Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:28 am
Crowland, Lincolnshire, is one of those little towns that Britain does so well. It is appealing, has a couple of fascinating historic attractions (a splendid half-ruined abbey church and a unique three-way medieval bridge), at least one decent tea and bun shop and was once home to a famous hermit, Guthlac. Well, really, what more do you need? But first, let’s deal with the suggestion that the place seems unsure what to call itself. According to my trusty copy of the Oxford dictionary of English Place Names, Crowland (or Croyland) was Cruwland in the 8th century, Croiland at the time of the Domesday survey (1086) and possibly means ‘estate or tract of land at the river bend.’ The Reverend Hubert Larken (1874-1964), former Rector of Croyland (or Crowland) and Archdeacon of Lincoln, wrote a guide to the abbey in the 1930s in which he claimed that the name Croyland, which he says means ‘soft or muddy land’, was in general use up to the Reformation. Larken firmly blamed successive local authorities for preferring ‘Crowland’, and Crowland is certainly the name in apparent official usage now. So, let’s stick with that; you’ll still find references to ‘Croyland’, though – especially Croyland Abbey. Let’s stick with blaming the local authorities too, just to remind them who pays their wages.
The modern local authority in this instance is South Holland District, which tells you what you need to know about the surrounding area, the Fens, or Fenlands; it is a flat, often featureless, low-lying and naturally marshy part of East England. The description ‘soft or muddy land’ fits it well. Indeed, though you wouldn’t know it now, Croyland Abbey, like its neighbour Thorney Abbey 5 miles away, was built on an island in the bleak and reedy wetlands, when the world was a very different place.
It really began with Guthlac, the hermit mentioned earlier. Guthlac was a young nobleman and warrior in the 7th century Kingdom of Mercia. Weary of nine years of fighting, at the age of 24 he entered the monastery at Repton, or Hrypadon, where he studied for two years. But he sought the secluded life of an anchorite and was brought to the edge of Deeping Fen, where the only mode of transport was the fenman’s boat. Tatwin the boatman took Guthlac and his servant to a spot close by modern Crowland, a place of mysterious ancient burial mounds today known as Anchor Church Hill, where Guthlac made his home and built a chapel. The date was 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, 699 AD. In 709, Guthlac was visited by Æthelbald, a claimant to the throne who had been exiled by King Coelred. The pious Guthlac offered Æthelbald wisdom and prophesied that, one day, Æthelbald would be king. Æthelbald vowed he would establish a monastery if that ever happened. On 11 April 714, Guthlac died. In 716 Æthelbald became king and, good as his promise, founded a monastery at Croyland dedicated to St Guthlac and St Bartholomew. The cult of Guthlac, centred on Croyland/Crowland, became extremely popular.
The first religious house at Crowland would have been built of wood, wattle and daub, with thatch for roofs. It was sacked by the Danes in 866, refounded in 946 as a Benedictine House by Thurketyl, Chancellor to King Eadred and later abbot, but attacked by the Danes once more in around 1010 and destroyed by fire in 1091. The abbey was rebuilt again in the early 12th century, suffered damage by an earthquake in 1113 and a further fire in 1143. After that, fortunes seemed to improve: from the 13th to the 15th centuries, the monastic buildings were extended, there were generous royal endowments, visitors to the richly decorated shrine of Guthlac and the abbey became one of the most prosperous and influential in East Anglia. A town grew up around it. In 1428, Abbot Lytlington of Crowland was licensed by King Henry VI to acquire a site to establish a hostel in Cambridge for Benedictine student-monks – which eventually became Magdalene College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Cambridge. The end came for Crowland Abbey in 1539 with the Dissolution, when the monastic buildings were demolished, with the exception of the nave and aisles of the truncated abbey church which were taken into use as the parish church. During the Civil War, Crowland declared for the Royalist cause, was fortified with earthworks and in 1643 besieged by a Parliamentary force from nearby Spalding. The defenders deliberately placed prisoners in the line of fire but eventually the town fell, with a certain Colonel Oliver Cromwell assisting the attackers. The abbey church sustained some damage from Parliamentary artillery during the battle. In 1720, the roof of the nave fell in; the main south wall was taken down in 1744 and parish use became restricted to the north aisle only, which remains the case today.
There is no visible trace of the complex of early and later medieval monastic buildings that once occupied pretty much all of the current graveyard. Their remains lie beneath your feet as you walk round, marvelling at the size the original church must have been, and at the beauty, even in ruin, of the elegant, soaring, Norman arch at the eastern end of the nave, where the crossing would have been. Other notable external surviving features include the quatrefoil over the west door which shows scenes from St Guthlac’s life, including his arrival at the island of Crowland and him using a whip to drive off two demons. A whip was allegedly given to Guthlac by St Bartholomew to beat of the devils that tormented him, so the saint is often represented with a whip, or scourge. Accordingly, whips feature on the Abbey’s coat of arms, along with knives representing St Bartholomew, who was skinned alive.
