Hyde Abbey – Abbot Aston History Anecdotes

The following stories provides historical anecdotes in the time of Abbot Aston. The script is provided and read by Nigel 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. The background music was re-used from the Beaulieu Abbey character music.


So we begin at the beginning. It’s around the year 900. The great King, Alfred, has just died; he saved Wessex from the Viking invaders and had a vision of a single English kingdom. His son, Edward started to build a church, the New Minster in the centre of Winchester. But why? After all there was already another church – The Old Minster – in that area? Well, it looks as if Edward wanted a very grand church suitable as a place of burial for his father and the rest of his family. Maybe he was fulfilling Alfred’s own plans. The holy scholar Grimbald might have been involved too because the intention was to have a community of priests based there. And so that’s what happened. The New Minster was built right next to the Old Minster – they were so close that the singing in one could be heard next door in the other.

As New Minster was under royal sponsorship it was given lands across Wessex so that it could have a proper income. We’re not sure exactly what it looked like but it was certainly large and imposing; inspired by other great churches on the continent. And when King Edward died he was buried there as well – alongside his mother and father. And Grimbald was buried there too.  All of them were to be reburied at Hyde Abbey when the community moved there some two hundred years after. But that’s another – later – story. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu1CKfqzjTk


Sometimes it takes new organisations awhile to settle down. Take New Minster. It was set up in the first decade of the 10th century to be the dynastic church of King Alfred and his family. But there were no monks to look after it. Instead lay priests were appointed to run the place – they were called secular canons and some of them were married. Sixty years on and the whole establishment had become corrupt and lazy. But reform in the English church was afoot led by the Bishop of Winchester, by the name of Ethelwold. Ethelwold could see what was going on – after all he did live next door! Now Ethelwold and Edgar, the king at the time, were great allies. They made it clear to these secular canons that they had to make New Minster their calling. In short they needed to take vows as monks – poverty, chastity and obedience. Well, most of them said ‘not a cat in hell’s chance’ and the result was, they were shown the door. Ethelwold then brought in monks from Abingdon near Oxford. And this is really when the history of the abbey begins. It was a fresh start and to mark the occasion King Edgar issued a new charter – and very fine it is too. One of the Abingdon monks, Ethelgar, was appointed as abbot and he ran a very well rigged ship. Everything was changed even fresh building work was undertaken – including a new tower – all to add to the status of this fine church. But New Minster was now a fully fledged monastery as well. And Ethelwold, went on to great things – he ended his career as the Archbishop of Canterbury. And you can’t get much better than that! Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4TGQR6T7F4&t=24s


Odd how things turn out over time, isn’t it? New Minster was built by King Edward in the year 901 to commemorate his father, the great King Alfred, who had dedicated his life to resisting the Viking invaders. And it was in New Minster that Alfred, his wife Aelswith and Edward himself were to be buried. But just over a century later a Viking – King Cnut – had fought his way to the English throne. But was he hostile to the New Minster? Not at all – it was quite the opposite. He wanted to emphasise his continuity with the Anglo-Saxon kings so he and his wife Emma were very generous to the abbey. Cnut even intervened to have some land which had been stolen from the abbey returned to its proper ownership. And Emma gave the abbey valuable relics including the arm of St. Valentine. But the most generous act of Cnut and Emma towards the new Minster was the donation of a great gold cross covered in jewels. It was such an important event that a drawing was made of it. And here it is…with the two of them putting the cross on the altar. It was a treasure beyond measure. But, sadly, another century on and it came to a sad end. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0NYmhFotyQ


1066 – The battle of Hastings and the most famous date in English history. As peaceful monks in New Minster you might think that we wouldn’t be much affected by a battle. Yes, there would be a change of king – but would that make much difference? Well, I can assure you that it was to make an ENORMOUS difference. In fact, over the next 50 years the effect of 1066 was to change everything.  As you probably know the English king at the time was Harold, a member of the Godwin family, and they were very important indeed in Wessex. Now New Minster was very closely tied to the monarchy – remember that it was a royal foundation – and our abbot in 1066, Alwyn, was actually the uncle of King Harold. Whether he was cursed or not I don’t know but two very bad things happened that year to Alwyn and New Minster.  First, in the spring, a large part of the abbey was burned down. Fortunately, the church itself was not affected but the domestic buildings were badly damaged. It was, perhaps, an omen for what was to follow because by October, William of Normandy had invaded and wanted to take the crown for himself.  Now, Alwyn despite being an abbot felt that he had to support his nephew in fighting off the Norman invaders. So, off he went as part of Harold’s army to fight the invaders, taking ten stout monks with him, they never came back. Giving their lives on the battlefield of Hastings. When William the Conqueror found out that it was Alwyn and the New Minster who fought against him; it would be New Minster that would bear the pain. Some of its properties were confiscated and for three years after the Conquest it was without an abbot. It was in the grip of incoming Normans. These were bad days for New Minster – and you might say worse was to come. But that’s for next time. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2J3YKJIEGUw


