More to it than the Giant – Cerne Abbey
Cerne’s Abbey goes back further in time than the Giant, at least, according to written records. Tony Burton-Page explores a thousand years of history and the best and the worst of Abbots.
Published in July ’15
Cerne Abbas’s most famous inhabitant is without doubt the Giant. But he is a comparatively recent arrival – the earliest written record of him is in 1694, and, as that great Cernophile Frederick Harvey Darton wrote in his 1935 book English Fabric, the silence about him ‘is very marked, and is most notable in precisely the writers who might have been expected to show curiosity about so monstrous a spectacle.’
About Cerne’s abbey there is less doubt. Its foundation is recorded in a charter dated 987 which was preserved on a 13th-century Chartae Antiquae roll. In it, Æthelmær (also called Ailmer), son of Æthelweard (also called Ælweard), declares to his King, Æthelred, to Archbishop Dunstan, and to Ælfheah, Bishop of Winchester, that he has ‘given to God and the monks there the place which is called Cernel in honour of the Blessed Virgin, St Peter and St Benedict, for his dear master King Æthelred, for himself and for the redemption of his ancestors.’
Æthelmær granted the abbey various other estates in Dorset, to be held by them during his own lifetime and for ever thereafter, as well as the tithes and annual renders from Cerne and Cheselbourne and specified tithes in kind from his other estates. He expressed the wish that the community should observe the Rule of St Benedict, and states that they should have the power to choose a ‘secular patron’ as they see fit.
But Cerne had been a holy place many years before the charter. Its story is told by such writers as the 11th-century Benedictine biographer Goscelin (or ‘Gotselin’, in some of his manuscripts), the 12th-century monk and historian William of Malmesbury, the 13th-century monk and chronicler Walter of Coventry and John Leland, the first serious English antiquary. With so many sources, there are inevitably different versions, though; and at such great distances in time there are inevitably the inventions and embroideries which are the stuff of legend.
Central to all the versions is the figure of St Augustine – not the 4th-century Christian theologian whose writings cause controversy to this day but the emissary of Pope Gregory I who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Goscelin’s version states that Augustine, during his travels round Britain to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, came to a Dorset village where he was received with scant respect: the inhabitants fastened fish-tails to the garments of the evangelist and his companions and drove them away. Augustine sat in misery over the bitter heathen enmity of those he had come to convert; and as he mourned, a spring broke out at his feet and made the well which still provides unfailing water and which to this day is known as St Augustine’s Well.
William of Malmesbury’s account also has Augustine suffering the fishtail indignity – although one translation from the Latin makes them cows’ tails, which would seem to be more probable if only from a practical point of view. In this version, Augustine retreats to a safe distance and has a vision of God – ‘Cerno Deum! (I see God!)’ he exclaims. He returns to baptise the heathen folk, a miraculous spring being provided for the purpose, and renames the place ‘Cernel’ from the Latin cerno (I see) and the Hebrew el (God). William does not explain this sudden penchant for polyglotism. There is, however, a rival claimant for the origin of the village’s name – the Celtic god Cernunnos, which is at least a little more credible from a linguistic viewpoint. There is also the more mundane possibility that the name comes from the Celtic word which has been anglicised as ‘cairn’.
Walter of Coventry’s version is similar to William’s; but John Leland does not mention Augustine at all. He attributes the foundation of the abbey to Æthelmær, known as ‘the Stout’ or ‘the Great’, and whose various titles include ‘duke’, ‘comes’, ‘satrapa’, ‘earl’ and ‘ealdorman’ of ‘Cornwall’ or ‘the western provinces’ or ‘south-western England’: at any rate, he was an important person. Leland adds that an anchorite lived at Cerne and that Æthelmær, with Archbishop Dunstan, transferred the relics of St Edwold to ‘the old church of Cerne where now is the parish church.’ Edwold was the brother of Edmund, King of the East Anglians, who had been killed by invading Danes in 869, upon which Edwold retired from the world and lived the life of a hermit at Cerne at ‘the silver well’ (as Leland called St Augustine’s Well), where he died a few years later. His bones were buried there and Leland records, on the authority of an ‘ancient book’, that before the ‘new foundation’ there was a small monastery at Cerne of three monks leading the religious life in his honour.
