proper systems weren’t followed. All good points, I suppose. The joke, of course, and it was centuries after my time I’m glad to say, that for all our security it didn’t stop the biggest monastic robberies of all time; when everything in the abbey was stolen by, of all people, the King. England and the Church would never be the same again. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zITuj74YRP4


Now you’ll all be familiar I know with that amusing little poem The Canterbury Tales written by a rather talented civil servant Geoffrey Chaucer. Geoffrey, I think it is safe to say, knows quite a bit about Hyde Abbey. After all the Tabard Inn where he begins his poem belonged to the abbot of Hyde. This was after my time but it was bought by one of my successors as his London residence. Not as grand admittedly as the Bishop’s palace by the Thames at Southwark, but not far away, and positioned just where the pilgrim route from Winchester arrived in London. You may recall that Geoffrey describes in some detail one of the pilgrims, who happened to be a monk, as ‘A manly man to be an abbot able’. I know the type very well. He was ‘a good man to horse’ too, and, as Geoffrey pointed out, keen on hunting with greyhounds. In fact, it was his favourite pastime spared no expense enjoying it. Now I am sure you can hear alarm bells ringing. A monk – owning greyhounds, going hunting, no expense spared! Was that allowed? Let me assure you, it was not allowed – but it certainly happened. We have an independent record of it from our old friend the Bishop of Winchester who was outraged at the popularity of hunting amongst the monks of Hyde Abbey.  A pretty dreadful double standard here as well…as one of his predecessors was, Bishop Peter De Roche, who was around at my time; he regularly, went out hunting in the New Forest. That was conveniently forgotten of course and I quote from the message he sent to the Abbot, “We require that this often-occurring wicked practice be rooted out from your monastery. We order all of you, together and individually, to desist from this activity, strictly ordering that no monk from your abbey should wilfully watch or even is present at, noisy hunting parties, or keep, for himself or for others, openly or secretly, hunting hounds within the monastery or outside its Estate.” As usual – it was given to the abbot to enforce all this. And the punishment for any offending monk was a reduction of his rations, down to a servant’s portion. Mind you – it was probably supplemented with what they caught out hunting!  Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2fuG0b9M2c


I was here for 26 years, along with my predecessor John Suthill, who became a good friend and inspiration, we were two of the three longest serving Abbot’s in the history of Hyde Abbey. I’m proud and humble, to have been head of one of the greatest monastic houses in Europe at a time when the Abbey was relatively stable but also when there were great changes afoot in how England was governed and managed. As I tell you these stories – oh – how the memories flood back. When John Suthill died I was elected to take his place, and I was in the job less than two years, it was the month of February, I remember it was a very cold winter; I was summoned to Westminster by the king; our good Henry the third, to witness an important charter. The King, of his own accord, had agreed to reissue the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, as it is known. His father King John had been forced by the barons to sign it 10 years earlier, but John denounced it almost immediately. Tore it up and got Pope Innocent to back him. King John was a very unpopular King and once he died the noblemen of England and indeed merchants and other wealthy people wanted change. They wanted to upend the Establishment and give rights to ordinary, free, men. There were even some rights for women… who would have believed that in 1225! AND I was to witness it; signed by King Henry in the Palace of Westminster…it was a long way from the back waters of a brewing house in Palliard Twitching’s, outside Kingsgate, in Winchester where I grew up as a boy. I was very nervous indeed; I felt it should have been John’s signature not mine, how could I possibly fill his shoes; what would they make of me?  We left Winchester 3 days before the signing, breaking our journey in Reading, and then moving on to Westminster, with Simon, the Abbott of Reading. He helped calm my nerves on the ride, Simon wasn’t in the best of health, he died the following year, but he was determined to sign the Great Charter himself. As we approached Southwark, it began to sleet. Some of the Reading monks started up singing “Summer is a Coming In,’’ Simon laughed so much I had to steady his horse to stop him falling. We were guests of Southwark Priory which was opposite a tanning house… the smell was indescribable, and sadly, it was 80 years too soon to stay at our own Tabard Inn. The day of the signing was a Tuesday, February 11th and Simon said he was well enough to walk the 4 miles to Westminster we walked by the river, escorted by six of our older monks who’d never been to London before, I’d only been twice… we thanked God, it was nowhere near as cold as it had been the previous day, we reached the Palace in good time for the signings. There were 65 of us gathered, all the great and good of England, earls, barons, bishops, abbots, ministers and the King. My signature was 24th and the Bishop of Winchester, Peter De Roche was fourth… I think he was rather annoyed I wasn’t further down the list, being as young as I was and relatively newly elected. He was certainly annoyed after supper. We’d broken from table, when Archbishop Stephen asked him to be bring over the new Abbot of Hyde to be introduced. Stephen asked me about John, they had been strong friends for many years and he was saddened not to attend his burial. We talked for half a candles wane, about John, my plans for Hyde Abbey, the consequences of the Great Charter and how it would change the landscape of England, and he shared with me part of a prayer he’d been writing for Pentecost Sunday. He said “I wanted a prayer to celebrate the birthday of the church, but with a fresh spirit, to compliment the new, fairer England; I hope this Great Charter would bring about.” “How did you first meet John”, he asked. I said, “Like John I came from very humble roots, when my father died, the Abbey allowed my mother to take over the tenancy of the brew house in Winchester, which they owned and where I was brought up. “That was very unusual before the charter we’ve just signed” he interrupted. “My father was a skilled ale maker” I said, “His beer was the finest in Hampshire and he often came to the Abbey to advise the monks on the best way to brew the hops. “That makes great sense”, he said, “Fine ale is not unimportant for the well-being of an abbey”