After the Battle of Hastings everything changed in England and especially in Winchester. Normans got most of the top jobs; endless new buildings were put up – castles, palaces, and churches. In Winchester that meant in particular the building of the enormous cathedral to replace the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster and if the Normans wanted to have space around their new cathedral that meant there wasn’t a place for New Minster and of course, it was a reminder of the old days. There were at least three Anglo-Saxon kings buried there plus other members of the royal family. So the order was given by the King, Henry 1st, son of the Conqueror; New Minster must come down. But where should the monks and the royal remains go? Someone – we don’t know who – had the bright idea of moving the whole establishment – lock, stock and graves – out of the city. Now as it happened more than one hundred years earlier King Æthelred –known as the Unready – had given meadowland north of Winchester to the Bishop at the time. There is even a slight possibility that a small church was built on it. So there was a kind of swap. The abbot of New Minster – by name Geoffrey – gave up his land in the centre of town and got this land here in Hyde Meadow in return.

Because this ground in Hyde was water-logged a raft of clay had to be built to provide a solid surface and in the year 1110 the community of monks and all their treasures including the royal remains, holy relics like the bones of St. Josse and St. Valentine and the Gold Cross of Cnut were moved in a great procession across to Hyde. It is even said that the king took part along with his wife, Queen Matilda who was a descendant of King Alfred.  So there we were. In our new home. Unfortunately, within thirty years it had all gone wrong. But more of that anon. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEfdtWfTcWA


In the years after the abbey moved to Hyde there was a period of calm. Two abbots Geoffrey and Osbert each ruling for many years. But after King Henry died in 1135 life became very difficult. A war broke out between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen as to who should rule England and the country was in much chaos. When Abbot Osbert died no-one was appointed to replace him. And Winchester itself became totally caught up in the fighting because the Bishop of Winchester, Henry, was the bother of Stephen and became a very active participant in the war.  It all came to a head in the Autumn of 1141 when Bishop Henry was besieged in Wolsey Palace on the other side of the city by the forces of Matilda who were based in Winchester castle. The picture became complicated as other troops supporting Stephen and the Bishop arrived on the scene. There was almost a siege within a siege. To try to break the deadlock the bishop’s soldiers set fire to large parts of Winchester including Hyde Abbey and St. Mary’s Nunnaminster which had been founded by Aeslwith, wife of Alfred the Great. The Royal palace in the centre of the city was also set alight. It was a complete disaster.  We lost many valuable objects from the Abbey, including the Gold Cross of Cnut which had melted in the inferno. After the war was over and King Stephen was established on the throne we asked for compensation from the Bishop for the enormous loss…after much wrangling he reluctantly agreed. But it took us more than 25 years and an appeal to the pope in Rome before a replica cross was presented to us. Meanwhile the abbey was not a happy place. The new abbot, appointed after the war, was not popular and rebuilding didn’t really start for another 40 years. But happier times were to lie ahead. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0eodwrKwpw


When I became abbot in 1222 it marked the end of an era. My predecessor John Suthill had become an institution in his own right. He ruled the Abbey for over 40 years – and what years they were with two Kings, Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and his brother King John, nicknamed ‘Lackland’ entering the history books as larger than life characters. Neither it could be said did the country much good. England was even put under an interdict, like a restraining order, it was decreed by the pope due to King John’s poor conduct. And then there was an invasion of the country by the French which affected us here in Winchester and in the south of the country. But John Suthill steered the abbey through all these dramas with great skill. You could tell he was a man of substance. When he was a young abbot he was sent all the way to Rome to bring back the ‘pall’ – a kind of symbol of office – for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was regarded as a reliable character. He was the kind of person who got things done and under his direction the abbey substantially got back on its feet following the terrible fire during the civil war. He was helped, I must admit, by a kind of miracle. Shortly after he became abbot there began to be sightings of Saint Barnabas, the altar in the abbey had been dedicated to the saint. Well, news of that nature spreads like wildfire and it attracted pilgrims to the abbey and not just from England. This was the time of an enormous upsurge in pilgrimage. Thomas Becket has been martyred ten years earlier and people were flocking to Canterbury to his shrine. Winchester soon became an important starting point for the pilgrim’s route to Canterbury and Hyde became the first destination on that journey. Over the years it helped the Abbey to become very wealthy, using that wealth to acquire lands and property in Hampshire and beyond.  So you can see that when Abbot John died and I took over I had a lot to live up to. But, history served me well; I made my mark quickly. Within two years I was in London as a witness to the final and definitive signing of Magna Carta by the young King Henry the Third. It was a very important event and helped changed the landscape of England forever, establishing for the first time, that everybody, including the King, were subject to the law and giving guarantees to the rights of individuals. A period of stability lay ahead. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZAnw9TaCFY


