How the Abbey Came to Be (and then Not Be)

One of the most frequently asked questions here at the Almonry is “where’s the abbey?”, closely followed by “why did you have one in the first place?” It’s true that the abbey was comprehensively demolished following its closure in 1539, but it was once a magnificent structure that towered over the little medieval town of Evesham.

So, let’s take a trip back in time, shall we? All the way back to the early 8th Century…

Evesham at that time was a wooded area, part of the great forest of Feckenham; not a township by any standards, but more a series of small farmsteads and settlements dotted around the area we now call the Vale of Evesham. The River Avon flowed through, keeping the land fertile, and on a patch of high ground in a bend of this river, stood a small stone church. Now, at some point during the early 8th Century, Bishop Ecgwine (bishop of the Hwicce, the native tribe – the name of which we get the word Worcester from – and a member of the Mercian royal family) was granted the land known as ‘Homme’, along with its small church.

Ecgwine wanted a place from which he could train men to become good Christians, as he himself had been trained at Fladbury, and this patch of land proved to be the ideal spot. Whilst the date we quote nowadays for the opening of Evesham Abbey is 709AD, the actual date is lost in time thanks to deaths, wars and loss of the original documents, but it is quite likely to be a few years later as in 709, Ecgwine was on pilgrimage to Rome.

Ecgwine died on 30th December 717AD with an incomplete, fledgling abbey to his name, and it fell to subsequent abbots to increase the size, power and wealth of Evesham Abbey, which they did with great success. It was never a large community of monks here, but the lands and mills they owned ranged far afield.

And now we move on to 1539. The Abbey is thought to be the third largest in the country with a church tower that stretches 310 feet into the sky. Relics from saints, including Ecgwine, the abbey founder, bring pilgrims and wealth to it. Henry VIII is king of England, and newly divorced from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The divorce, scuffles with France and his own spendthrift ways have left him in need of money – something his now-notorious aide, Thomas Cromwell, had to rectify. And so the great reformation of England began; monasteries and abbeys were closed, plundered for their valuables, lands sold, and those who defied the word of the king were put to death. A horrible death.

The abbot at Evesham was Phillip Ballard. He had replaced Abbot Lichfield only a few months beforehand. Lichfield had seen what was happening across the country and, unable to square his conscience with the changes, resigned before he was forced to make a decision. Abbot Ballard then set about making the closure of the abbey as painless as possible. Inventories and audits were conducted, and the number of monks dwindled.

Finally, on 30th January 1539, during Evensong, the monks were interrupted in their service by soldiers of the King who ordered them to stop and ‘wolde not suffer them to make an ende’. The monks were expelled, allowed to collect their belongings (such as they were) and then leave. For some, they had family to return to, others had been given new roles in parish churches, such as John of Alcester who was given the living of Hampton.

The abbey itself was sold to a fellow of Henry’s bedchamber, Sir Philip Hoby, who had it used as a quarry for building stone, making himself a fortune in the process. The townspeople were allowed to purchase the Bell Tower, a separate structure and the last to be built on the site. The two churches of St Lawrence’s and All Saints remained as the churches for the two parishes of Evesham, and the Almonry was gifted to Abbot Ballard (along with many others properties and lands) by the King for his co-operation.

And now we’re back in the 21st Century. All that remains of Evesham’s Abbey is a cloister arch and wall in the park, the tower and churches, and the Almonry. Parts of it form foundations for other buildings, notably the houses next to the Almonry and the Town Hall. The foundations remain underground, protected from the elements and plunderers. Hopefully, one day, a new archaeological dig will take place and the full extent will become known to a new generation.

Lots of information about Evesham Abbey can be found at the Almonry Heritage Centre where staff are always happy to answer your questions. If you would like to book a session to look through some of our books on the subject, please contact the office. 

** Edit: whilst the date given in this post for the Abbey closure is 1539, there was a calendar change which means in some articles and papers, it is referred to as 1540. As the date given in the bible on display in the Almonry (which came from Evesham Abbey) is 1539, that is the one commonly used by staff.