This description of Sherborne Abbey in Dorset is extracted from The Greater Abbeys of England by Abbot Gasquet, published in the United States of America, 1908 by Dodd Mead & Company.
Sherborne Abbey in Dorset was anciently the seat of a bishop. According to our historians, about the year 705 the west Saxon See of Dorchester was divided, and whilst Bishop Daniel kept his chair at Winchester, St Aldhelm became first bishop of the See of Sherborne, which comprised the counties of Wilts, Dorset, Berks, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Sherborne itself is described by William of Malmesbury as having been a very insignificant town, and he expresses his astonishment at its having remained for so long a time a Cathedral city. The erection of other Sees round about in the tenth century, and the division of the diocese territorially finally left Sherborne with only the county of Dorset as its share of what had been a most extensive diocese. As an Episcopal seat it came to an end in 1078 when, having been united in 1058 with Ramsbury by Bishop Herman, it was finally merged into the new diocese of Salisbury.
The first bishop of Sherborne, St Aldhelm, was an interesting personality. It is claimed for him that he was the first Englishman who wrote in Latin, and he speaks of himself as having been the first to introduce poetry into the country. William of Malmesbury in relating his life describes the people of this part of the country in Aldhelm’s time as half barbarians. It was difficult to instruct them as they were little disposed to come to church or to listen to discourses on religion. In order, therefore, to attract them, the bishop, who was a musician of no mean parts, used to place himself on a bridge with an instrument and sing to the passers-by ballads of his own composition. Mixing grave things with those of a lighter vein, the Saint gradually won the attention and then the hearts of the people to religious matters.
The actual date of the establishment of the monks at Sherborne is doubtful. In the tenth century, as in so many other ancient monastic establishments, secular canons certainly had possession of the place. In 998, however, Bishop Wulsin substituted Benedictine monks for the priests who were then serving the church. The charter of King Ethelred giving full permission for the change is extant, and from that time its connection with the Benedictine Order is clear. At first, of course, whilst bishops still ruled the See of Sherborne, the head of the monastery would have been, as in the case of other monastic cathedrals, a prior. The bishop was held to have the position of abbot, and in many cases had more or less practical jurisdiction over the cloister as well as the appointment of many of the officials. When in 1075 the See of Sherborne became merged in that of Old Sarum or Salisbury, the office of prior was apparently continued, till some time about the year 1122, when bishop Roger of Salisbury, having united the Priory of Horton to Sherborne, erected the latter into an abbey and blessed the Prior Thurstan as its first abbot.
It is interesting to note that St Stephen Harding, the second founder of Citeaux and the one who really drew up the Cistercian rule, was a monk from Sherborne. He received his education in the monastery, and three of the monks who joined him at Citeaux are said to have also come from the abbey.
The rectory of Sherborne, which in the “taxation of Pope Nicholas,” was valued at sixty marks, was a prebend of Salisbury and a peculiar of that See. The abbot held a singular position in virtue of his office as head of the Church at Sherborne; he was a prebendary of Salisbury and had his stall in the cathedral. This prebend was held by each successive abbot until the dissolution in the sixteenth century, when being considered as part of the office of abbot then suppressed, it became extinct.
With the erection of the monastery into an abbey, the work of rebuilding and reconstruction began. When it was over, all that was left of the older structure was the western doorway in the north aisle and a part of the adjoining wall-work. Bishop Roger of Salisbury manifested his continued interest in the abbey by building the piers of the tower and a chapel in the north transept. The south porch was also the work of his time, and then also the choir was arranged under the tower. In the thirteenth century the Lady Chapel was rebuilt, and in the following century four windows were placed in the north aisle, but these must soon have been blocked up by the building of the cloisters. These cloisters were probably not unlike those of Gloucester; they had six windows or bays in each walk, and the vaulting was in the style known as “fan-traceried.”
