Printer Friendly

WEEKEND: ARCHIVE : A poignant reminiscence; Chris Upton discovers an eye witness account of the Reformation.

Byline: Chris Upton

The Reformation was one of the most dramatic events in English history. In the space of a few years in the mid-16th century the the religious habits of half a millennium were overturned, monasteries tumbled and the nation cut itself adrift from Catholic Europe.

But most of the books on the subject make the whole thing as dry as a debate in the House of Lords. They discuss transubstantiation, purgatory and Henry VIII's bank balance. What you need to bring history to life is a good eye-witness.

There is one such account - as far as I know the only one - that describes the moment that the Henrician Reformation came to an abbey near you.

Imagine evensong at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire, one January in the year 1539. The great building is in darkness except for the glimmering light of candles. In the choir a couple of dozen monks, dressed in black, are singing, and the music and shadows play on the stonework. And then, suddenly, the door of the church opens, the candles flicker, and the sound of stern footsteps fills the nave.

One of those monks was John Alcester. When all was done and dusted, and his abbey gone, John Alcester reassessed his theology and joined the other side. He became vicar of Hampton, a small parish on the edge of Evesham, and he was the proud owner of a first edition (1537) of the Bible in English, the one translated by John Rogers of Deritend. Here he scribbled comments in Latin and English, and on a page of the Second Book of Maccabees he wrote the following: "And the yere of our Lorde 1539 the monastery of Evesham was suppressed by Kyng Henry VIII, the xxxi yere of his raygne, the xxv day of Januarye at Evensong tyme, the covent beynge inthe quere, at the verse deposuit potentes, and wold not suffer them to make an ende. Phyllyp Ballard beyng abbot at that tyme, and xxxv relygius mene at that day alyve in the seyde monastery."

The Latin verse they were incanting - He put down the powerful - must have seemed strangely appropriate, but it was wishful thinking on their part to see any meaning in this. King Henry was not about to be put down by anyone.

By various hands the Evesham Bible was preserved and passed down, and eventually found its way into the Almonry Museum in the town, where it still lies, open at the page of John Alcester's poignant reminiscence.

The Almonry is a wonderful museum, full of the oddities of 500 years. Where else could you find an early mechancial sheep shearer cheek by jowl (literally) with the skull of an abbot? Or an illuminated psalter sharing space with a potato sieve? Its collection spills out into the garden too, where a Victorian grave cage (fixed over a burial to prevent resurrectionists snatching the body) finds itself the close neighbour of a portable weed-killer.

Most of all, however, the Almonry preserves (like a communal grave cage) the last mortal remains of the great Benedictine abbey that once stood nearby.

Appropriately so, since the Almonry was once the guest house of that monastery. Just outside the main gate to the abbey the almoner welcomed pilgrims, boarded the poor, lodged pupils from the grammar school, and distributed bread, beer and broth to the deserving. He had charge of the monks' vegetable garden to ensure enough greens for the ever-boiling pot.

And when the Dissolution came, and Evesham had no more need of almoners and monks, the last abbot - Philip Ballard - moved in to the old Almonry, to spend the pension of pounds 240 a year that the King had given him, and to watch from his window as the mighty church was torn down.

So what survives of what was once the fourth richest abbey in England? First there is the magnificent bell-tower, which stood to the north of the church. The last but one abbot - Clement Lichfield - had it built only a few years before his monastery was closed, but wisely erected it separate from the abbey. It still plays tunes asif the Reformation had never happened.

Near the bell-tower stands the Gothic archway that once led from the abbey cloister towards the chapter house. The walk today is down to the gardens beside the River Avon, and to the pools which once provided the monks with fish suppers.

Then there is the beautifully carved marble lectern, probably from the same chapter house, which lay buried in a Evesham garden for two centuries before coming to light. It now does the job it was designed for at Norton in St Egwin's church.

But it is that room at the Almonry, where the Evesham Bible lies open, that you get a real sense of that lost world of the Benedictines. Here are collected the carved stones, scattered vessels and fragments of manuscripts that constituted the life of a monastery. There are even a few remains of the abbots themselves.

But finest of all, there is the abbot's chair itself, a throne of carved oak from the 14th Century, which could happily have accommodated two abbots sitting side by side, had such been the arrangement. Sullenly empty it sits by the fireplace, as if waiting for someone broad enough to fill it. And above the fireplace are carvings commissioned by Prior Lichfield to commemorate the wedding of Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Katherine of Aragon - Tudor roses and the pomegranate of Granada.

How the old abbot must have wished that marriage had turned out better


The magnificent bell tower of Evesham Abbey; The last abbot - Philip Ballard - moved in to the old Almonry
COPYRIGHT 2005 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 12, 2005
Previous Article:WEEKEND: ANTIQUES & COLLECTING : For every bear that ever there was.
Next Article:WEEKEND: ARCHIVE : The dire threat to the talking book service; This week saw the 70th anniversary of the talking book service, but its future hangs...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters