We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones
John Clare, Crowland Abbey
I’ve run out of ideas for titles, so I’m drawing on the poetry of local “peasant poet” John Clare.
This is Crowland Abbey. It’s now the parish church of the town of Crowland in south Lincolnshire but it used to be an important religious community with large property interests. This came at a price, including a Viking raid, riots and law suits (often featuring the Abbots of Spalding and Peterborough) before Henry VIII finally dissolved it in 1539. This wasn’t something unique to Henry, as other countries had also seized monastic assets, including Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland.
Having already been used as the parish church for years, parts of the building were set aside as a church, whilst the rest was demolished and reused. Sorry I can’t be more precise, but as I can’t tell a nave from a narthex I’m obviously going to have to brush up on church architecture.
The quatrefoil shows scenes from the life of St Guthlac. He was a soldier and a member of the Mercian nobility who retired to the monastery of Repton at the age of 24. Two years later, in 699, he gave up this life to live at Crowland as a hermit. He wore skins and lived on bread and water, passed his time praying and battling demons and, eventually, died in 714.
Eventually a cult of St Guthlac developed and the abbey was built. A cynic would say that the two things were linked, as saints were big business in those days. If they could attract more people, they could attract more donations.
What is now the church was originally the north aisle. The other bits have gradually decayed, probably having suffered from Parliamentary bombardment in the siege of 1643. Oliver Cromwell is often blamed, but he wasn’t actually in command that day and as a I do feel that he gets blamed for more destruction than he actually accomplished. As it was 1720 before the nave roof actually fell in, it’s likely that time did as much damage as cannon balls. Let’s face it, the Victorians did more damage to churches than Cromwell ever did.
Despite all this, it’s still an imposing building, and much more dramatic with the ruins than it would be if it was just a neat and tidy church.