Abbey Grounds, another for the Historic Winchester series, View in large.
Winchester’s Abbey Gardens are on the site of the Nunnaminster; built on land given to King Alfred’s widow Ealhswith as a coronation gift by King Alfred in 871, following the king’s death on the 26th of October 899 she retired to Winchester and founded the Benedictine nunnery shortly before her death on the 5th of December 902. The first buildings were completed by their son, Edward the Elder.
Among the house's early members was Edward's daughter Edburga who was given to the Nunnaminster as an oblate at the age of three, she was educated there and remained there as a nun until her death at about the age of 40, a cult developed after her death and is first mentioned in the Salisbury Psalter from the early 970s. She was canonised in 972, and some of her remains were transferred to Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire, which is dedicated to Saints Mary, Peter and Paul, and Edburga. Her feast is celebrated on 15 June.
Excavations carried out between 1981 and 1983 have shown that the church was built of timber with stone foundations. The nave was about 6.5m wide with a grand double-apsidal ceremonial entrance at the West Front. A tomb found in the southern apse may be that of St. Edburga. To the south of the church was a masonry base, perhaps for a monument or churchyard cross.
The site was altered in 964 as part of Bishop Ethelwold’s reforms to bring the Nunnaminster, the Old Minster and the New Minster, the three late Saxon Royal monasteries, into a single enclosure surrounded by high walls to isolate them from the city, during this much of the monastery, which had become one of the leading centres of learning and art in the country, was rebuilt.
Due to the considerable alterations the street layout of the south east of the city disappeared and with the inclusion of the Bishop’s Palace at Wolvesey about a quarter of Winchesters urban space was now in religious use
The new church was of a similar size to the one it replaced but was built of stone resting on broader foundations with cloisters to the south where contemplation took place and many of the nun's day to day activities occurred, this meant that domestic services for eating and sleeping which had previously been scattered within the secular community were brought within a single enclosure. The Nunnaminster was the first of Winchester’s churches to use this arrangement, which later became standard practice throughout Northern Europe’s monastic houses. The earliest burials found during the 1981-1983 excavations date from about 964 to 108 and consist of one adult, one child and four neonatal infants, a reminder of the high infant mortality of the time
. On the 15th of June 971 St Edburga’s remains were moved to a tomb in a shrine covered with precious metals and decorated with topaz in front of the high altar. Like St. Swithun’s Priory and Hyde Abbey these religious houses provided support for sick and poor people and employed a lot of the local population and lay people.
It is thought that in 1068 following the Norman Conquest the Nunnery was again rebuilt, in the Norman style of architecture and rededicated as the Abbey of St. Mary and St. Edburga, although this could possibly have been after 1108 when a new tower was dedicated to St. Edburga, during the rebuild the Saint’s remains were moved to an even more elaborate shrine, which attracted pilgrims from great distances. It is known that the abbey was damaged by fire on the 11th of September 1141 in the rout of Winchester, when much of the city was burnt to the ground during the war between Stephen and Matilda, a period known as the Anarchy.
The new church was built on a grand scale, being almost three times as wide as its Saxon predecessors. The nave was flanked by alternating large cruciform and circular drum columns, the Abbess Lodgings are thought to have been located to the east of the church. The Abbey Mill Stream passed through the monastery to feed the fish ponds and power the Abbey Mill. Much of the remaining area of the precinct was occupied by buildings required to serve the Abbey's needs.
The archaeological excavations carried out in the 1980s revealed a total of 37 graves within the Norman church and they represented the highest level of Winchesters medieval society, the shallow graves, covered by no more about 7 inches of soil, were equally divided between men and women with few children’s graves and no infants. Three coffins, one of polished Purbeck marble, one of fine-grained limestone from the Isle of Wight, both carved from single blocks of stone and a third of finely worked chalk were discovered next to the baptismal font.
The churches south aisle, which had been converted to enclosed chapels during the 13th Century, seems to have been a favoured area with north aisle only being used after the nave was full. The earliest burial in the south aisle dated from the mid 12th Century and was that of a body of a woman aged over 45 who appeared to have suffered from chronic arthritis, next to her right shoulder in the crudely worked stone coffin was a finely carved walrus ivory knob which would have formed part of a crosier or staff of office, it is believed the grave may have been that of Abbess Emma who was the Abbey’s longest serving Abbess and died in 1174.
The shallow burials would have given off a terrible smell of decomposing bodies; this would seem to have been a deliberate policy of the church to remind the faithful of their mortality.
The church formed the centre of the religious community and was open to the public, like St. Swithun’s Priory and Hyde Abbey these religious houses provided support for sick and poor people and employed a lot of the local population and lay people. The Abbey became impoverished during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but thanks to various grants and concessions it recovered its position and was in a healthy state at the time of the suppression.
By the Sixteenth Century the Abbey had become one of the largest religious houses in England with 26 nuns in residence with some 70 lay sisters, officials, servants and the children of lords and gentleman who were being educated there. The monasteries were at the forefront of medieval medicine and the Abbey also had a sistern hospital attached which cared for sick members of the Abbey and their poor and sick relatives, ladies of noble birth would also enter the Nunnaminster during their pregnancies.
When King Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon in 1533 he did so in defiance of the Pope and the Church of Rome, Parliament passed several acts which declared the King head of the English church in 1534 and he started dissolving the religious institutions associated with the Roman Catholic church most of which were closed.
