Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire: The Archaeology and Architecture of a Cathedral, Monastery and Parish Church

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Oxbow Books
Pages: 256
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    Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire
    Book Description:

    Dorchester-on-Thames and its abbey have been subjects of antiquarian interest for more than 450 years, and during that time much has been written about them. They are, however, still far from being comprehensively studied and recorded. Indeed, the most substantial architectural description of the medieval church was written as long ago as 1845, and a thoroughgoing reappraisal has long been overdue. In this major new study on the origins, history and architecture of Dorchester Abbey, Warwick Rodwell assembles a huge amount of material from observations during repair and conservation and information derived from archaeological excavation, as well as the unexpected discovery of previously unstudied and unpublished topographical and architectural material, housed in several archives. The volume is divided into two parts: the first contains an account of the archaeology of the site and the architectural development of the abbey, while the second comprises a series of detailed notes and observations on the present structure, its fittings and furnishings.

    eISBN: 978-1-78297-381-2
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface (pp. xi-xii)
    Warwick Rodwell
  4. Acknowledgements (pp. xii-xii)
    Warwick Rodwell
  5. Part 1 Archaeology, Architecture and Context
    • Chapter 1 The Antiquarian Background (pp. 1-17)

      The substantial Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames, together with its immediate environs, is one of the archaeologically most complex and interesting areas in Britain. There is not justsomethingillustrative of every period in history, but an abundance of material evidence of high-ranking importance.¹ The early prehistoric era is principally represented by the Dorchester cursus, a henge monument and tumuli; and the riverside fortification of Dyke Hills is an important monument of later prehistory. In the early Roman period there was a fort guarding the crossings of the rivers Thames and Thame, and this was later superseded by a small walled...

    • Chapter 2 Before the Cathedral: Archaeology and Topography (pp. 18-24)

      Throughout its length, the Thames valley is packed with archaeological sites, many of which enshrine remains spanning several millennia.¹ At the points where early trackways converged on the river even greater concentrations of archaeological evidence for long-term settlement and religious activity are found. Dorchester is one of those focal crossings. Its significance is enhanced yet further by the fact that the river Thame flows into the Thames here from the north, and the promontory coincidentally formed between the two rivers comprises a gravel plateau which is exceptionally well defended by natural features (Fig. 1).

      Research in recent years, in many...

    • Chapter 3 Dorchester Cathedral, c. 635–1067 (pp. 25-32)

      Dorchester formally enters English history in A.D. 635, when it is recorded that a church and episcopal see were founded there. The event was reported at some length by Bede in hisHistoria Ecclesiastica(completed in 731).¹ The kingdom of Wessex – otherwise known as the ‘Gewissae’ – was ruled by Cynegils (probably 611–43), but it is not known where his seat of power lay. His conversion to Christianity in 635 was an important milestone in spreading the faith. Conversion was carried out by Bishop Birinus, who had been consecrated in Genoa and was sent to Britain by Pope Honorius I...

    • Chapter 4 From Cathedral to Abbey: the Transition (pp. 33-37)

      The last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Dorchester was Wulfwig, who died in 1067, thus creating a vacancy. It was filled by Remigius, one of the followers of William the Conqueror, who had been almoner at the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, and was consecrated bishop by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. In a submission to Lanfranc (archbishop from 1070), Remigius styled himself as bishop of Dorchester, Leicester and Lincoln, thus acknowledging that he presided over an amalgamation of dioceses.

      William of Malmesbury visited Dorchester, c. 1125, in the critical period between cathedral and abbey. Although he described the place as ‘obscure and...

    • Chapter 5 Dorchester Abbey: A Historical Summary, c. 1140–2007 (pp. 38-45)

      There is no surviving foundation charter for the Augustinian abbey, no later cartulary and very few extant documents that refer to it.¹ The foundation date of 1140, although often cited, has no firm historical basis. The abbey was certainly in existence by 1142, and is mentioned in a papal confirmation (bull) of its possessions in 1146: they included five chapels which had been part of the endowment of the former cathedral. A second confirmatory charter was issued in 1163.²

      The foundation of the abbey – and with it the beginning of a new building programme – could have occurred at any time...

