Romsey Abbey, Hampshire

Benedictine Nuns

Romsey is one of those forgotten ‘inland’ Hampshire towns. Away from the coastal centres of Southampton and Portsmouth the county settles into a series of small and pleasant places dotted amongst rolling countryside. Romsey sits at the heart of the Test Valley, a famed area of beauty and indeed the town is very attractive with the Abbey dominating it.

The first church here, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Ethelflaeda was founded around 907 AD when King Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great, settle some nuns here with his own daughter, Elflaeda, in charge of them. The nunnery was refounded under Benedictine rule by King Edgar in 960. St. Ethelflaeda was abbess around 1000 AD and one of her famed acts of sanctity was standing naked in the River Test at night chanting the Psalms. It was around this period that the first stone church was started.

Of this first stone church nothing today remains, the oldest parts of the church now – the choir, transepts and Lady Chapel date from 1120 to 1140. Work continued non stop for a hundred years and by 1240 when the church was more or less the size it is now, there were 100 nuns here.

A hundred years later and disaster struck both country and Abbey. The Black Death arrived and decimated the population of Hampshire. Romsey was particularly badly hit and by the time the plague had moved on there were just 19 nuns left at the Abbey. It took another hundred years for the Abbey and town to recover at which time a new aisle was built on the north side of the Abbey to act as the parish church.

This turned out to be salvation of the Abbey as when the Dissolution arrived, in 1539, although the nuns were dispersed only the Lady Chapel was demolished and the locals were allowed to worship here. In 1544 the townspeople bought the Abbey for just £100 – ironically they then demolished the extra aisle which had been built for them as it was now too large.

The Abbey continued to exist as the Parish Church – aside from Christchurch the largest in Hampshire even today – until the Civil War when Parliamentarian troops ransacked the interior of the church and left it in a poor condition – this began a period of neglect that continued until the Victorians started taking an interest in all things medieval.

Throughout the Victorian period and the early part of the 20th Century work was done to save the Abbey and today it is a stunning example of early medieval church building.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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