A few days away in Kent this Easter holidays gave us the chance to visit to the wonderfully peaceful and historic St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.
A Brief History
Situated just outside the city walls, the Abbey was founded around AD 598 by St Augustine of Canterbury. St Augustine had been sent to England by Pope Gregory I the Great, on a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.
A Benedictine monk, St Augustine would become the first ever Archbishop of Canterbury. The king of Kent of the time, Aethelbert, was a pagan but his wife, Bertha, was Christian and, with her encouragement, Aethelbert was converted and gave St Augustine land outside the city walls, in order to build his monastery. Aethelbert allowed St Augustine’s missionaries to preach freely among his people, thus establishing the ‘rebirth’ of Christianity in southern England.
Dedicated to St Peter and St Paul the Abbey thrived, and for two centuries, following its foundation, it was the only important religious house in Kent. When St Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury, he enlarged the Abbey’s church and added the name of St Augustine to those of St Peter and St Paul. From then on it has been known as St Augustine’s Abbey.
With the Norman invasion the Abbey church was rebuilt and enlarged to become a magnificent Romanesque cathedral, of which little remains today but the arches along one side the cathedral wall, and bases of the stone columns which supported the roof. A 2nd church was later added to the site. The Church of St Pancras, was built in red brick, close to the cemetery reserved for the lay brothers. The cloisters included a Scriptorium, where the monks produced their manuscripts, sheltered from the elements, but bathed in sunshine.
Within its grounds you can see the tombs of the first four Archbishops of Canterbury, though that of St Augustine is now merely a memorial stone marking his initial resting place. The Abbey was also a burial-place for the Kings of Kent. You can see the modern memorial chests, in a chapel to the side of the nave, of four kings who died between 640 and 725, and were originally buried in the Anglo-Saxon church of St Mary.
The End of an Era
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the shrine of St Augustine was destroyed and his relics lost. After over 940 years of monasticism at the site, the Abbot and monks left the Abbey, peacefully. Parts of the Abbey were dismantled and sold off, whilst other parts were turned into a royal residence, for a short while at least.
It was landscaped in the early Stuart era and laid out with formal gardens; King Charles I and Henrietta Maria stayed in the Abbey gatehouse (Fyndon’s Gate) following their wedding in Canterbury Cathedral in 1625. Soon after the Abbey passed to the Hales family, who allowed it to fall into decay and ruin, who using the stones from the Abbey to build a new house at Hales Place. It was eventually bought by Alexander James Beresford Hope, in 1844, who established a missionary college and excavated the Abbey’s remains; the college buildings were destroyed during the Blitz, in 1942.
A haven of peace and tranquility, and yet so close to the city.
The Abbey has a wonderful little museum within the Visitor’s Centre, telling you its history and displaying artefacts found on the site.
The audio guide is impressive – it was so good it kept my 9-year-old enthralled. . The Archbishop of Canterbury himself tells St Augustine’s story and explains the significance of the Abbey (it’s a World Heritage Site) to the history of Christianity in Britain. The guide takes you through the life of the Abbey, from its very beginnings to the present day, as you wander around the serene Abbey precincts.
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Isabella of Gloucester is a shadow in the pages of history. I could find no pictures of her. Until recently, no one even seemed certain of her name; in the history books she has been called Isabel, Isabella, Hawise, Avice – probably due to different language interpretations, translations and misunderstandings. However, Rich Price, who has done extensive research on primary sources from King John’s reign has clarified that The Close Rolls definitely name her as ‘comitissa Isabella’ and ‘Isabella filia Willielmi comitis’, so we’ll stick with Isabella.
Isabella was the youngest daughter, and co-heiress, of William, 2nd Earl of Gloucester and his wife, Hawise, daughter of Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester; Isabella was therefore a great-granddaughter of Isabel de Vermandois. Through her father, Isabella was a descendant of Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate half-brother of Empress Matilda who was his sister’s leading general during the civil war known as The Anarchy. We know very little of Isabella’s childhood, although, considering her social status, as the daughter of one of England’s wealthiest earls, it is likely that she was given the education expected of a high-ranking noblewoman and taught to run a large household, as well as the social graces of singing, dancing and needlework. Her parents’ marriage appears to have been a successful one. Isabella’s mother, Countess Hawise, was a regular witness to her husband’s charters and was mentioned in several of them, especially in the pro amina clauses of grants made to religious houses that sought spiritual benefits for those named.
