Notable abbeys or monasteries in Britain, mostly those that can be visited.  Some may be in ruins. Some may be remote.

Was England born in Athelney?

Sign to Alfred's monument at Athelney, Somerset

Christmas in the year 877 did not turn out as Alfred planned. One minute he was celebrating, the next his hall was overrun by screaming, violent, bloody-weaponed, pagan warriors.  He escaped with his life and a small band of followers, ending up in hiding in the swamps around Athelney, in Somerset. Today, Athelney is a …

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Give us a song, Caedmon

Parish Church of St Mary's, Whitby

This is the story of England’s first known poet. Once upon a time, many many years ago, there was a good herdsman who lived on a cliff top called Streaneshalch.  The herdsman’s name was Caedmon; he was no spring chicken and was actually quite shy.  Nearby on the cliff top was a great Abbey, ruled …

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Whitby Abbey and the Easter problem

Whitby Abbey, the ruins of the abbey church

The Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby is celebrated for its fish and chips, the semi-precious gemstone, jet, its associations with the explorer Captain Cook, Dracula – and its abbey.  It is less well-known as the place where the timing of Easter was decided. “When is Easter this year?” I hear you say; I’m very glad …

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Fountains in Yorkshire

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

There was trouble at St Mary’s Abbey in York.  Some of the monks felt that monastic practices had strayed too far from the original values set out by the blessed St Benedict.  In 1132, influenced by a band of Cistercians passing through the city, thirteen of St Mary’s monks rebelled.  However, Archbishop Thurston sympathised with …

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Egglestone Abbey

Egglestone Abbey, skyline, County Durham

There’s something calm and peaceful about the ruins of Egglestone Abbey.  They huddle on top of a small hill above the River Tees, just outside the old market town of Barnard Castle, in County Durham.  The location feels almost as secluded these days as it must have been when the abbey was founded eight centuries …

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Dervorgilla’s Sweetheart

Sweetheart Abbey, in honour of John Balliol

These are the remains of Sweetheart Abbey, founded by Dervogilla Balliol. Here’s devotion for you.  When her husband, John Balliol, died in 1268, Lady Dervorgilla had his heart removed, embalmed and placed in an ivory casket which she carried with her for the rest of her days.  Apparently, it sat there at mealtimes, her ‘sweet …

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Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire - 'the Ship of the Fens'.

Before England existed, the lonely Isle of Ely lay in the territory of the Gyrwas.  Around the year 652AD, Tondbert, a prince of the South Gyrwas, married the Princess Etheldreda, a descendent of the mighty Wuffingas who had united the North-folk with the South-folk.  Tondbert died and Etheldreda, whose father was Anna (or Onna), King …

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Why 467 pubs are called the Royal Oak

Boscobel House, Shropshire

What might be called ‘the Royal Oak Incident’ took place when the future King Charles II hid in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.  This was a real event, which might have had a very different outcome, and is a fascinating story.  You can visit the spot where it happened, Boscobel …

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The Castle at Castle Acre

Bailey Gate, castle, Castle Acre, Norfolk

Toki lost his lands when the Normans came.  The new foreign aristocracy following Harold’s defeat at Hastings in 1066 swept aside Anglo-Saxon landowners, and poor Toki was one of the casualties.  He was a thegn – which could mean a variety of things – but in any event a man of property in the settlement …

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1066 – so what?

Battlefield, Hastings, 1066

Every action has a reaction, but there are some events that so obviously and profoundly shape the future.  One of these was the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066*, when heroic Harold, King of England, got beat by wicked William, Duke of Normandy.  Of course, nothing’s that simple – but one thing is for …

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