A hidden gem without

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Kirkstead Abbey remains

Whilst in Lincolnshire recently, we visited Kirkstead Abbey, near the village of Woodhall Spa. All that remains of the former Cistercian abbey is a great crag of masonry, standing forlornly in the middle of a farmer’s field.

England was once dotted with many such monasteries, the result of 1000 years of the monastic tradition, and they played an important part in the life of the surrounding communities. It was of course King Henry VIII who, assisted by Thomas Cromwell, dissolved the lot in the 1530s, pensioning off the monks, killing the awkward ones (including some from Kirkstead), taking the riches and the tithes that had gone to the pope, effectively vandalising the buildings and giving the land to his mates. It was of course all about money and power – removing the influence of the Pope and monks, and transferring it to Henry and his cronies.

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St Leonard’s Without

Follow the unmade road across the field past the lonely crag, and you come to the little church of St Leonard’s Without, nestling among trees, now well and truly ‘out in the sticks’. This was once part of the Abbey building complex, but lay outside the walls, being used for services with the surrounding lay community – hence the ‘Without’. Presumably that is why the little church survived, as the local parish church.

Being isolated, the church is usually kept locked, a sign of the times, but happenstance sometimes comes along at just the right moment – more satisfyingly viewed as synchronicity. As we walked up to the church gate, a car drew up. It was the local vicar returning books. He was delighted to give us an impromptu tour of the interior. It really is one of those special little churches with a feeling of great reverence and peace.

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Interior of St Leonard’s Without

Although built slightly later (13C) than the abbey (12C), its architecture gives a very good idea of what parts of the abbey would have looked like, and parts of the wooden rood screen are said to be original 13C.

Overall, a good and extremely compact example of Cistercian simplicity, which for me resulted in some of the supreme achievements of European architecture.

If you’re interested in visiting, go to the sharp bend in Abbey Road in Woodhall Spa. A sign offering loan of a key from a nearby dwelling suggests that you may not have to rely on synchronicity to gain entrance to the church.

A sad dissolution

A glance through history shows that there are major turning points apparently triggered by key individuals. The establishment of the Church of England, and the wrenching of religious power from the popes in Rome, all at the behest of King Henry VIII, was one such point. Part of this process involved the gradual dissolution of the catholic monasteries, both to remove this alternative source of power to the King, and to gain for Henry the riches accumulated by these institutions over the centuries. Wikipedia tells us that at the start of the dissolution in 1536, there were over 850 monasteries/nunneries/friaries in England; by 1541 there were none.

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Glastonbury Abbey today

This was brought to mind as we visited Glastonbury Abbey, which was at that time perhaps the richest and most powerful of all the monasteries. The abbey controlled large tracts of surrounding land and was instrumental in major drainage projects on the Somerset Levels.

Led by Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell, the dissolution process had begun with the smaller institutions and gradually extended its scope. In September 1539, Glastonbury Abbey was visited without warning by Cromwell’s commissioners. Investigations proceeded and eventually it was determined that the Abbot Richard Whiting, who had resisted the dissolution, was a traitor – an impartial observer might say this was on trumped up charges. On November 15, Whiting was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called Glastonbury Tor, where he was hanged and quartered – a particularly unpleasant and ghoulish way to die. Thus did the infamous Henry impose his will, through the agency of the equally infamous Cromwell.

Anything of value was removed from the Abbey and its lands went to the Crown or Henry’s favourite nobles. The Abbey remains as a set of evocative ruins. As you walk through them, the sheer size of the edifice becomes apparent – on a par with the major cathedrals of Europe – destroyed on whim. The titanic nature of Henry’s struggles with the pope and his own citizens becomes clear. The ego of the absolute monarch would impose any price to get just what he wanted.

Tyrants since then have followed the same sort of formula, always with willing henchmen such as the hapless Cromwell, who himself soon proved expendable. This is why formal constitutions and the ideal of democracy and the rule of law have proved to be so important. The scary thing about the UK is that it does not have a written constitution, such as in the USA, so the checks and balances are left to an establishment that could, in theory, become dominated by a charismatic individual (there are many examples in history) who decided to do just what the hell he liked.

But then, it remains to be seen whether the US can handle Donald Trump…