Although her date of birth has been lost to history – most sources say between 1173 and 1176 – she was betrothed in 1176, possibly whilst still in her cradle, to Prince John. The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was 9 years old at the time of the betrothal. Under the terms of the marriage agreement, Earl William recognised John as heir to the earldom of Gloucester, effectively disinheriting Isabella’s two elder sisters. The marriage was to be a way for Henry II to provide for his youngest son. After the Earl of Gloucester’s death in 1183, his entire estate was passed to Isabella, who had been made a ward of the king. However the wedding did not take place until 1189, when John was 21.
Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, opposed the marriage as the couple were related within the prohibited degrees, both being a great-grandchild of Henry I, and ordered that they should not live together as husband and wife. John promised to seek a papal dispensation, in order to overcome Baldwin’s objections – although it appears this was never obtained. Nevertheless, John and Isabella were married on 29th August, 1189, at Marlborough Castle, Wiltshire. Although Isabella and John were married for ten years, their marriage was neither happy nor successful. They spent some time together in the first years of their marriage as they issued charters together during a visit to Normandy around 1190–91. However, they appear to have spent less and less time together as the years went on. They never had any children and it is during this time in his life that John’s illegitimate children, including Richard of Chilham and Joan Lady of Wales, were probably born. In 1193, as part of his plotting with Philip Augustus, John promised to marry the French king’s half-sister, Alys, who had previously been betrothed to John’s own brother, Richard. Nothing eventually came of the marriage proposal, but it was an implicit rejection of Isabella as his wife.
John succeeded to the throne on the death of his older brother Richard I – the Lionheart – on 6th April 1199. He was crowned king on 27th May 1199; the fact that Isabella was not crowned alongside him, suggests that John was already looking for a way out of the marriage. Isabella would never be styled Queen of England.
Within months of his succession, possibly as early as 30th August 1199 (the day after their 10th wedding anniversary), but certainly by 1200, John had obtained a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity; the bishops of Lisieu, Bayeux and Avranches, sitting in Normandy, provided the required judgement.
However, in order to keep his hold on the substantial Gloucester lands, John detained Isabella in ‘honourable confinement’ for the next 14 years. When John remarried, to Isabelle d’Angouleme, his new, young wife (she was no more than 12 on her wedding day and possibly a year or two younger) was lodged with Isabella of Gloucester at Winchester, her allowance raised from £50 to £80 to cover the extra expenditure that comes with housing a queen. John’s wife and ex-wife were housed together until a few weeks before the birth of Isabelle’s first child by John, the future King Henry III, who was born in 1207.
The king eventually arranged a new marriage for Isabella, to a man who was over 16 years her junior. In 1214, although possibly past child-bearing age – certainly safe child-bearing age – she was married to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, who had paid the considerable sum of 20,000 marks to become her second husband and Earl of Gloucester ‘jure uxoris‘ (by right of his wife), a huge sum which he could never hope to repay. Indeed, he soon defaulted on his payments. Just 2 years later, in 1216, de Mandeville died from wounds he’d received in a tournament in London.
One of the Magna Cart sureties, de Mandeville was in a state of rebellion against the king when he died; as a result, all his lands and titles – including the earldom of Gloucester – were forfeit to the crown. Isabella was now a widow and although virtually penniless appears to have revelled in her first taste of freedom, styling herself on one charter ‘Countess of Gloucester and Essex in my free widowhood’. It was not until 17th September 1217, almost a year after the death of King John, that Isabella’s lands were returned to her.
At about the same time – or shortly after – Isabella was married for a third and final time, to Hubert de Burgh. Hubert De Burgh had become Chief Justiciar of England in 1215 and would rise to be Regent during the minority of Henry III. It was only several years after Isabella’s death that he would be created Earl of Kent.
On 13 October 1217 the sheriffs of nine counties were ordered to relinquish custody of Isabella’s lands to de Burgh. This final marriage was, sadly, very short-lived and Isabella was dead within only a few weeks of her wedding day and almost exactly a year after the death of her first husband, King John.
Isabella died on 14 October 1217, probably at Keynsham Abbey near Bristol, and was buried at the cathedral of Christ Church, Canterbury. Shortly before her death, Isabella made a grant to the monks of Canterbury, of £10 of land in her manor of Petersfield, Hampshire, which was witnessed by Hubert de Burgh and other members of his household.
In spite of 3 marriages, Isabella never had children and was succeeded to the earldom of Gloucester by her nephew, Gilbert de Clare.
She was laid to rest in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent.
Further Reading: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Rich Price King John’s Letters Facebook page; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Oxforddnb.com; magnacarta800th.com; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.
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