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Once upon a time there were three abbeys in Oxford: Godstow, Osney, and Rewley. Along came King Henry VIII. Then there were none.

All that remains of Rewley Abbey (founded by Cistercian monks at the end of the thirteenth century) is a segment of the precinct wall, and an arch, easily missed as you walk down the side of Castle Mill Stream, across from the canal.

Godstow

The evidence for nearby Osney (an Augustinian priory, upgraded to abbey status in 1154) is even harder to pick out, which is quite simply astonishing given that it was once the biggest building in Oxford, over three hundred feet in length, bigger even than the castle, and described by one medieval visitor as ‘a most beautiful and large fabric, second to none in the kingdom … Not only the envy of other religious houses, but of most beyond the sea’. As the train from London chugs its final furlongs over the river and into the station all you can now espy through the carriage window to your left is a vast graveyard.

Godstow is different. A piece of the nunnery chapel (much patched-up and much photographed) still stands alongside the river. You can still discern the ruined outline of the abbey walls, follow the ripples of the earthworks below, and trace its extent as far as the stream which comes down from Binsey. Nine hundred years ago, this would have flowed on and into the Thames, and the sacred land upon which the abbey was built would have been encircled by water.

Godstow

And on a moonlit night, with only the sound of the lapping river and the occasional owl hoot to disturb the silence, you can perhaps conjure up the memory of Godstow Abbey’s most famous resident – Rosamund the Fair.

Oxford was one of King Henry II’s favourite places. He granted it special privileges under a Royal Charter, and he visited often. Indeed, two of his sons, Richard (1157) and John (1166), were born here. When not attending to affairs of state he loved nothing better than to hunt in the surrounding countryside. Deer were not the King’s only quarry, for he found himself smitten by a famous beauty, Rosamund de Clifford, whom he pursued with equal ardour and dedication. Legend has it that their romancing was conducted in the grounds of Woodstock (now Blenheim) Palace, in leafy bowers beside a bubbling spring, known to this day as Rosamund’s Well.

Godstow

Henry’s formidable wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, quickly tired of her husband’s infatuation. She insisted that the dalliance cease and demanded that his young mistress be removed forthwith to a nunnery. Godstow had been built (1133) at a safe, chaste distance beyond Oxford’s city walls. Rosamund was duly despatched to live among its community of Benedictine nuns. And it was here that she died, shortly afterwards and in mysterious circumstances (poisoning is suspected). Her only crime was to be too beautiful. Her only mistake was to catch the attention of a famously hot-blooded king.

Six royal Henrys later, another king despatched his commissioners to the site – this time bent not on romance but on destruction. For Henry VIII had commanded the dissolution of all the monastic houses in the land – and his avaricious eyes were set on abbeys in particular.

The roofs of Godstow, Rewley and Osney were unceremoniously stripped of lead, their stained glass removed, their shrines dismantled, their treasures looted. By 1539 their dismal fate had been secured. Oxford’s smaller monastic houses, comprising Austin Friars, Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites, were closed almost overnight. So too the exclusively monastic colleges – Gloucester, Durham, Canterbury, St Bernard’s and St Mary’s, whose memories now survive only in street names.

What remained of Godstow Abbey was turned into a private house, but it did not survive the Civil War which broke out a century later. A fire in 1645 caused irreparable damage. The site was abandoned, and its stones were carted away for local building work.

Godstow was returned to silence, its convent lawns reclaimed by ox-eye daisies, meadow buttercups, yarrow and vetch. Wildflowers now adorn the ruined outline of the abbey precincts and cows gently ruminate where once nuns prayed in quiet seclusion. Dreaming couples saunter together, hand in hand, along the riverbank. Close by, Rosamund the Fair lies at last in peace.

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White Teeth: not just a Zadie Smith novel it would seem, but a postscript to the Godstow story c/o Graham Halliday.

Fair Rosamund was indeed buried in the Benedictine nunnery of Godstow, as you note in the most recent Morris Oxford posting. What you don’t mention is that the mournful King Henry II subsequently showered money on the convent, and her grave rapidly became a shrine. Fifteen years after Rosamund’s death, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln made an episcopal visit to the site (1191) and was horrified to see evidence of what he regarded as idolatry. He ordered that the shrine be moved from its position near the high altar to a different location – presumably to the cemetery in the precinct grounds. The grave was much diminished in the process of transition and, after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, it disappeared from view.

There is an intriguing, hand-written note by the diarist John Aubrey, inside his copy of Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire(1677) now in the Bodleian library. It states that ‘not long since, her grave was digged, where some of her bones were found, and her Teeth so white (as ye dwellers there report) that the beholders did much wonder at them.’ – GH

Nick Wright came across this photograph of a sketch, which shows how much of Godstow remained intact a century ago.

