The Church that Refused to Crumble: The Miracle of Pershore Abbey

First Sight

We waited with excitement for our car to crest the hill between us and Pershore. A moment later, our patience was rewarded with a magnificent view.

The abbey church of Pershore stood confidently in the valley before us, the small Georgian town of Pershore wrapping itself around the abbey grounds. Red brick houses with neat, white framed windows huddled before the dominating abbey whose tower, a brilliant mix of pink and golden stone, rose up to greet our arrival.

Tower Blog Image.jpg
A view of the tower of Pershore Abbey which dominates the surrounding market town.

The Early Monastery

An abbey has stood in Pershore (Worcestershire) on the same site (or thereabouts) since at least 681 AD when King Æthelred Of Mercia granted land for the foundation of a Christian monastery.

What form this early predecessor of the current abbey building took is unknown. We can gauge, from other contemporary examples, that Pershore may have consisted of several wooden buildings housing a small religious community of monks or nuns around a stone preaching cross.

No remains of the early abbey were left for us to see as we made our way from our car towards the abbey grounds. Visitors to the abbey must rely on later records of a church and monastery,  dating from 689 AD, to indicate what may have developed from these early wooden buildings.

However, the success of this early monastic foundation was evident. This early monastery flourished and soon became an abbey allowing for the construction of the large abbey church that now stood before us.

Abbot Blog Image
The much mutilated remains of a coffin lid of a later Abbot of Pershore (probably Abbot Edmund Hert who served from 1456 to 1479). Hert’s coffin has been moved around the abbey church so many times that the exact location of his remains is unknown. The hands of his effigy clasp thin air where once his abbot’s staff, also lost, resided.

Vision of Paradise

We chose to enter the abbey through the south door, a later Victorian addition, and entered the abbey’s quire.

Looking west, the church opened out before us. Large gothic columns of stone rose around us, springing into vaulting above our heads. The open interior of the central tower reminded me of some vast jewel as light poured in from its many high windows.

However, we reminded ourselves the glory of this building, and its survival, is something of a miracle.

They Came from the North

The abbey has faced many threats to its survival. The first great challenge came in the form of raiders from across the North Sea in the ninth century. In 865 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (of which there are several competing versions) spoke of a ‘micel here’ or Great Army of Norsemen (Vikings) on a campaign of destruction across England.

The Pershore community suffered from damage wrought by this army. Thankfully, by the late ninth century, the community of Pershore was re-built under the careful guidance of St Oswald, the energetic reforming bishop of Worcester.

The Bones of St Edburga

Several blocked archways in the south transept caught our attention. These Norman and later gothic arches had been hastily blocked in and we moved closer to hear their story.

These archways had once led to the shrine of the abbey’s saint, St Edburga, a royal Anglo-Saxon princess who had devoted herself to the religious life from an early age.

The bones of St Edburga were lost in the destruction of parts of the abbey around 1540 AD (of which I will reveal more later) but were originally gifted to the abbey by Odda, grandson of Alfhere, Earl of Mercia.

The Earl of Mercia

Alfhere had grown jealous of the abbey’s success in the tenth century and had slowly seized lands from the monastery. Eventually, Alfhere was successful in ejecting the monastic community from Pershore in 976 AD.

When Pershore was restored in 983 AD, a penitent Odda attempted to atone for his grandfather’s misdeeds with the gift of St Edburga’s bones.

Edburga's Chapel Blog Image
The remains of St Edburga’s Chapel can be seen the wall of the south transept where a eclectic mix of Norman and Gothic arches and blind arcading survive.

Westminster Woes

However, by 1065 AD, it was the King of England who would threaten the existence of Pershore. King Edward the Confessor, granted lands formerly held by the abbey before 976 AD to Westminster Abbey, his ambitious attempt to replicate the scale of continental monasteries.

Thus, Pershore was forced to suffer the presence of a competitor, who built a parish church for its tenants opposite the abbey, in its own backyard.