At the western end of the church stood the parish church of All Hallows, built upon the site of a great western porch twenty-nine feet broad, which originally had opened into the nave by a double row of pillars and small arches. This parish church had been removed out of the nave of the abbey church, and the abbot built a smaller doorway in the Norman arch, which greatly irritated the people already apparently opposed to their removal from the church. Leland in his Itinerary has left us a quaint account of what happened as the result of the existing popular ill-feeling. “The body of the abbey church,” he says, ” dedicated to Our Lady, served until a hundred years since for the chief parish church of the town. This was the cause of the abolition of the parish church there: the monks and the townsmen fell at variance because the townsmen took privilege to use the sacrament of Baptism in the chapel of All Hallows. Upon this Walter Gallow, a stout butcher living in Sherborne, defaced clean the font stone; and after, the variance growing to a plain sedition, the townsmen by the help of the Earl of Huntingdon — and the bishop of Salisbury on the monks’ part — a priest of All Hallows shot a shaft with fire into the top of that part of St Mary’s church that divided the east part that the monks used from what the townsmen used. This portion chancing at that time to be thatched, the roof was set on fire, and consequently the whole church, and the lead and bells melted.” The Lady Chapel and the porch alone escaped, and what is called “the red stain of fire ” may still be seen on the walls of the church.
This was in 1436, and the abbot of the day — Abbot Bradford — set to work at once to repair the disaster. He forced the townsfolk to contribute towards the rebuilding of the presbytery, on the bosses of which he carved a fiery arrow as a warning against further feuds. The new vaulting was constructed in the peculiar fan-tracery pattern of the cloister. In 1459 the Norman triforium and clerestory of five bays of the nave were pulled down, the south aisle was refaced with the old materials, and the new windows inserted. Towards the close of the century the aisles were vaulted, and this was apparently the last great work done by the monks.
Of the domestic buildings some small portions alone remain. On the west side the cellarer’s lodging or guest hall with a fine fifteenth-century roof, over a thirteenth-century undercroft, still exists, and to the north of these there are remains of the abbot’s quarters; his parlour and guest hall for example. Near the site of the refectory is the convent kitchen containing a fireplace carved with the symbols of the Evangelists. The cloisters are entirely gone and the hexagonal vaulted conduit of 1510 which used to be in the centre of the cloister garth, now stands in a position in the town. Leland calls it “a fair castle over the conduit in the cloister and the spouts to it,” and says it was made by John Meer or yer, the last abbot but one, who resigned in 1535.
The last abbot, John Barnstable, was elected on May 31, 1535, and he surrendered the monastery on March 18, 1539. The deed was acknowledged by his signature and those of sixteen monks, who all got pensions. The historian of Dorset says that on January 4, 1539, the King demised the property to Sir John Horsey, Kt. The deed in which this grant is conveyed names the Great Court, the Abbot’s Garden, West Garden, Pyggy’s Barton, Prior’s Garden, etc., all commonly called “the demesne lands of the monastery,” which were situated in Sherborne, and were in the occupation of the abbot for the use of the house, for keeping up hospitality, etc. It would appear that Sir John Horsey in anticipation of the surrender on May 1, 1539, paid £1,242 3s. 9d. to the King for these grants and at the same time £16 10s. 6d. for “the site of the church, steeple, campanile and churchyard of the monastery,” and other property.
A note printed by Dugdale from the parish Register of Sherborne carries the history of the sale of the ruins a step further and explains how the beautiful church was saved from destruction. The note runs: ” The feast of the Annunciation of our Lady being the Shere Thursday in Ceena Domini, the year of our Lord 1540, and the thirty-first of our Sovereign Lord King Henry VIII, the monks being expelled and the house suppressed by the King’s authority, Master John Horsey, Kt. Councilor to the King’s Grace, bought the said suppressed house to himself and to his heirs in fee for ever, and then the said Master Horsey, Knight, sold the said church and the ground to the Vicar and parish of Sherborne for 100 marks, to them and their successors for ever, and the said Vicar and parish took possession on the same day and year above said. — Per me. D. Johannem Chattmyll, Vicar.” This is probably the correct account: another story says that the parishioners paid £230 for their church to Sir John Horsey, and in order to raise the money sold their old parish church of All Hallows for the materials. It is probable, however, that this sum refers to the sale of the roofing of the Minster, with that of the bell tower and dormitory, the lead of which was purchased for that sum. It was no doubt owing to the prompt action of the townsfolk that this fine Minster church with its unrivalled fan-groining — a great example of what was done in England for architecture even during the Wars of the Roses — was preserved to us. Thomas Arundel, the King’s receiver for the county of Dorset acknowledges having got from Sherborne by way of sales, etc., during the first year after its suppression the respectable sum of £520 6s. 8|d.