    • Chapter 6 Topography of the Augustinian Abbey, c. 1140–1536 (pp. 46-63)

      When the Augustinian canons arrived in Dorchester, they took over the existing collegiate church, which may have been in an incomplete state. For expediency, the new abbey was designed to incorporate that church, and the requisite claustral buildings had to be fitted around it. The fact that the cloister at Dorchester lies to the north of the church has often been remarked upon, and it has generally been assumed that its placement was in some way determined by the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman ecclesiastical topography: it was. Indeed, there is a possibility that the church, which we have argued was...

    • Chapter 7 The Abbey Church and its Architectural Evolution, c. 1140–1536 (pp. 64-98)

      In 1913, Francis Bond made a valiant attempt to decipher the architectural development of the abbey church, working his way systematically through the various clues in the fabric. His method of analysis was inspirational and subsequently emulated by innumerable scholars (Figs 11 and 12).¹ However, Bond was neither in possession of an accurate ground plan, nor did he have the luxury of a prolonged period of intensive study of the church. The new plan (2001) has revealed relationships between parts of the building that were not previously clear, as well as highlighting varying wall thicknesses and slight changes of alignment....

    • Chapter 8 After the Dissolution: Architectural History of the Parish Church, 1536–1844 (pp. 99-107)

      The Augustinian abbey was dissolved in 1536, and its properties appropriated by the Crown. The monastic buildings, excluding the church, were sold to Sir Edmund Ashfield of Ewelme (Oxon.) in 1544. The eastern arm of the church was purchased by Richard Beauforest for £140. In an act of great public spiritedness, Beauforest bequeathed his part of the church to the townspeople, who were already in possession of the nave. In so far as we know, SS Peter and Paul henceforth became the only parish church of Dorchester, and the fate of the other three to which Leland made reference is...

    • Chapter 9 Dorchester Abbey Restored, 1844–2007 (pp. 108-118)

      Four architects successively made their mark on Dorchester Abbey during the forty-year restoration (see also Chapter 5). Following a survey in 1844, work began on site in 1845 under James Cranston, a littleknown architect.¹ He was superseded in 1847 by William Butterfield, one of the most prominent architects of the mid-Victorian era, who was elected an honorary member of the Oxford Architectural Society in 1848. His involvement at Dorchester seems to have petered out in 1853–54,² followed by a hiatus until 1858, when (Sir) George Gilbert Scott was appointed, and he continued in office until the restoration reached semi-completion...

  6. Part 2 The Fabric and Fittings of the Church
    • Chapter 10 Chancel (pp. 119-131)

      Only the easternmost bay (no. 5) of the chancel is visible externally. The eastern corners are supported with pairs of clasping buttresses, entirely of ashlar (Figs 82 and 110). A chamfered plinth and a string-course at window sill level run around the walls and buttresses. The walling masonry up to string-course level is of well squared limestone rubble, neatly laid to courses. The east-facing buttress at the south-east corner projects less than the others, perhaps pointing to the need for access around a restricted corner, where the ground falls away to the flood plain.¹

      The central buttress is smaller in...

    • Chapter 11 North Chancel Aisle (St Birinus’s Chapel) (pp. 132-141)

      The wall is dominated by a large three-light window, with a string-course under the sill; below the window, the masonry is random rubble, including the plinth which is dressed with a plain chamfered course. Everything visibly abuts the Norman pilaster in the angle between the chancel and aisle. The east window has trefoiled heads to the outer main lights and a cinquefoiled head to the central one; above, are three circles containing cinquefoils in the tracery (Figs 126 and 127). All the cusping is pierced, and was renewed in the 19th century (Fig. 128).¹ Otherwise, the window is well preserved...