Standing in the south aisle, we could see the remains of part of the apse of the Anglo-Saxon monastic building which had stood during the ninth and tenth century crises. A cut-away in the floor revealed dry stones that, until 1996, had lain hidden under the abbey floor.

Anglo-Saxon Church Foundation Blog Image
The remains of a late Anglo-Saxon church were found by archaelogists in 1996.

Fire!

Looking up towards the impressive vaulted ceiling of the abbey which glowed with the effects of flood-lighting, we were fast-forwarded several hundred years.

By the thirteenth century, Pershore Abbey had developed a large stone church and substantial monastic buildings.

However, in 1288 AD, fire stuck engulfing the abbey in flames, ripping through the tower causing the heavy stone edifice to come tumbling down onto the quire roof.

In the gloom of the abbey where we now stood, it was possible to imagine the destruction of the sanctuary and fall of stone. Flame had violated the holiest corner of the monastery.

Renewal and Innovation

What now stood above our heads, tells a tale of how the monks, rather than lament the damage to their abbey church, called on stone masons to help them rebuild their beloved church.

The way the stone masons answered was stunning. A new ‘ploughshare’ vault was installed over the quire, covered with forty-one individual bosses. The eye was, and still is, drawn upwards from vaults which spring lightly from one side of the church to the other.

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The name ‘ploughshare’ originates from the fact the vaults replicate the shape of medieval ploughs.

This new style was soon copied by numerous churches and cathedrals across England, paving the way for a move from the more simple Early English Gothic style to the more elaborate and ornate Decorated style.

Standing in the abbey quire, it was possible to marvel at this revolution in stone.

Ploughshare Shape Example Blog Image
An example of a modern plough indicating the origin of the name for ‘ploughshare’ vaults (see left of picture).

Reformation

To say the Abbey survived peacefully until the time of the Reformation would be wrong, but it was not until 1540 that the Abbey’s very existence was challenged again.

During the 1530s, Henry VIII, for debatable motives, sought to dissolve the monasteries of England and Wales. Pershore, by now one of England’s larger monasteries, was one of the last to be dissolved in 1540.

Turning towards the west, the direct effect of Henry VIII’s decision was evident in a vast scar on the abbey building. Where once the nave had spread away from the abbey crossing, a huge wall blocked the former arch leading into the nave.

Looking through a small pair of double-doors in the blocked archway, it was possible to see wrought-iron gates in the abbey grounds beyond. These gates marked the former extent of the nave.

This nave had been pulled down with the dissolution of the abbey. We wondered how many buildings in Pershore were built out of stones formerly in the nave.

Survival

Henry’s commissioners also destroyed the Abbey buildings, the Lady Chapel and the pilgrimage chapel built to house the remains of St Edburga. This should have been the twilight of the Abbey but, by the time the hand of destruction came to the quire of the Abbey church, the people of Pershore demanded its preservation.

Exterior Blog Image
The removal of the nave in 1540 has caused many problems for the structural integrity of the tower only resolved with the construction of two large buttresses in 1913.

They brought the Abbey church for £400 (around £140,000 in contemporary terms) and established the remains of the much mutilated building as their parish church.

In full, the residents of Pershore had refused to allow their abbey to crumble, preserving a building which for nearly a thousand years had persisted as the centre of their community.

Continuity

From 1540 to the present day, Pershore has cared for its parish church, more effectively  sometimes than others, safeguarding this survivor who preserves within its walls its tale.

Despite the efforts of Vikings, jealous nobles, kings, and fire, Pershore stands in the centre of its market town, as much a part of the landscape as the rolling hills around.

As we left the abbey church, the sun began to set on this relic of the past, setting the much-loved golden stones of the abbey church aglow, a beacon at the centre of Pershore.

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Font Detail Blog Image
Detail of the Norman Font believed to date from the mid- 12th century.

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