I told him, “my mother wanted a different life for me and through my father’s connection with the Abbey she managed to get me a job there as a gardener’s boy. I loved tending the fruit trees, particularly the cherry and the walnut. John had been the abbot for some years and in the summer months would often pray in the orchard, servants of the Abbey were forbidden to be there when he prayed, but he allowed me to stay as long as I got on with my work and that is how I first met John”. It wasn’t long after, he asked if I’d like to become a novice monk”. I told him, when John lay dying and it looked likely I would be elected the next Abbot of Hyde, I asked him “Why me?” “You loved the walnut tree and you loved the cherry with equal measure, I hated the walnut, but loved the cherry… I watched you closely, I learnt from you.” Stephen’s face, broke to a smile, the like of which I had never seen on any other. He begged his leave, saying there were many people he needed to talk to before the night was old, but not before, he gave me his blessing, telling me not to fear, that he felt confident I would uphold all the good works John had put in place at Hyde Abbey… “Remember the things from your past, good and bad, do not be afraid of them”, he said… “Bring them to how you lead your life now, the bad will get less, the good will blossom, the sweet guest of your soul will guide you… And I have never forgotten those words.  Until the next time… Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuO_fualx_A


Monks, you know, are expected to stay put in the monastery. They are not like priests who live in their own houses and do the rounds of their parish – or a friar whose calling is to wander far and wide preaching the word of God to anyone who will listen. The point of being monk is to stay in the monastery; working and praying on behalf of everyone else. And if you do go outside then there needs to be a good reason for it and it has to be approved by the abbot.  But in the way of human nature – if there’s a group of men together – unless they are exceptionally devout – they do want to go out occasionally; experience the fruit of their prayers as it were – and I have some understanding for this. And that’s what the monks of Hyde were like. They went into Winchester – but inevitably word of this got back to the authorities. The bishop complained to the abbot saying it has come to my notice, “Monks and brothers of your abbey, and younger ones, often seize an opportunity to take themselves off improperly to wander outside the precincts of the monastery and away from respectable society, without having sought permission for doing so.” Some of the older monks were even worse. “Having been assigned to specific tasks, they are riding out whenever it pleases them to Manor houses and other such places and then stay on there, doing just as they wish.” The best way to put a stop to this, suggested the bishop, was to have a rule that no-one should go out alone. They should always go in pairs – one keeping an eye on the other. And then said the bishop, ‘’they should travel in a more seemly fashion and, having completed their business, return promptly to the abbey to fulfil more devoutly, the established Rule of St Benedict.” Mmm… Wise advice – I can’t say I always followed it myself though! Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TluV0gaU-9A


As I know from my own experience there are plenty of challenges in running a monastery. You have to inspire your monks with zeal in following the rule of St. Benedict as well as managing all the practical aspects of keeping the monastery functioning. Not an easy task and the abbots who came after me faced lots of criticism because Hyde was too close to Winchester and its temptations could not easily be disguised as you will have heard in some of our previous stories. A senior member of the Christian clergy once said, “When the abbot is not supervising his monks properly, then a curse falls, just as when a shepherd, through his sloth, neglects his sheep. The monks fall into a trap, with grave danger to their souls.”

I was only too aware of my own failings but, I tried to lead from example, with zeal and to be fair as well – St Ignatius’s said “Find good in whatever you are doing and in all the other people in your life” and of course that wasn’t dissimilar to the words Archbishop Langton had said to me after the signing of the Magna Carta. Gradually over the years the number of monks here in Hyde declined. In its heyday Hyde had about fifty monks – that was true when I was in charge. But the plague and poor leadership, decline in morale, gradually reduced the numbers. From fifty it went to thirty. And by the time the abbey was closed down the number had reduced again to about 20. Bad management didn’t help. At one stage there were a lot of complaints about poor quality bread – and, shall we say, an abbey prays on its stomach. If the bread’s not good, then you’re in trouble. The problem turned out to be that the bread was being made from bad, putrid flour; monks began to fall ill and weren’t able to do their duties. So by the very end, 1538, when all of these lovely buildings were pulled down after the abbey was dissolved; the spirit had gone out of the place. And so off the monks went, happily in some cases I imagine, with their pensions from the king. But it was all over, and what was once a fine establishment, became for many years a waste land. As I sit in this cloister and wonder at the riddle; how era’s have been rolled up and from there rim, the stars, the same stars as you see, are shaken off into the netherworld. But now, through your eyes, – Hyde Abbey, is ready to be discovered again.  Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61Ir1gnLUcg