In the course of my researches into Champs Chapel, East Hendred – an enigmatic fifteenth-century building with a floor in its west end – I explored other buildings with a similar layout. The closest similar building is the chapel at Godstow Nunnery. The building now has neither floor nor roof, but joist holes in the wall and a doorway at the upper level show that there was once a first-floor room at the west end. We can get some idea of what the chapel formerly looked like from a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrations, including several by Samuel Grimm. Perhaps the most interesting is a drawing made by Elizabeth Wigram in 1890, based on a sketch of the interior of the chapel made by her father, William Dalby, in 1809. It shows the interior of the chapel with roof still in place, and some remains of the western first-floor room intact. Elizabeth’s drawing was photographed in 1904 by great Oxford photographer, Henry Taunt in 1904. A copy of Taunt’s photograph is in the collection of the Oxfordshire History Centre (HWT 12570). – NW

Once more we have Stephanie Jenkins to thank for adding a couple of important details to the recent story about Godstow and the Dissolution.

The disappearance of Osney Abbey is indeed remarkable. There is, however, one bit of masonry that remains. It’s in what is now Mill Street (photograph attached). I see that the remains are Grade II listed. The listing mentions another structure relating to the abbey that I have never seen: I don’t think you can get into it:

MILL STREET 1. 1485 (South End) Osney Abbey SP 50 NW 24/65 12.1.54. II 2. The Augustinian Priory was founded 1129. All the buildings have been destroyed except a rubble and timber-framed structure which may be Cl5 in date; it has a queenpost roof (?C16) and a blocked 2-light window. Joined to it by a wall on the North-East is a stone C15 archway with a 4-centred head and moulded jambs. There is a commemorative plaque to Haggai of Oxford, martyred in 1222.SJ

Liz Woolley adds some fascinating detail.

Just to say that the building Stephanie Jenkins refers to in her feedback to your Godstow Story about Osney Mill is actually in the picture – it is the one behind and to the left of the arch, with a salmon-coloured rendered end wall and a steeply-pitched slated roof. It has an impressive queen-post roof (photo attached, taken when I visited in 2013):

It and the adjacent arch are on the Osney Mill site at the end of Mill Street, and it was restored in 2012/3 as part of the Munsey family’s development of the mill for housing. You can hire it for events (or at least you used to be able to). This photo is from 2010, before restoration:

And there’s a Taunt picture of it in 1911 on the OCC Picture Oxon Website here.

It is thought to have been a service building of some kind, like a kitchen. It certainly is a remarkable survival. – LW

There was one other very significant remnant from Osney Abbey. Judith Curthoys, Archivist of Christ Church, takes up the story.

Osney Abbey may long since have disappeared; but the people of Oxford have a permanent reminder of it in our midst. Whereas the fabric of the building was left to rot and ruin, its giant bell was rescued and taken away to be used in Henry VIII’s new religious showcase – Christ Church, from where I now write.

The loudest and heaviest bell in Oxford (weighing over six tons) it was eventually (after various recastings) winched up into Tom Tower. It still rings out to sound the historic student curfew every evening at five past nine – 101 times, in memory of the original hundred scholars of Christ Church plus another added in 1663.

I have written about it in The Cardinal’s College (2012) an extract from which (pp.133-35) may be of interest:

In 1546, the chief carpenter, John Wesburn, was given the awesome responsibility of taking down the bells of Osney Abbey and reinstalling them in the tower of the newly-designated cathedral. The eight bells – Hautclere, Douce, Clement, Austin, Marie, Gabriel, and John, and the largest of them all, Great Tom – were carted through St Thomas’s parish into the city by Mr Willoughby of Eynsham who was paid twenty shillings for his trouble. No doubt they rang at the foundation feast, and then for the accessions of Edward VI and his half-sister, Mary. For a short while, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Tom was re-christened by William Tresham in honour of the new monarch.

The bells were much used, marking not just services and celebrations, but the daily timetable. New bell wheels were needed as soon as 1583, and there were frequent payments for clappers and baldricks. Although there is no evidence for the beginning of the ringing of the bell one hundred times each evening, representing the original number of Students on the foundation, there is no reason to doubt that it started soon after 1546. But Tom, no longer Mary, was not a happy bell. It was recast in 1612, possibly to rid it of a ‘papist’ inscription, but something was evidently not quite right so, in 1654, Michael Darby of Whitechapel, who had worked on the bells at both Merton and New Colleges, was called in to do a second recasting. Darby’s work was less than satisfactory; the Merton bells were recast by another London founder, Christopher Hodson, but Christ Church tried a local man, Richard Keene of Woodstock, to bring Tom up to scratch. The work was done on-site at Christ Church, but after three unsuccessful attempts, the Dean and Chapter turned to Hodson, not just to recast Tom but also to make new bells.