Inspectors under the charge of Thomas Wriothesley who was Henry VIII’s commissioner for Hampshire’s monasteries visited St. Mary’s Abbey in 1537 and declared the Abbey church and its associated buildings superfluous to requirements, within a week the shrine of St Edburg was destroyed and other relics were scattered. On the 17th of November 1539 Abbess, Abbess Elizabeth surrendered the monastery; the nuns were pensioned off, although the Abbess and several of the nuns remained in the Abbesses lodgings, 12 poor sisters were permitted to remain in the hospital for a while.
Some graves were opened and the bodies were removed, presumably taken by relatives for reburial, other graves were opened and anything of value was taken, hearth pits were dug into the floor and church ornamentations melted down into bullion for ease of transport, ashes uncovered during the 1980’s excavations revealed globules of melted gold and silver as well as some burnt pearls and amethyst. A number of stone coffins can now be seen in Abbey Passage which runs between the Abbey Grounds and the eastern end of the Guildhall.
All the plate and valuables from the Abbey went to the king and most of the monastic buildings were systematically dismantled, the lead from the roof and the stained glass windows being recycled for use in the construction of Hurst Castle which was being built to defend the western entrance to the Solent. The ownership of the Abbey’s land passed to the crown and what remained of the building was divided into tenements and later used as a prison.
The site of the Abbey was given to Winchester Corporation in 1554 by Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary Tudor to help cover the considerable cost of staging her wedding to Phillip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral in July 1554 and in 1566 much of the stone from the ruined Abbey was sold to Winchester College, some of this was used to repair the boundary wall in College Street which is still standing. The site remained empty for about 150 years although some of the former monastic buildings may have remained in use for a time.
After the site had been cleared the land was divided into two parts, by 1699 the eastern part of the site was owned by the Pescod family and it is possibly Robert Pescod who built the first house, facing south onto extensive formal gardens, on this site. The house has grown and been much altered since it was first built but It is very possible that the original house, or part of it, still forms the core. The house grew quite quickly and William Godson's 1750 illustrated map of Winchester shows a facade that is more recognisable as the house we see today, at least as viewed from Abbey Gardens. The Abbey Mill, which faced the house, was considered to look too industrial so it was partially hidden in 1750 when William Pescod built a replica Tuscan Temple in front of it.
The house remained in the hands of the Pescods until 1798 when the trustees of George Pescod, who had fallen ill and was declared a 'lunatic', sold the site to the tenant Thomas Weld. Thomas was a prominent Roman Catholic and had two daughters who were Franciscan nuns in Belgium. When his daughters' Abbess, who was also a relative, requested refuge from the turmoil of Revolutionary Europe Thomas offered them Abbey house. Weld had the house altered for the arrival of the nuns and it is possible that the Gothic battlemented front facade with two four storey symmetrical towers on the front corners was added to the north side of the building at this time, facing onto the Broadway which had been widened in 1772.
The house proved unsuitable as a long term home for the nuns and they moved to Taunton Somerset in 1808 and Thomas sold Abbey House to Robert Jessett. Abbey House passed through the hands of a number of owners throughout the 19th century and in 1889 was again for sale by auction. Various propositions had been made to develop the site and so the council decided to buy the property mainly to secure the grounds as pleasure gardens for the residents of Winchester. However the council first had to secure a loan of £5000 and the site was not transferred to the city until May 1890.
The house was initially partly used as a reference library from 1892 to 1915 and exhibition space for the School of Art but by 1893 it was decided it should be dedicated to the use of the mayor. However from 1894 until 1911 the mayor had to share the house with a collection of sculptures by the sculptor Frederick Thrupp. The collection of sculptures are now to be seen at Torre Abbey, Torquay.
During 1982/83 extensive refurbishment was carried out in the eighteenth century style, restoring the house to its original splendour. The furnishings and pictures have been selected from the City's collections and the residence is the venue for many civic, community and social functions throughout the year. Numerous visitors (many from abroad) are received and appreciate the essentially domestic character of this special house set in the heart of the City.
The formal gardens are now a public park and the Abbey Mill, which had been used as Council offices, was used as a canteen in World War Two to feed troops and later became the offices of Winchester City Councils engineering department. In April 2012 the building, which had been unused for several years and needed extensive restoration work, was leased to Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstalls River Cottage chain on a 15 year lease, despite considerable local opposition the restaurant, named River Cottage Kitchen, opened on the 24th of September 2014 after the building work to renovate the former mill and transform it into a two storey restaurant, opening up the inside of the building to create a light and spacious interior while retaining many of the mill’s original features had been completed.
The western part of the site, on which an assortment of tenements and small scale industrial premises had been built, was cleared in 1871 to make way for the new Victorian Guildhall, designed by Jeffery & Skiller and built by Joseph Bull & Sons. The foundation stone was laid on the 22nd of December 1871 by the Right Hon. Viscount Eversley and the Guildhall, which incorporated the police and fire stations and the Winchester School of art was opened by the Lord High Chancellor, the Right Hon. Lord Selbourne on the 14th of May in 1873. The remainder of the site was bought by Winchester Town Council in 1890 and laid out as a public pleasure ground, which now has formal flower beds, a rose garden, a scented garden and an enclosed children's play area in the eastern part.