Friday, June 15, 2018

Gloucester Cathedral & the Æthelflæd Connection

By Annie Whitehead

Approach Gloucester Cathedral and the first thing you'll see, long before the building itself, is the beautiful tower.

This place was not originally a cathedral, however, but was a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to St Peter. In 1072, William I appointed as its abbot a Norman named Serlo, and the Domesday survey of 1086 shows that Serlo did a remarkable job of increasing the abbey's fortunes, doubling the value of its pre-Conquest assets. Flushed with success, Serlo built a new abbey in the Romanesque style, and sustained growth in income enabled the building programme to continue over the centuries.

In the thirteenth century a large central tower, the Lady Chapel, and the refectory were added, and in the fourteenth century, funds arising from devotion to King Edward II allowed for further remodelling, while in the fifteenth, the Norman west end was knocked down and rebuilt. The sixteenth century heralded a change in fortunes for the abbey, in the form of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries.

The Lady Chapel
Gloucester abbey was dissolved in 1540 and the building was re-designated as a cathedral in September 1541.

The eleventh-century Norman crypt can be visited (by arranged tour only) as can the tower. But a visit to the main cathedral brings rewards aplenty and shows the building's royal connections.

A foundation charter, which may or may not be authentic, shows King Osric of the Hwicce (by this time a sub-kingdom of Mercia) as the founder of the abbey:
Æthelred, king of Mercia, [Penda's son] to Osric and Oswald, his noble ministri; grant of 300 hides (tributarii) at Gloucester, Gloucs., to Osric, and 300 hides (cassati) at Pershore, Worcs., to Oswald; Osric's part being used by him for the foundation of a minster at Gloucester. [1]
There is a rather impressive effigy of Osric in the cathedral:

The royal connections don't stop there, however. In the south ambulatory is a wooden effigy of Robert Curthose, [2] Duke of Normandy and the eldest son of William I. Eldest son of a king he may have been, but he was never King Robert, because he was imprisoned by his brother, Henry I, in 1106, having been captured after the battle of Tinchebray. He died at the age of eighty, in captivity at Cardiff Castle, but was buried in Gloucester. I have to say, though, that he looks rather relaxed here! (The crossed-legged effigy may denote the fact that he had been on Crusade.)

You'll recall that I mentioned money amassed from devotion to Edward II. I'm aware of the theory that Edward was not murdered, or even that he died at all at Berkeley Castle, but fled abroad. However, the official version of events is that he died at Berkeley, perhaps suffocated, in 1327 and that his body was brought to Gloucester where it lay in the nave to allow visitors to see it.

After a state funeral, attended by his widow and his son, the king's body was buried on the north side of the presbytery and in 1329 that son, Edward III, commissioned a tomb for his father, built by London stone masons working with alabaster and Purbeck marble.

There are recent connections to the monarchy, too. On display in the cathedral is the processional cross used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953:

As you might expect, the architecture of this building is almost an artwork in itself. The cathedral cloister famously has fan vaulting above all of its four walks. It dates from the fourteenth century and replaced the original Norman cloister.

The stained glass windows are a sight to behold. One of them is the second largest, in terms of area of glass, in any church in Britain. It dates from the fourteenth century and the quire had to be widened to accommodate it.

But this is no historical monument, to be merely preserved and revered. It is a 'working church' and during the entire length of my visit, the organist was rehearsing for Evensong. At around 4pm, the local school disgorged its pupils, many of whom headed straight over to the cathedral for choir practice. One of the guides I spoke to told me that Gloucester is able to boast not just a boys' choir, but a girls' choir too.

At the time of my visit, the whole of this area was gearing up for the celebrations to mark the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, on June 12th. While I was in the vicinity, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit the spot where she and her husband were buried.

At first, it might be easy to assume that she was buried in the cathedral. We know that she was buried in the church of St Peter, and that the cathedral was dedicated to St Peter. In fact, in order to visit and pay my respects, I had to take a short walk from the cathedral close to what remains of St Oswald's Priory.

This priory was originally dedicated to St Peter, but had its name changed to St Oswald's after Æthelflæd arranged to have the bones of St Oswald (King Oswald of Northumbria, slain in battle by the Mercian pagan king, Penda) translated* from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. A short walk from the cathedral close, the remains of St Oswald's Priory is now a simple stretch of wall, jutting up incongruously on an island surrounded by roads full of traffic. Having reached this spot, it was an emotional moment for me, having written so much about her in fiction and non-fiction. I've often repeated my daughter's comment about me, that I regularly stand around in fields, getting emotional. This much is true. But here was something different again, as I stood as close as I'll ever get to the woman who has taken up so much of my writing life.

Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals. Some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. And yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Danish 'Viking' invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too. A formidable woman indeed.

Back in the cathedral close, a short hop through an archway brings the visitor face to face with a completely different kind of history, for here is the shop where the author and artist Beatrix Potter imagined that her little mouse, the Tailor of Gloucester, had his premises.

From the magnificence of the stained glass windows, to the simplicity of the remains of St Oswald's priory, to the delight of finding the shop where the little mouse sewed, this was a joyous visit, made all the more special by being able to connect to closely with the woman whose place in history was celebrated in this, the 1100th year since her death, on June 12.

[1] Charter S 70 from the Gloucester archive, 671 for 679
[2] Curthose = from the Norman French courtheuse, meaning 'short stockings'.

All photographs by and copyright of the author.

* Translated - the movement of saints' relics


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom will be published by Amberley in September 2018.

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  1. Thankyou for the interesting,informative "tour" about one of my favorite ladies.

  2. There is, in Gloucester Cathedral, a delightful chantry chapel which commemorates the cathedral's musicians - the stalwarts Howells, Sumsion and Brewer have windows to one side; the great Samuel Sebastian Wesley over the altar and (I think) brilliant Ivor Gurney has a memorial just nearby. For anyone visiting, its is well worth seeking out!

  3. Thank you for a post that had me spellbound, I was born and raised in England (but have lived in Australia since 1951) and prided myself on my knowledge of English history.
    Trouble is, I actually only started at the Plantagenets and stop in the mid 20th century; now well into my 80's I wonder 'What more have I missed?'

    1. Thank you Brian, I'm glad you enjoyed it. In answer to your question I would say you have missed all the wonderful stories from before the Norman Conquest, but since that is my area of special interest, I'm perhaps a little biased!

  4. To be a little pedantic and hopefully bring something of value to this excellent article,I would like to clarify the early days.

    It is thought that the first religious establishment on this site nestled in the "north west corner of the walls of the old Roman town of Gloucester".
    This was Oswald's minster, an Abbey led by his sister Kyneburga. Following the turbulant times of the Vikings this site was occupied by secular priests after which there was the establishment of the Benedictine monestary of St Peter. This as you said was enhanced by Serlo.

    So we guides say this has been a religious site since Osric placed Kyneburga there in ad679

    1. Thanks for this additional information Richard. Kyneburga, or more usually Cyneburh, is often confused with the wife of Oswald of Northumbria but she would hardly have founded an abbey in the kingdom of her husband's enemies. The foundress of the abbey was, as you say, and according to the foundation charter, Cyneburh sister of the king of the Hwicce :-)


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