The Benedictine Croyland (Crowland) Abbey is in the south Lincolnshire fen area. Croyland was one of a number of islands set in the mist of mostly marsh and wetland.
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It began AD699 as a small church and hermitage when Saint Guthlac arrived at the spot. He, along with others, set up the cells and an oratory. It was a miserable and meagre existence and Guthlac died 15 years later. But before he died he was visited by Ethelbald, a pretender to Mercia’s throne. Guthlac prophesied he would be king at which point Ethelbald promised to build an abbey if it happened. Thus Croyland Abbey was begun in AD716 on St Bartholomew’s Day.
It was just about wiped out by the Danes in AD870 who not only plundered but murdered the monks. The abbey was restored in AD946 when the chancellor of King Edred became a monk, and with the king’s help and gift of land the community thrived. However, further disaster struck in 1091 when all the abbey buildings, including the manuscripts, burned to the ground in a fire. Although some reconstruction was undertaken it was of poor quality.
The third abbey began in 1113 under the 15th abbot, Joffrid of Orleans. Buildings were constructed in the Norman style. Further disaster struck in 1118 when an earthquake destroyed most of the new work. A few bits of this abbey remain, notably the dog-tooth west arch of the central tower, the west front of the south aisle and a doorway into the north aisle, the eastern halves of the two most easterly arches of the nave, and the Perpendicular style font located in the south pier of the east tower arch. A fire again struck the abbey in 1143 destroying much of the rebuilt work.
Over the ensuing years further rebuilding and restoration took place. In 1539 the king Henry VIII seized the abbey and its contents during the dissolution of the monasteries. He had the choir, transepts, central tower and monastic buildings demolished. The nave and two aisles were left alone so they could be used as the parish church.
The civil war saw Croyland used by the Royalists who built defensive ramparts around it. It underwent a three month siege. The nave roof collapsed in 1720, and in 1743 the south aisle was dismantled to use the stone to fill in north side arches of the nave. Thus only the north aisle was in use as a parish church. Over the centuries townspeople purloined the stone for their own building purposes, and further demolition and decay occurred. In 1922 galleries over the three chapels were removed as they were thought to be unsafe.
The parish church now remaining has a room over a porch which was used by the parish priest. A small room leads off the porch which is thought to have been a ‘sanctuary’ for criminals. Croyland is noted for having the first tuned peal in England. It had seven bells but now has six. The bell ropes are 90 feet long. The roof is stone vaulted with bosses. The north side has three chapels, one of which houses the organ dating from 1899. A 15th century oak chest is in the Lady Chapel.
The ruins of the former abbey consist of the old nave with its Norman arch. The cloisters were on the south side and around them were the refectory, chapter house, abbot’s house, dormitories, workshops, and stables. All these are long gone as is the shrine of the body of St Guthlac. There are statues on the west front and a quatrefoil over the nave west door.
In the village (called Crowland) at the junction of North, South, East, and West streets is an unusual site, a triangular bridge (Trinity Bridge) dating from 1360-1390. The style is late Decorated. Even more unusual is that it is on dry land. However before the fens were drained this area was a number of islands and what is now streets were waterways, one being the River Welland, the other two coming from the river. There is a statue on the bridge but its identification has never been determined. It may have come from the abbey.
On the A1073/B1166 north of Peterborough
Open: daily, dawn to dusk
Text and Photos © by Barbara Ballard