Holy cow! Prayers beside a farmhouse are keepign alive the memory of important abbey. Chris Upton reports.
Every September, a communion service is held beside an old farmhouse in Merevale, Warwickshire. This is not your typical setting for a church service and the casual observer might be puzzled to see the parishioners swap the comparative warmth of the chancel for such outdoor devotions.
The wall of Abbey Farm, however, is rather older than the average farmhouse, and the site considerably more venerable. For four centuries this was the location of one of the great Cistercian abbeys of the Midlands. Founded by Robert, Earl Ferrers, in 1148, Merevale Abbey would once have dominated its surroundings. The September service is held to coincide with the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.
The comparative isolation of the spot – William Dugdale called it “a mountainous and woody desert” – was deemed appropriate for the solitary other-worldliness that the Cistercians sought. And isolation is one quality the site has not lost, although “mountainous” is something of an exaggeration.
We can begin to judge the importance of the place from the names in the visitors’ book. Both Edward II and Edward III stayed here, as did Henry VII and Henry VIII, on a trip to see the nearby battlefield of Bosworth. The latter, of course, was also chiefly responsible for the abbey’s removal.
We do not need ground-plans to tell us there would have been a large abbey church here, one wall of which survives, together with cloisters and dormitories for the monks, chapter house and refectory. These came as standard in any medieval abbey.
Also necessary, in a spot as secluded as the Cistercians preferred, was a chapel next to the gatehouse, which would cater for the lay members of the abbey, and welcome pilgrims and travellers, when the great entrance gates were locked for the night.
Whether any of the above survived the Dissolution came down to post-Reformation luck. For Merevale, their luck was in. While the main abbey buildings were swept away, the chapel was not. It survives today, inside a much later entrance arch, as the Church of Our Lady, beside the B4116.
The church doors at Merevale are only open when a service is being held there, and, sharing its vicar with a number of other parishes, that is only once a month. This must be the only explanation for why it is not better known, for inside Merevale church are marvellous things, and a remarkable insight into what the abbey itself must once have been like.
If you feel your appetite whetted, choose a Sunday when a service is on, and preferably one when John Austin is in the congregation. John is Merevale’s unofficial historian, author of the church guidebook and of a much longer and impressive study of the abbey, copies of which can still be dug out, if you ask nicely.
John will immediately direct you to the east window, if you have not been drawn to it already. This glass is miraculous in more ways than one, firstly for its very survival, and second for the sheer quantity of medieval glass it contains. It is a Tree of Jesse in vivid colour, a visual representation of Christ’s family tree back to the father of King David. The subject matter is not unusual as there are similar windows at Ludlow and Madley in Herefordshire.
The medieval glaziers took the word “tree” in its literal sense and the figures of David and Solomon, Hezekiah and others are entwined in elaborate foliage and branches.
The medieval glass – there are some Victorian elements too – dates from around 1330, and was probably made in a West Midlands workshop, perhaps in Coventry or Oxford.
The glass was not originally in this chapel. It was discovered, reputedly in lead-lined boxes, buried in the grounds of Merevale Hall, and pieced together in the early 19th century. Where it first came from is a matter of speculation; it may have been in the chapel or in the abbey church itself. Whatever its origins, this is the largest window to survive from any Cistercian abbey in England, and as such is of national importance.
The presence of Merevale Hall nearby is a clue to the survival of so much of the old abbey. Not only were a number of the Dugdales, who lived at the hall, antiquarians in their own right, they needed a church for their own worship and burial. The Church of Our Lady at Merevale was worth maintaining.
If the Tree of Jesse is the headline act at Merevale, the supporting cast is not bad either. Immediately inside the door, and now doubling up as an organ loft, is the wooden rood screen from the former abbey church, which was sold for just one shilling at the Dissolution. Where it subsequently went is uncertain, but it arrived in the gatehouse chapel at about the same time as the east window.
As well as digging up the glass, the Dugdales found parts of a carved figure of a knight in the grounds, too, probably from the abbey chapter house. It dates to around 1250, and is likely to be of William, Fourth Earl Ferrers, the abbey’s patron. It also found its way into the church.
Add to all this the early 16th century glass – which, unusually, was actually meant to be here – and you have more Cistercian art at Merevale than in most of the rest of the country combined.
The Cistercian statute to avoid decoration and figurative art was evidently not appreciated here, and for that North Warwickshire has much to be grateful for.
* Abbey Farm is run as a B&B. Call 01827 715091 / 07974 068339 or visit www.abbeyfarmbandb.co.uk