In October 1680, ten bells were re-hung in the cathedral tower, with Tom set aside for a new home. The recasting coincided with Fell’s decision to build the new tower at the Great Gate. The bell was installed and was ready by May 1684 to ring out in celebration of the anniversary of the Restoration.

Over the years, the ringing of Great Tom has become synonymous with great events. A regular muffled toll was heard after the two minute silence every Armistice Day until the outbreak of World War II. Then, after a six year silence, along with bells across the nation, Tom celebrated the end of the war on VE Day. He has tolled, with the clapper muffled, on the occasions of royal and decanal funerals. When Edward VIII died, in 1910, and again in 1936 and 1952, on the deaths of George V and George VI, Tom was rung for half an hour at half-minute intervals. It would have been a difficult thing to do; the normal toll, once every four or five seconds would have been reasonably easy once started, but for a thirty-second toll it would have been necessary to start the swing for every strike. In 1984, the bell was rung 300 times on its own anniversary.

We couldn’t resist featuring this close-up of Great Tom in action, clapper muffled in deference to the late Duke of Edinburgh.
Sheila Ottway, a former tutor in architectural and garden history at Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education, has contributed a floral note to the Godstow story:

I lived in Oxford between 1998 and 2015, during which time I frequently enjoyed walking across Port Meadow and along the Thames Path to Godstow. I was interested to discover that one of the wild plants growing amidst the abbey ruins at Godstow was Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis). This medicinal herb, with its distinctive bright yellow flowers, was, in earlier centuries, used to aid women in childbirth. I presume the plants visible at Godstow today ‘escaped’ from the herb garden of the former abbey.

As a member of what is now the Oxfordshire Flora Group, I took on the task, between 2003 and 2013, of monitoring the occurrence of Birthwort at Godstow. During that period, I visited two or three times every summer to get an idea of how well the plant was doing. I observed that shoots of Birthwort came up every year in the same general area around the abbey ruins, often among hawthorn bushes and nettles. In some years there was a profusion of shoots bearing flowers for several weeks during the summer.

Birthwort seems to have had a close association with Oxford. The poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) wrote a long didactic poem in Latin, entitled Plantarum libri sex (‘Six Books of Plants’) published in 1668. In one passage the poet imagines a meeting held on a moonlit night in Oxford’s Botanic Garden (then known as the Physic Garden). “The meeting takes the form of a debate held by a council of medicinal plants, its purpose being to decide which among them is the most effective in terms of its medicinal properties. Birthwort argues eloquently for her own pre-eminence, but the debate is interrupted at the crack of dawn by the intrusion of a human being, namely the gardener.

We know that Birthwort was already growing in the Physic Garden in the seventeenth century, as it is listed in each of the three catalogues of plants compiled in 1648, 1658 and 1676. Perhaps Abraham Cowley was inspired to write his poem after visiting the Physic Garden? Perhaps he also enjoyed the occasional walk from Oxford to Godstow? There he may well have seen Birthwort growing – where it is still to be found to this day. – SO

Catherine Robinson takes the story further:

Sheila Ottway’s feedback is very interesting, but it fails to answer the question that occurred to me and a friend when we discovered Birthwort growing in a secluded corner of the ruined abbey at Godstow several years ago. It seemed strange to find an uncommon plant with abortifacient properties growing on the site of a medieval nunnery – but then again perhaps not, given the rumours of scandalous goings-on there that still survive in the neighbourhood today. According to The Encyclopaedia of Oxford (ed. Christopher Hibbert), “… it was said by Oxford scholars that they could have ‘all kinds of good cheer with the nuns to their hearts’ desire’.” On the other hand, there could be an innocent explanation: Birthwort was also used in the past to induce labour; and, when taken after childbirth, to prevent infection. Perhaps the nuns grew it in their herb garden for the benefit of local midwives? Or perhaps it was introduced for similar purposes by George Owen, the King’s Physician, who (according to Hibbert) came to live in part of the nunnery after the Dissolution of the Monasteries? Anyone tempted to go looking for it at Godstow should be warned that it is highly toxic: it can cause kidney failure and is now thought to be carcinogenic.– CR

We shall look into these theories. Meanwhile, is this the most charmingly fatuous blue plaque in Oxford?
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