As in life, periods of relative tranquillity at the abbey were interspersed by periods of great turmoil. One of these periods is the second half of the 1340s.  It started badly with a riot by the peasants in Chisledon, Wiltshire, a village which belonged to the abbey. It seems that the villagers felt that they were being exploited by the abbey as their landlord, and weren’t going to put up with it any longer. Well, the mutiny didn’t last very long and in due course punishments were handed out. Mind you, the abbey itself was under obligation to raise taxes for the crown. Two years later we had to hand over substantial sums in what were called ‘knight’s fees’ to the King Edward, on the occasion of his son, the Black Prince, coming of age and being knighted. There were pressures all round and thirty years later these all bubbled up in what was called the Peasants Revolt, a very bloody affair; and close to a revolution. What connects all these events together was the Black Death. This brutal and terrible plague, arrived in England via Weymouth and soon made its way, probably up the River Itchen, to Winchester, in the summer of 1348. It devastated the whole country, but Hampshire and Winchester in particular were badly affected.  Our monks, who cared for the sick and dying, became infected and contracted the disease. Nearly half of our Abbey community died of the plague. Carved into stone in a local church and dated 1349 was this inscription: ‘Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain’. No village, town, hamlet, or manor house was spared. It also impacted on the land holdings of the Hyde Abbey whose income virtually ceased due to the number of deaths out in the countryside. As a result of the destruction the abbey had to hand its affairs over to William Edingdon, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, to rescue the Abbey from financial ruin. Around 11500 people lived in Winchester in the summer of 1348, in a little more than 20 years there were less than 6000 remaining.  And it would take Winchester another 500 years to regain pre plague levels of population.  This was mirrored throughout the whole country. The shortage of available labour led to rising cost of goods, higher wages and a real fear within the great and good of England that working people had a dangerous level of influence. There was conflict all round. It was to take years for the country as a whole, and Hyde Abbey in particular, to recover. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTSNaMiOJ78


Over the years it has to be said that Hyde Abbey began to have discipline problems. Maybe some of the monks joined the abbey for the wrong reason. And maybe there wasn’t proper leadership from the top. But William of Wykeham the great bishop of Winchester who founded the College here, began to notice this when he sent in inspections- but the problem was to recur across the generations. Matters were particularly bad around the year 1500 under Abbot Hall. Following a visitation led by Dr. Dowman, who was the bishop’s vicar-general.  In January, 1507, the Abbott and six senior monks were summoned to the chapter-house to answer a number of charges of indiscipline and a complete flouting of the Benedictine Rule we all abide by. It’s almost embarrassing to tell you the accusations they faced. For a start women were being given access to the precincts. Next the monks – instead of being in church for the divine office – were seen frequenting taverns in the city. And maybe worst of all in some ways the younger monks were not being given proper education and instruction. And without that how could you expect them to behave properly when they were older? So the Vicar General got together with the abbot and his senior colleagues to discuss how standards could be raised. The monks actually admitted that it was difficult to keep to the strict code of the Rule of St. Benedict. Well that says it all, really, doesn’t it?  Maybe they should not have become monks in the first place. And in fact a total of twenty-five junior monks ended up being severely told off because of their poor conduct. The abbot promised vigilance for the future. But perhaps the damage had been done. The monks were no longer respected by the community. The way that they led their lives was no longer an example. Popular support for them was on the wane. The scene was set for the curtain to come down; but not just on Hyde. For the whole monastic tradition across the land – which had been at the heart of England, for so many centuries. Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR2vlAG5j-g


The story of New Minster and Hyde Abbey lasted for almost 650 years. It started with a King – Edward fulfilling the wish of his father Alfred in building New Minster – and it ended with a king. Henry VIII decided to pull down almost all the monasteries in the country and confiscate their wealth, as part of the countries break from the Roman Catholic Church. Hyde Abbey did not escape – although the church of St. Bartholomew within the abbey precincts, which served the local community, was preserved.  The abbot at the time was John Salcot. He took vows as a Benedictine monk and graduated from Cambridge University. As a theologian and an expert on church law he advised the king on his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. He was highly ambitious and told the king what he wanted to hear.  Through his connections with the court he was then appointed as abbot of Hyde and a little later, became the bishop of Bangor – holding the two jobs at the same time. So when a henchman of King Henry by name Thomas Wriothesley arrived to demand the hand-over of the abbey Salcot made no objection. In return he got a further promotion to Bishop of Salisbury. The remaining monks meanwhile were paid off with pensions – we have their signatures of acceptance in Hyde Abbey’s Book of Life. Within a couple of years, the abbey church and many of the associated buildings were pulled down, the stone and timber recycled into construction projects, large and small across the Winchester area. The lands belonging to the monastery were then redistributed among King Henry’s supporters with Thomas Wriothesley gaining the lions share and becoming rather wealthy in the process. He went on to become the First Earl of Southampton and Lord Chancellor of England and the grandfather of Shakespeare’s patron the third earl. Meanwhile the abbey’s treasures went mostly to the king himself and the holy relics were simply destroyed. The royal graves were wrecked. And it was not for another 250 years that the royal bones of Alfred and his family were found – thrown and scattered to common ground. It was in many ways a sad ending – the savage destruction of a great and beautiful building and the loss of royal graves and works of art. But the story still lives on – and what is to come – I shall be here to tell! Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXzsYZ1xtNc