Faversham Abbey, Kent

Cluniac Monks

It is not obvious from the few scattered remnants of Faversham Abbey just how important and interesting a history it has.

It was founded as a Cluniac monastery in 1147 by King Stephen and his wife, Matilda. Both were eventually buried here, as was their son, Eustace. Their intention had been to create a royal mausoleum for the House of Blois at Faversham … as it happened they were the first and only royals of that line.

The Abbey maintained its size and importance throughout the medieval period and was for some time one of the largest monastic foundings in Kent. This did not stop Henry VIII from have it dissolved and thoroughly demolished in 1538. The vast majority of the stonework was taken away to strengthen the foundations of the Pale of Calais, by that time England’s only foothold in continental Europe.

It was said, when the Abbey was destroyed that the bones of King Stephen, his wife and son, were taken and thrown into Faversham Creek. Legend has it that they were then rescued and interred in the nearby Parish Church of St. Mary of Charity. A tomb with unidentified bones does exist in the Church which may or may not be those of this much maligned King.

The part of the Abbey that is most obvious today is the guesthouse on the Outer Gateway. This is now known as Arden’s House and was the site in 1551 of the infamous murder of Thomas Arden, killed by his wife, Alice, and her lover (and their infamous assassin “Black Will”) and his body dumped at the gates of the Parish Church. The murderers, however, were particularly ineffectual and inept – having failed in no less than four attempts to kill Thomas beforehand, when the deed was actually done they dumped him outside neglecting to dress their victim in suitable outdoor clothes (despite murdering him in February). He was found dressed in his nightshirt and slippers in fresh snow some distance from his house. Suspicion was raised and it transpired that Black Will had strangled Thomas in his own parlour with a ‘handkerchief’ whilst Alice’s lover and had struck him on the head and then cut his throat. Although Alice had not dealt the killing blow she had, to be on the safe side, personally stabbed his dead body an additional six to eight times. The body was then dragged outside and dumped whilst Alice continued hosting a party putting on a pretence of worrying about her husband’s absence.

Alice was found guilty of murder and burnt at the stake in Canterbury; other conspirators were either burnt and the stake or hanged drawn and quartered. Black Will lived for many more years but was eventually caught and hanged at Vlissingen in Zeeland, Netherlands. A play “Arden of Faversham” is often attributed to Shakespeare, although this is sadly speculation.

By 1671 nothing much survived except the parts of the Gatehouse at Arden’s House and the Abbey Barns which still survive today.

There is one last, peculiar, piece of folklore associated with Faversham Abbey. This is connected to the barnacle goose – a bird that flies into Britain in the winter. There was a belief, as late as the 17th Century, that these birds grew from barnacles attached to timbers on the seashore and thus were not birds but fish. This meant they could be eaten on a Friday, which was convenient. Even more convenient still is that although barnacle geese are sporadically seen in Britain they were often “confused” with brent geese – a much more common bird who were therefore eaten as fish too.

The connection with Faversham is that in 1211 on Gervasius of Tilbury mentioned he had seen willow seedlings at Faversham Abbey which sprouted buds in which small birds formed, when the seedlings were shaken the birds would “fall into the sea” and grow to full size … presumably just in time for dinner!

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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