The Abbey's History
Although the Abbey was founded in 1087 by nobleman Robert FitzHamon, building of the present Abbey did not start until 1102. Built to house Benedictine monks, the Norman Abbey was near completion when consecrated in 1121.
Embellishments to the long nave roof and the apsidal chancel were made in the first half of the 14th century in the Decorated style. After the dissolution in 1540 most of the claustral buildings and the Lady Chapel were quarried for their materials but the Abbey Church was sold to the parishioners for £453. Changes made since then to the internal configuration have developed to reflect contemporary styles of devotion, currently of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion.
Lying at the southern edge of the old town, the Abbey quietly dominates the land and skyline with its long nave and “probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England” (Pevsner). Vestiges of its social domination can be deduced from the layout of the streets and buildings, and the occasional relic; the Abbot’s gatehouse, the Abbey Mill, The vicarage and the Tudor-style dwellings in Church Street. The area surrounding the Abbey is protected from development by the Abbey Lawn Trust, originally funded by a United States benefactor.
Stained Glass at Tewkesbury Abbey
Tewkesbury Abbey is famous for the medieval stained glass in its seven quire windows. However, it is less well known that the Abbey also possesses a fine collection of Victorian stained glass, as well as some excellent modern examples.
On entering the nave it is difficult to be unimpressed by the scale of the west window, constructed in 1686 to replace one blown in by the wind in 1661. The stained glass, however, was not installed until 1886, commissioned by the Revd C.W. Grove as a memorial to his late wife. The scenes depicted follow the journey of Christ from his birth to his ascension.
Set into the walls of the north and south aisles is a series of Victorian stained glass windows chronicling the life and deeds of Jesus. In one window we see the Feeding of the Five Thousand, in others the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ descent from the cross.
The seven medieval windows in the quire clerestory are among the outstanding survivors of 14th century glass in Europe. Clockwise from the left, they show Robert Fitzroy, Gilbert de Clare, Hugh Despenser II and Robert Fitzhamon; King David and four prophets; King Solomon and four prophets; The Last Judgement; King Rehoboam and four prophets; King Abijah and four prophets; William de la Zouche and three de Clare earls.
The most recent stained glass to be seen consists of two spectacular and very different windows in the chapel of St Catherine and St John the Baptist. They were created by Tom Denny to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the monks’ arrival at the Abbey, the theme being the Benedictine motto ‘to work is to pray’. These windows were generously funded by the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey.
The Abbey Bells
The Abbey boasts the largest Norman church tower in existence measuring 14 metres square and 45 metres high. Records refer to a wooden spire, but this collapsed in 1559.
It is not clear what bells were in the tower at this time, but it is known that there was a small detached tower in the churchyard.
In 1539 when the monastery was dissolved, Henry VIII sold eight bells to the parish for £142, the majority of monastic bells elsewhere being melted down to make cannon for Henry VIII’s warships.
By the early 1600s, there were only four bells. An extra bell was then added in 1612.
In 1696, the bells were recast and augmented to eight by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester. At that time, the Rudhall bell foundry was one of the most prominent in the country. In 1837, the eight bells were restored with a new frame and ringing floor built locally by James Cull. The frame and ringing floor are still in use today.
In 1914, the bell frame was extended and two new bells were added by Mears & Stainbank of Whitechapel, London to form a ring of ten bells. Only 20 years later, two more bells were added, this time by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough to complete the ring of twelve bells.
In 1962 the poor sound of this ‘mixture’ of bells was such that a brand new ring of twelve bells was cast by John Taylor & Co. Four of the old bells, including two cast in 1696 were retained for use as clock bells.
In 1991, a new semitone bell (a ‘flat sixth’) was added to provide a lighter octave.