Favourites on Friday - The Abbey And The Warring Roses

Ventured forth last weekend on my second outing this year, this time to the historic town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.  Such a pretty place, with its many Tudor buildings and narrow alleyways enhancing its medieval character.  It’s positioned where the rivers Severn and Avon meet, and the surrounding area, which is prone to flooding, prevents expansion of the old town.  This means its long profile has changed little since the Middle Ages.

Tewkesbury’s most notable building is, without a doubt, the 12th century abbey, a former enedictine monastery.  More commonly known as Tewkesbury Abbey, its actual name is the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin.  The abbey was founded in 1092 by Robert Fitzhamon, a cousin of William the Conqueror who had given him the manor of Tewkesbury.  The actual building of the abbey only commenced in 1102, with stone imported from Normandy, and styled in the manner of Norman architecture.

After Robert Fitzhamon’s death in 1105, caused by wounds received at Falaise in Normandy, building of the abbey was continued by his son-in-law, Robert FitzRoy, Henry I’s illegitimate son, whom he had recognised and made Earl of Gloucester.  Later, the Abbey’s greatest patron was Lady Eleanor le Despenser, the last of the de Clare heirs of FitzRoy.  I must admit to getting seriously side-tracked when I read that fact – de Clare was the name of William Marshal's wife, Isabelle de Clare.  So, of course, I then had to work out how they were all related.  Excuse me while I indulge my inner geek again …

Starting with Robert FitzRoy (son of Henry I and grandson of William the Conqueror) – his granddaughter, Amice FitzWilliam Countess of Gloucester, married Richard de Clare the 6th Earl of Clare ...

Their son, Gilbert de Clare (7th Earl of Clare, 4th Earl of Hertford), married Isabel Marshal (daughter of William Marshal and Isabelle de Clare) ...

... whose grandson, Gilbert (9th Earl of Clare), married Joan of Acre (daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile) ...

... they had Eleanor, mentioned above, who married Hugh Despenser the Younger.

Hugh Despenser the Younger, a close favourite of Edward II, fell foul of Edward's wife, Isabella, and the Marcher Lord Roger Mortimer - they had him quartered, hanged and beheaded.

Incidentally, Eleanor le Despenser could trace her lineage back to William the Conqueror through both her parents.  Phew!!  It would certainly make life a lot easier if they did not use the same first names!

The abbey was my main reason for visiting.  Apart from being the second largest parish church in the country, it also overlooks the site of one of the decisive battles in the Wars of the Roses.  Although the Wars officially ended in 1487, the battle at Tewkesbury, which took place h May 1471, was one of the last that was genuinely York against Lancaster.  The powerful Yorkist, Earl of Warwick, the 'Kingmaker', had switched sides, turning against Edward IV.  He made a deal with Henry VI’s queen, the exiled Margaret of Anjou, and helped return the Lancastrian Henry VI to the throne; Margaret, and their son, Edward, were still across the Channel.  But by the time Margaret and Edward landed at Weymouth, Edward IV was back with a vengeance.  He faced Warwick’s forces at Barnet on 1h pril, and Warwick was killed.

Margaret gathered her troops and journeyed on to meet her ally, Jasper Tudor, who was raising an army in Wales.  But they were separated by the river Severn.  Her way blocked by Yorkists, Margaret turned to Tewkesbury.  By the time her men reached the town on 3rd May, they were exhausted for the weather was unexpectedly hot.  The battle was fought the next day … the terrain was described by a chronicler as “… evil lanes and deep dykes, so many hedges, trees and bushes, that it was hard … to come to hand.”  Having taken refuge in the abbey, Margaret climbed to the top of the tower, only to witness the devastating defeat of her army.  Her son, Edward, was killed.

It is said that the defeated Lancastrians fled into the abbey, claiming sanctuary, but Edward IV and his brothers, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard of Gloucester, pursued the men and killed them.  Apparently, there was so much killing, the church had to be re-consecrated.  The Lancastrian leaders were tried and executed in the marketplace, and buried under what is now the abbey shop.  Henry VI died on 21st May, and Margaret was ransomed back to France.  Their son, Edward, was buried in the abbey where a plaque commemorates him; there was an orchestra preparing for a performance, so I couldn’t see the plaque.  The plaque is actually placed directly under the ‘Sun in Splendour’ emblem, which represents the victorious Edward IV and his brothers … I wonder if that was done deliberately.

The abbey survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.  Insisting that it was their parish church, which they had a right to keep, the people of Tewkesbury bought it from the Crown for £453.  Here endeth the history lesson … 

The pillars are huge!

The Milton Organ, built in 1631, originally for Magdalen College, Oxford; sold to the Abbey in 1736

The 'Sun in Splendour' emblem

After the abbey, went for a walk down to the Severn Ham – the word ‘ham’ derives from the Saxon word ‘ham’ or ‘hamm’, which means ‘meadow in the bend of a river’, or ‘flood plain’.  Walked past the Abbey Mill, which rests on the Mill Avon, a channel built by the monks.

Severn Ham

Even though it was busy in the town because it was market day, I still felt relaxed.  Had lunch in a pretty little café …

One thing Tewkesbury does not do well, and I think that it’s true of most small towns – taxis.  It was a joke trying to get one.  Would have quite happily walked to the hotel but it wasn’t conveniently located.  They must assume that everyone who visits must come in a car.

Back into town the next day for a late lunch … The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm – I felt overdressed in my winter coat.  Walking around the town afterwards, I was struck by its peaceful and even more relaxed atmosphere; would have quite happily spent the day just walking around, exploring each little alleyway … But there was a train to be caught, so had to leave mid-afternoon.

Decorated cake in a cake shop - looks too good to eat!

A most beautiful weekend, in many ways … definitely recharged my batteries, ready to face more of the same-old-same-old …