This month was named after the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar as voted by the Roman Senate in 8 BC.
My wife and I were married in August and honeymooned in Jersey, then the place of choice. Our hotel catered mainly for the English, but managed to give a continental flavour of food and drink. Like most of our fellow holidaymakers we were lighthearted and made up names for our fellow guests. The male of one couple was rotund, jolly and balding and reminded us of an advertising poster of the day for custard powder, ‘Monk and Glass’ which portrayed a happy monk holding up a glass. As our fellow guest frequently raised his glass, we dubbed him ’Monk and Glass’.
Before Henry VIII broke with Rome, ‘privatising’ many monasteries, monks would have been a familiar sight in our countryside. Now they are most unusual. In our area many monasteries and nunneries started in Anglo Saxon times.
In 705 AD King Ine (or Ina) appointed his relative Aldhelm as first bishop of Sherborne, founding the abbey. Aldhelm helped found several convents, including a ‘double convent’ at Wimborne Minster, for monks and nuns and later became a saint. Two of King Alfred’s brothers were buried at Sherborne. Sherborne became a Benedictine house and was rebuilt around the eleventh century, probably after an onslaught by the Danish King Cnut (Canute). In 1437 the abbey church was burnt down after a riot between monks and townsfolk.
King Alfred founded the town of Shaftesbury in 880 AD and established the Benedictine nunnery of St Mary the Virgin, with his daughter Ethelgiva as its abbess. In 980 the body of King Edward the Martyr was brought there in procession from Corfe Castle, which began a series of miraculous cures. This brought wealth and created a saying “if the Abbess of Shaston (Shaftesbury) might wed the Abbot of Glaston (Glastonbury), their heir would have more land than the King of England”, according to the Wilts and Dorset Penguin Guide. At the Reformation the nunnery was destroyed.
Milton Abbas was founded as a Benedictine priory in 933 by Athelstan, but only the monks refectory survives of the early buildings.
In 987 a Benedictine monastery at Cerne Abbas was founded by the Earl of Cornwall, although William of Malmesbury suggested it was created by St Augustine. The Book of Cerne was written there. The first abbot was Aelfric who translated his Homilies from Latin for the Anglo Saxon monks. Cerne was plundered by Cnut, but he later gave them an endowment, such was the confusion of religions in the minds of the invaders. In 1471 Margaret of Anjou took refuge at Cerne. A 15th century tithe barn remains, attached to a farm.
Abbotsbury dates from King Cnut giving land to his steward Orc, who built an abbey by 1044 and brought Benedictine monks there from Cerne. By Doomsday the abbey owned 2,500 acres of land and 8 manors, which grew to 22 manors. The abbey was demolished at the Reformation and only a gable end survives, possibly of the refectory. The Tithe Barn, possibly the largest in England was built in the 14th century and was only partly destroyed.
St Benedict had created the Benedictine order the “Black Monks” in the 6th century, determined to follow the basic rules of poverty, obedience and chastity, among others.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 other abbeys and religious houses were founded.
Bindon Abbey was founded as a Cistercian house in 1172, by Roger de Newburgh. It burned down in 1664, but some foundations remain and fishponds in the woods. At Tarrant Crawford nothing remains of an abbey of Cistercian nuns, established in the reign of Richard I.
Forde Abbey was completed in 1148, on the Somerset border as another Cistercian monastery, becoming very rich. It has a wall painting dating to about 1320, one of the earliest of its type in England. In private hands the building is still available to visit. Another nearby, near Axminster, was Newenham, completed around 1277 but now ruined.
The Cistercians or “White Monks” were founded in 1098 at the Abbey of Citeaux, claiming that the Benedictines were not sufficiently strict. They became great farmers, specialising in sheep and possibly much of our farming derives from them.
Many of these abbeys became very rich from endowments of money and land, often from people who wished to have prayers said for their souls. An unusual grant of land was at Lyme Regis for salt boiling for Sherborne Abbey in the 8th century. Towns and villages adjacent to the abbeys also prospered.
When Henry VIII and his immediate successors dissolved the monasteries the houses and land were sold off, often to royal favourites, and the money obtained swelled the royal coffers. Whilst some buildings were maintained, as with Forde, most were demolished and the stone used again. Destruction was continued by the Puritans. Cranborne and Horton have disappeared completely.
I thank Bridport History Society colleagues for some of this information. The society does not meet in August.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.