Ecclesiastical sites

Churches and chapels from Anglo-Saxon to High Victorian, and of course our unmatchable array of magnificent monastic ruins, trace the story of English Christianity through fourteen centuries.

Religious buildings were the centre for incredible wealth and power throughout much of England's history - the very reason that Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The oldest religious building we manage, St. Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, was founded by the saint himself very soon after he baptised the first Anglo-Saxon Christian king in AD 597. While Augustine came from Rome, atmospheric Lindisfarne Priory is a reminder of the part played by Irish missionaries in northern England's conversion. Rare survivors of Anglo-Saxon churches, St Peter's at Barton-on-Humber and Odda's Chapel trace how English Christianity developed, while St. Paul's Monastery, Jarrow, and Whitby Abbey preserve links with some of its greatest early personalities.

The great majority of our ecclesiastical sites, however, date from the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church held undisputed sway in England. St. Mary's Church, Kempley, with its astonishing wall-paintings, recalls how the interiors of many medieval parish churches once looked, while buildings from remote little Chisbury Chapel to Howden Minster show how they sprang up in every corner of England.

Whitby Abbey in the sunset.

Whitby Abbey in the sunset.

Yet the pride of our collection are over fifty monasteries, emphasising how monks, nuns and friars influenced not only medieval England's religion but also its agriculture and trade. At their peak, monasteries owned nearly a third of the whole country. To name only some of our most impressive monastic sites, there are Rievaulx Abbey, Byland Abbey and Whitby Abbey, and Mount Grace Priory, a unique monastery of hermit-monks, in Yorkshire; the north-west's Furness Abbey and Lanercost Priory (where the church, as at Binham Priory in Norfolk and Boxgrove Priory in Sussex, is still in use today); Brinkburn Priory, Finchale Priory and Tynemouth Priory in the north-east; Buildwas Abbey, Croxden Abbey, Haughmond Abbey and Wenlock Priory in the Midlands; East Anglia's Castle Acre Priory and Thetford Priory; Cleeve Abbey, Hailes Abbey and Muchelney Abbey in the south-west and Bayham Old Abbey and Netley Abbey in the south-east. We also care for many smaller monasteries-like Mattersey Priory with its just six monks, and nunneries, like White Ladies Priory, and a handful of the now much rarer 'friaries', the town bases of preaching friars, such as Gloucester's Blackfriars and Greyfriars.

Some will treasure our monasteries for their tranquillity or lovely settings, the Cistercians in particular, ordered to build 'far from the haunts of men', really knew how to pick a site; others for their architecture or for what they reveal about the ordered lives of their monks. Though a few (like Titchfield Abbey) were later converted into mansions, nearly all are, of course, ruins. They testify to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541, one of the first steps in the Tudor transformation of England from a Catholic into a largely Protestant nation.

The ruins of Castle Acre Priory.

The ruins of Castle Acre Priory.

Just how much English churches were changed by this revolution can be seen at places like little Langley Chapel. Pulpits for Protestant preaching replaced altars for the Catholic 'Mass' as the focus of the interior, which was often filled with 'box pews' to provide more comfortable seating, features also favoured by the chapels (like Goodshaw Chapel) of the Georgian Nonconformist and Methodist revivals of religious enthusiasm. Then, in the Victorian period, religious fashion changed again with the 'Oxford Movement' and the Gothic Revival, which reintroduced versions of medieval church architecture and furnishing. St. Mary's Church, Studley Royal, extravagantly decorated and glowing with colour, is among the most extreme and flamboyant examples in England of this High Victorian style.

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