The quatrefoil is replicated on a modern memorial cross to Guthlac nearby. There is a 14th century Guthlac’s Cross to the north of Crowland, just off the A16, inscribed HANC PETRA GUTHLAC (this is Guthlac’s stone?), thought to be one of several boundary crosses. This might also be a good moment to mention the Guthlac Roll, a highly unusual 13th century manuscript, now held in the British Library. Almost 10 feet (3 metres) long, the Guthlac Roll tells the life of the saint in eighteen circular pictures.
I digress. The west front of the abbey church, even in ruin, is still ornate, and impressive. Reminiscent of other west fronts, including that of Wells Cathedral with its hierarchy of heaven (albeit Crowland’s is more modest), it displays weathered statues of saints (including Guthlac and Bartholomew, of course) and sundry kings in seven tiers, either side of the window and doorway. One of those represented is said to be Waltheof, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Northumberland, a benefactor of Crowland who was beheaded near Winchester for rebellion against William the Conqueror in 1076. At Crowland, he was held to be a martyr; accordingly, his body was somehow retrieved from the ditch into which it had been thrown, brought to the Abbey and buried under the Chapter House, from whence it proceeded to perform miracles and attract pilgrims.
While we’re on the subject of rebels, there is a legend that Hereward the Wake, the English nobleman who also had associations with Ely and led resistance to the Normans in and around the Fens, was buried somewhere in the Abbey, next to his wife, Torfrida. It is possible. However, the only source for this is an apparently fascinating and revealing primary source, the Historia Croylandis, Croyland Chronicle or Chronicle of Ingulf, after the 11th-century abbot Ingulf who was credited with compiling the early sections. However, experts believe the early parts were written later and are unreliable; no one knows for sure what happened to Hereward the Wake.
Frankly, there are far too many fascinating stories about Crowland (or Croyland) for your average common, or garden, article. One highly unlikely tale is the legend of a secret tunnel between Crowland and Thorney abbeys, used by the monks to evade marauding Danes. Given the decidedly soggy terrain, I can’t imagine digging such a tunnel would be within the capabilities of 9th – 11th century monks; though it is probable they knew their way across the marshes better than the attackers did.
One relic from those troubled times might have survived however. The Abbey is in possession of a skull, said to be that of Abbot Theodore, struck down from behind by pillaging Danes whilst he was praying. The skull is thought to be genuine and it is apparently possible to see the evidence of the lethal blow, but it was not on display when ABAB on tour visited. One thing that did catch my eye, inside the church, was what I remember – and I may have got this wrong – being described as an immersion font, set into the wall near the entrance and dating from the Norman period. I have never seen anything quite like it. Nearby is a freestanding 13th century font, presumably acquired when the other one sprang a leak.
Which brings us neatly onto water and the three-way, or triangular, bridge. Trinity Bridge, as it is known, stands in the middle of town and must surely be unique. It is built of stone and was constructed by the monks of the Abbey between 1360 and 1390 to span the confluence of the River Welland and a tributary, Cattewater or Cat’s Water. The rivers used to run where the streets do now, but were rerouted in the 17th century. So the bridge now stands on dry ground near the market place. The stone structure replaced previous wooden bridges, the earliest mention of which dates back to the reign of King Æthelbald in 716 AD. It was also recorded in a charter of King Eadred in 943 AD. The bridge was only ever intended for pedestrian traffic and there used to be a cross at its apex, from which sermons would be preached and announcements made. It was a meeting point, they say, where world affairs and price of produce was discussed; “It’s only bridge talk” became a local saying, apparently – and still might be, for all I know. Both Henry VI and Edward IV are said to have visited, the latter embarking from a nearby wharf to travel to Fotheringhay. The out of place looking statue on it is believed to represent Christ and is generally believed to have once adorned the west front of the Abbey church. Personally, I think Crowland’s Trinity Bridge is very special. Other three-way bridges are available in the world, including a pedestrian bridge in Manchester, but most of these seem to be modern and therefore can easily be dismissed as potential rivals.
So – did someone mention tea and buns? The official ABAB team dropped into the highly originally named Old Copper Kettle (sorry, no website), a charming thatched-roof establishment in North Street close to Trinity Bridge. It is a compact place and was crowded inside, but we found a corner in a delightful little garden area at the back. The service was prompt and friendly, the refreshment perfect and I was much taken with a door propped against the garden wall. This led absolutely nowhere; or, I suppose, it could take you anywhere if you tried really hard.