10 Sussex abbeys and priories to visit
PUBLISHED: 10:59 10 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:05 10 January 2017
Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries was a catastrophe for Sussex's many centres for religious reflection. But Henry inadvertently gave us some of our most beautiful ruins. Steve Roberts recommends some fascinating abbeys and monasteries to visit.
Bayham Abbey was suppressed in 1525 in the face of strong local protests. Worse was to come for Sussex’s monasteries.
The main Dissolution occurred between 1536 and 1541 and saw closures throughout England. Bad-tempered Henry VIII and Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell set about their task enthusiastically.
It stemmed from Henry’s need of a son, divorce of barren Catherine of Aragon, the Pope’s refusal to comply, and Henry’s subsequent break with Rome. The monasteries were Catholic, loyal to the old religion and ripe for culling.
For a cash-poor monarch, the Dissolution offered a land-grab, boosting Henry’s coffers as monks were turfed out and land sold. Inadvertently, Henry gave us some of our most romantic ruins. As we shall find though, not all Sussex’s closures were his.
Parkminster Priory (Carthusian)
Twelve Carthusian monasteries existed in Britain before the Dissolution, known as ‘Charterhouses’, an Anglicised version of ‘Chartreuse’, the French mother-house. Parkminster (Cowfold) is England’s only present-day Carthusian priory, founded by monks from France in 1873. Buildings include a Victorian mansion, which was already in situ, and a church which has both tower and spire. The priory is dedicated to St Hugh of Lincoln, prior of Britain’s first Charterhouse in the late 12th century.
Storrington Priory (Premonstratensian)
Our Lady of England Priory, Storrington is another modern house, established in the 1880s at the invitation of the Duke of Norfolk, many monks coming from Belgium. When the Premonstratensians (or ‘Norbertines’, from founder St Norbert) left the priory after over 130 years, the ‘Chemin Neuf’ community took over, invited by the departing Norbertines. The priory church is a Catholic church serving the village of Storrington, but also part of Our Lady of England.
Chichester Greyfriars (Franciscan)
The Greyfriars was founded at an earlier site, transferring to today’s Priory Park location in 1269. Dissolution followed in 1538, leaving the chancel in the park. This mid-13th century building is substantially intact and is a major feature of the park. Most friaries vanished at the Dissolution, with only larger churches, for example today’s Chichester Cathedral, surviving.
Lyminster Priory (Benedictine)
Re-founded around 1082 by Roger de Montgomery, 1st Earl of Arundel, as a priory, this site may have an even longer history, as it is said this may have been preceded by a Saxon royal minster and Benedictine nunnery. This was an early dissolution (mid-15th century), Henry VI bringing the curtain down as he endowed his new foundation of Eton College. We are fortunate, however, to still have the church (the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene), as its walls date back to the 11th century. In the choir are two small sculptures of nuns, reference to a past nunnery, looking down on today’s parishioners.
Bayham Abbey (Premonstratensian)
Founded in the early 13th century, Bayham was dissolved in 1525, one of the houses suppressed to pay for Cardinal Wolsey’s college-building plans at Oxford and Ipswich. This order, founded at Premontre, France, had more than 30 abbeys in Britain, but Bayham was among the best, and there are still extensive ruins. The most important remains, in local golden sandstone, are the eastern part of the church and eastern domestic range, with walls standing to some height, and set in grounds designed by famous landscapist Humphry Repton. It was here locals objected to the loss of their abbey.
Worth Abbey (Benedictine)
Founded as recently as 1933, Worth occupies a large Victorian Gothic mansion (formerly known as Paddockhurst), once owned by the 2nd Viscount Cowdray. A simple monastic block was soon built, but some of the old mansion’s rooms were for a time used by the monks, including the refectory, with its rich pseudo-Baroque decoration. During my visit Fr. Gabriel, one of Worth’s 22 Benedictine monks, explained the order’s vow of stability, committing them to this place and this group of men. The abbey’s most striking feature is its new church, completed in 1975 and designed by Francis Pollen. This is England’s most important monastic church in so strikingly contemporary a style. Worth Abbey is also the site of Worth School, a retreat centre, and the centre of the local Roman Catholic parish.
Battle Abbey (Benedictine)
Famously founded by William I in 1067 in thanks for his victory of the previous year, Battle survived until its dissolution in 1538. There is little remaining of the abbey save for some much-altered domestic buildings and the splendid 14th century gateway. Visitors can climb to the first-floor of the 13th century rib-vaulted dormitory range and also to the roof of the gatehouse. There is also Battle Abbey Café when feet are tired and sustenance calls.
Michelham Priory (Augustinian)
Founded in 1229 and dissolved in 1536, Michelham was granted to William, Earl of Arundel, who incorporated the remains into a mansion. Today it has the distinction of being surrounded by the longest medieval water-filled moat in England.
Seven acres of beautiful grounds include a working watermill and forge, children’s play area, café and shop, plus the priory gatehouse and other remains.
Lewes Priory (Cluniac)
Founded in the late 11th century, Lewes was our first Cluniac (from Cluny, France) foundation. It was founded on the site of a Saxon church, dedicated to St Pancras. The priory was occupied by the forces of Henry III in 1264 during the Second Barons’ War. Lewes was dissolved in 1537, the prior and monks comforted by the innovation of pay-off pensions. Sadly, the still substantial remains of one of England’s wealthiest priories were reduced when the Brighton-Lewes railway was driven through in the 1840s: slightly ironic with that dedication to St Pancras.
Boxgrove Priory (Benedictine)
Nothing remains of an Anglo-Saxon church that once existed here. Founded in the early 12th century by monks from Lessay (Normandy), there were 19 monks when Boxgrove was in its heyday in the mid-13th century. Dissolved in 1536, part of Boxgrove’s church remains in parochial use (Priory Church of St Mary and St Blaize). This is one of our country’s most attractive churches, particularly with its choir ‘limb’ of four double-bays, which has Early English work of high quality, and still retains most of its lancets. Boxgrove has the best remains of any Sussex abbey.