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Tewkesbury lies at the confluence of the Warwickshire Avon and the River Severn. In ancient times when many journeys were made by boat, it became an important junction and a town grew up there. Tewkesbury was in the Kingdom of Mercia in Saxon times. When Mercia converted to Christianity (655 AD) people put up a cross in their town or village and held services around the cross until they were able to get a church built to replace it. A Holy hermit called Theoc held services at the cross in Tewkesbury, so they called the place Theocsbury, which has become corrupted to Tewkesbury.
That cross was replaced by a Benedictine Abbey in 715, but that was attacked by the Danes and fell into disuse. It was replaced by a Norman Benedictine Abbey that was founded by Robert FitzHamon in 1087, and was consecrated in 1121. FitzHamon was married to William the Conqueror's niece. He helped the Conqueror and his son William Rufus, and was given the Manor of Tewkesbury as a reward. The oldest parts of the church are Norman, but a chapel was built onto the north side of it in the Early English style of architecture in 1237. The Nave of that chapel was used as a Lady Chapel by the townspeople, and the Prior used the Chancel of it as a private chapel. Today it is used as the choir vestry.
The major changes occurred in the Decorated period of architecture. Hugh Despenser, Lord of the Manor of Tewkesbury, decided to create a mausoleum around the high altar, where his family could be buried. However, he had a homosexual affair with King Edward II and was murdered in 1326 because of it, before he could put his plans into action. His widow and his son decided to carry out Hugh's intentions, which were done between 1330 and 1345. The glass in the Chancel windows dates from 1335 and is renowned as 14th century work. At the same time the monks asked them to replace the wooden ceilings by stone vaulting because of the fire hazard. Lierne vaulting was used with three ribs running the length of the Nave. This is almost unique, and it has bosses showing the life of Christ on the middle rib, and angels carrying musical instruments on the other two ribs. The priests asked them to replace the small Norman windows by large decorated ones in order to allow in more light. In addition, the Abbot asked them to provide more altars. The monks were only allowed to say mass at an altar once a day, but they had more masses to say and hence needed more altars. The Lady Eleanor and her son added a chevet of chapels around the east end of the church to provide the altars that were required. The most easterly of these chapels was made a Lady Chapel for the monks' use.
In early Christian times, the monks had advised the nobility that they must build either a cathedral or an abbey, or they would never get to Heaven. That was how they got those buildings built. After the Black Death (1348) the monks did not need any more monasteries, as they could not fill the ones that they had, so they said that all that was needed now to get to Heaven was to build a chapel inside an existing church. Prayers were chanted in these chapels, so they were called chantry chapels. There are three in Tewkesbury Abbey, all built in the perpendicular style of architecture. This style was introduced after the Black Death as it was less labour intensive, and there were now fewer masons to do the work. One of the chantry chapels is called the Trinity chapel, and a figure of Lord Edward Despenser kneeling in prayer has been placed on top of it.
The battle of Tewkesbury in the Wars of the Roses occurred on 4th May 1471. The Yorkists were successful and Lancastrian noblemen fled into the Abbey for sanctuary. The Yorkists followed them in and slew many of them in the church. The monks went onto the battlefield afterwards and brought back armour, which they nailed to the inside of the vestry door to make it a strong room. It is still there today, but the public can only see a photograph on the outside of the door as the vestry is private. Prince Edward, son of Henry VI, who fought on the Lancastrian side, was killed and is buried in the Abbey. Other Royalty buried in the Abbey are King Edward I's grandchildren, and George, Duke of Clarence and his wife. George was Edward IV's brother. In addition to Royalty there are the tombs of great noble families, the de Clares, the Despensers, and the Beauchamps. A tomb intended for Sir Guy de Brien is also there, but it is empty as he died while he was on his estate at Slapton in Devon, and he is buried there.
Henry VIII became head of the Church of England in 1534 and ordered all relics to be destroyed and all Lady Chapels to be pulled down, so the two at Tewkesbury no longer exist. Henry VIII closed the monastery at Tewkesbury on 9th January 1540, but the townspeople bought the church from him for £453-5s-2½d, so it was saved. The monastic buildings were closed and the townspeople reused the stones. The Victorians cleared the ruins and laid lawns, so there is nothing left of the monastic buildings today.
The principal organ dates from 1631, though it did not come to the Abbey until 1736. The poet Milton is said to have played it, so it is called the Milton organ. It was not loud enough for the Victorians, so they had the Grove organ installed. The Milton organ has now been increased in size and that is used for the services today, while the Grove organ is kept for some recitals. Tewkesbury Abbey is now a Parish Church, and it is the only one in the country that has two four-manual organs, both working.
The Norman tower is the largest in the country. There are seventeen bells in the tower. Four are on the clock, 12 are in the peal, and a flat sixth enables eight lighter ones to be used alone.
Details of services can be obtained from the Abbey Office on 01684 850959, or from the website.
There are many interesting old things in Tewkesbury. These include medieval cottages and ancient alleys. The old buildings include the Abbey Mill, that is now being converted into flats, the Royal Hop Pole Hotel of Dickensian fame, the Tudor House Hotel, and the Bell Hotel. The original building on the latter site housed guests and pilgrims to the Abbey. King John's bridge led to the Manor House, that the king used when he was a Prince while he was Lord of the Manor of Tewkesbury. Holme Castle was the Manor House of some of the Lords of the Manor, but King Stephen's men destroyed the original castle in 1139 and only a memorial marker remains today.