In the early 11th century, the invading Dane Canute plundered the monastery during his conquest of England, shortly after his landing at the mouth of the River Frome in 1015. But when the conquest was complete and after his coronation as king the next year, he became a considerable benefactor to it – he had been a Christian before he was king and treated the church well. He is reputed to have restored all that was destroyed or removed, in addition to granting generous gifts of land. A century after its foundation, according to the Domesday Book of 1086, it owned land at Cerne itself, at Little Puddle, Radipole, Bloxworth, Affpuddle, Poxwell, East Woodsford, Hethfelton, Worgret, Littlebredy, Long Bredy, Winterbourne Abbas, Nettlecombe, Milton, Kimmeridge, Renscombe and Symondsbury. The abbey’s income in 1086 was £160; in 1291 it was £177; and in 1535 it was £575. The figures show how the abbey continued to grow and prosper over the years; they also support the records that state that the abbey had a relatively uneventful and peaceful history.
The first abbot was Ælfric, one of the most prolific writers in Old English, who became known because of this as Ælfric the Grammarian or Alfricus Grammaticus. Inevitably, his writings were mostly religious works: biblical commentaries, homilies, biographies of saints, but their high standard has led to his being compared with the great Bede. One scholar even goes so far as to say that he represents ‘the highest pinnacle of Benedictine reform and Anglo-Saxon literature’.
Ælfric was Cerne’s first abbot, and also its most famous. Its most notorious was its last, Thomas Corton. Serious charges were brought against him, including gross immorality, letting the church and abbey lands go to rack and ruin, wasting the goods of the house on his mistresses and illegitimate children. A monk of the house, William Christchurch, also came forward with complaints that he [Corton] allowed two of the monks ‘who haunt daily queans [i.e. prostitutes]’ to celebrate mass without confession and permitted women freely into the abbey. But Christchurch had his own issues: he had been imprisoned by the abbot for ‘illspeaking’ and dismissed from the monastery and sent to Monmouth priory, where he claimed to have been badly treated. Whatever the accuracy of the charges (and there were similar charges against many monasteries in the Latin West), there was enough in them for Henry VIII’s Commissioners to forbid the abbot and his monks from going outside the bounds of the monastery. The Commissioners were at the time in the process of dissolving the monasteries, and these events can only have speeded up Cerne’s own closure. On 15 March 1539 the abbot, with the prior and fifteen of his brethren, surrendered the abbey to the king in the person of John Tregonwell, one of Thomas Cromwell’s personally chosen commissioners.
Like so many others after the Dissolution, Cerne Abbey was almost completely demolished and little of the monastery stands. But what remains is priceless. The Guest House is the most substantial part, built by Abbot John Vanne between 1458 and 1470 with a fine oriel window. The fireplace from the Guest House, on which is carved Abbot Vanne’s crest, is now in the house which has evolved around another surviving portion, the South Gatehouse. The majestic Tithe Barn, with its marvellous flint work, is testimony of the abbey’s power and glory, dating from 1350 – Frederick Harvey Darton calls it ‘one of the noblest Tithe Barns in England’.
Best of all is the Abbot’s Porch and Gateway, built by Abbot Thomas Sam in 1508. It has a magnificent two-storey oriel window, and its beauty inspired Darton to write that ‘it is lovely enough to make one troubled at what England has lost: not, I would say, in any particular religious faith, but in the power to express, in stones, a wonder, a pride that is not arrogance, a love of making life lovely.’
Many of the remains of the abbey are private property, but St Augustine’s Well is always open to the public. Until the last war the waters were regularly used by villagers living in Abbey Street for their drinking water, and it is still good to drink in the springtime when it is flowing freely (although there is a stern warning notice advising against this). Whether Augustine came here or not, it is a place of peace and quiet, where one may reflect on the feet that, in ancient time, walked on England’s pleasant pastures. ◗