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.
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.
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.
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.