    • Chapter 12 South Chancel Aisle (Lady Chapel, Requiem Chapel and Shrine Chapel) (pp. 142-159)

      Externally, there are only four bay divisions: the short fifth bay found internally at the east end is not separately expressed, but is contiguous with bay 4. The bays are defined by tall slender buttresses, the tops of which are steeply gabled (Figs 144 and 145). The four windows are identical and are of the same basic design as those in the nave aisle, but there are slight differences in their execution, in the mouldings and cusping (Figs 146 and 181).¹ The walls of this aisle are of rubble with a hint of squaring, laid to courses. Unlike the south...

    • Chapter 13 Crossing and Transepts (pp. 160-162)

      Nothing is externally visible of the crossing, and there is no evidence to show whether it was ever surmounted by a tower. Parts of the transept walls survive (south and west) and these are described along with the aisles into which they have subsequently been integrated.

      (i) About one-third of the west wall of the north transept, including the Norman doorway, incorporated in the north chancel aisle, bay 1 (p. 137; Figs 56 and 136; Pl. 32).

      (ii) The complete west wall of the south transept, now preserved inside the 14th-century south nave aisle (p. 175; Pl. 38).

      (iii) The...

    • Chapter 14 Nave (pp. 163-172)

      The lower half of the north wall is now entirely enclosed within an oak-framed pentice (Cloister Gallery) which was erected in 2001 on the site of the former south cloister walk (Fig. 171). The new construction is in eight bays, with folding shutters along the north side and a door opening into the cloister garden from bay 1. The monopitched roof is stone tiled, and eaves level is likely to be close to that of the medieval cloister. The floor is paved with Yorkstone. The frames defining the bays stand slightly away from the nave wall, so that its masonry...

    • Chapter 15 South Nave Aisle and Porch (People’s Chapel) (pp. 173-189)

      The archaeology of the west wall is problematic, apart from the gable which is a 19th-century rebuild (Fig. 75). The masonry comprises flattish pieces of neatly squared rubble, laid to courses, and a few pieces of medieval roof tile are incorporated. Also, immediately above the plinth are some small, neatly squared blocks of a pale coloured limestone which are visually distinct from the remainder of the masonry. They are obviously reused, and are reminiscent of Romanopus quadratummasonry (Fig. 19).

      The wall contains a modest doorway and above it, but not quite axially aligned, is a large window, the...

    • Chapter 16 Tower (pp. 190-197)

      The west tower is square in plan and of three structural stages, plus a plinth and crenellated parapet (Figs 38, 45 and 204; Pls 1–3). The top of the tower bears the dated initials ‘I.W. 1602’.¹

      Three of the corners are clasped by octagonal buttresses which rise to the full height without off sets, and they are not crowned by turrets or pinnacles. The string-courses which define the stages are continuous around the buttresses, and there is a slight set-back in the face at each level. The south-east corner is different: it is square and unbuttressed and houses the...

    • Chapter 17 Churchyard and Abbey Guest House (pp. 198-204)

      The substantial churchyard lies entirely to the south of the church, where it sweeps round in a curvilinear plan and is largely defined by a low wall, except on the east where a wire fence and intermittent hedge follow the scarp of the floodplain of the river Thame.¹ There are two entrances: the lychgate on High Street to the west, and a small gate in the southern boundary opposite the church porch. The lychgate is a massively framed, oak structure with a tiled roof. Although 15th-century in style, the gate was designed by Scott and erected in 1867.² The inner...

    • Chapter 18 Architectural Fragments (pp. 205-206)

      Many architectural fragments were formerly displayed on timber racking in the south chancel aisle, and on one rack were four bays of the canopy vaulting belonging to the shrine of St Birinus.¹ When the shrine was reconstructed in 1964, the canopy fragments were built into it, and the other lapidary material was dispersed. In 2005, the abbey’s collection of loose architectural fragments was assembled in a lapidarium in the new Cloister Gallery (Pl. 46). An inventory of the stones has been compiled by David Kendrick.²

      Little is known about the origins and discovery of this material, except that the shrine...

  7. Appendix: Handlist of Archival Sources for Dorchester Abbey (pp. 207-209)
  8. Abbreviations (pp. 210-210)
  9. Bibliography (pp. 210-216)
  10. Index (pp. 217-220)
  11. Plates (pp. 221-224)


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