It is impossible to give a fully accurate account of the founding of Elstow Abbey. What follows is based on information drawn from the Domesday Book and from other contemporary chronicles and accounts, as well as from more modern and trustworthy studies and sources..
Elstow Abbey was a Benedictine foundation.
The Order of St Benedict was one of several “Orders” in the Middle Ages and included such as the Congregation of Cluny, the Cistercians and the Trappists. The Order was exiled from England along with all the others at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but returned in the 19th Century following John Keble’s famous sermon of 1833 which gave so much impetus to the revivalist Oxford Movement. The Order was noted for its sense of community responsibility in contrast to the more austere and introspective nature of other more contemplative Orders, such as the Franciscans. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia puts it, the aim of St Benedict (480-543) was to institute “an organization and a set of rules for the domestic life of such laymen as wished to live as fully as possible the type of life presented in the Gospel”. There are, as at the date of this article, some forty-one active Benedictine institutions in England and many more elsewhere in the world. The Abbey was founded in 1078 by Judith, Countess of Huntingdon and Northampton, niece of William I, an heiress in her own right in France and widow of the young but powerful Earl Waltheof of Northumbria.
Earl Waltheof had, as a young man, conspired unsuccessfully against William the Conqueror in 1069 and earlier, and as part of William’s subsequent appeasement strategy had, in 1070, been given his niece, Judith of Lens (which is near Arras and was in what was then Normandy) in marriage. In 1072, and as part of William’s on-going strategy, he was awarded the additional earldoms of Northampton and Huntingdon. But three years later, he was fatally implicated in, but not, so far as we can tell, the leader of, a further and equally unsuccessful rebellion; this time, he was duly executed in 1076 outside Winchester by a vengeful William.
Legend then turned him into a Christian martyr, but the veracity of some of those stories is questionable. The options were simple: either he was guilty as charged and therefore a Saxon hero as being a member of the anti-William faction, or he was innocent and therefore unjustly executed by the tyrannical new ruler of England. Both options had the potential to create a martyr of him.
After he died, Judith was allowed by a politically astute William to inherit Waltheof’s estates in the Midlands, but not those in the North where his power base had been. This ensured for the king a buffer state between the ever-turbulent northerners and the more pragmatically peaceful southerners.
And this is where an unverifiable story obscures the situation. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that she had been a material and damning witness against her own rebellious husband in late 1075 or early 1076. The reason we must adduce for this strange tale is that she, as a Norman, was so loyal a niece to William that she couldn’t bear to let her husband get away with treason. Other chroniclers suggest rather more believably that Waltheof had in fact encompassed his own demise by unwisely confiding in Archbishop Lanfranc, standing in as regent for an absent William who at the time was dealing bloodily with recalcitrant barons in Normandy. This may or may not have been the case: we shall never know. To confuse things further, there was also a widely held but dubious theory that her refusal to remarry and her founding of the Abbey at the age of about 24 or 25 were acts of remorse for what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that she had done.
The verifiable facts seem to be as follows. In 1078, Judith, along with some other like-minded and wealthy people, founded an abbey at Elstow. In the early 1080s, she refused her uncle William’s demand that she remarry, this time with Simon of Senlis, first Earl of Northampton. This demand was not complied with by her, but, a few years later, her eldest daughter, Maud, married Simon in 1090 (which was after William’s death). On her refusal to marry him, Judith was promptly stripped of all her titles and possessions in England causing her flee for safety back to Normandy to her birthright properties in Lens in around 1086. What happened to her thereafter is shrouded in the mists of time.
The inferences we can draw are two fold. Firstly she was rather fonder of her husband than was often the case (they were more or less the same age and I prefer not to prosecute more modern theories put forward by the psychologists and sexologists). So far as we know, she was never to remarry. Secondly William can not have felt himself under any obligation to her for anything. Which, of course, means that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may, here as elsewhere, be misleading us.
The Abbey was dedicated to St Mary. Judith was the principal of several patrons and endowed it with property in Elstow, Wilshampstead and Maulden (and possibly Kempston) so as to ensure its financial security. It did, of course, take decades to build.
There are various mentions of the Abbey in the years between its foundation and its dissolution 461 years later. The earliest is Henry I’s confirmation charter, granted in about 1126 and on completion of the Abbey’s construction. This mentions Maud, Judith’s eldest daughter, as being one among several current benefactors, including King Henry himself. In later years, there was mention of various scandals over the not untypical but nonetheless unseemly behaviour of the nuns and of the consequential disciplinary action taken. There are inevitably records of lawsuits one of which even led to Papal intervention before it could be settled.
As an example of how things could spiral out of control, Henry II (1154-1189) granted the nuns of Elstow the right to hold an annual fair, but it was to become so popular, successful and even rowdy that it aroused serious and even violent local opposition. However, the commercial success of the fairs resulted in a need for a lay trade centre; this led to the constructing, some time later, of the fine building known as the Moot Hall which still embellishes the village Green.
The Abbey’s main day-to-day duties, in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, were the singing or reciting of the daily offices, and the sharing of the celebration of the Mass with the laity. The members of the Abbey, and particularly the Abbess, were also closely involved in the supervision of the Abbey’s various estates and properties, assets permitted under the Rule, travelling widely in the execution of these duties. (In case you are surprised to read this statement, this was entirely in line with normal Benedictine practice.) The vestigial remains of the once substantial buildings are a mute witness to the Abbey’s prominence.
But storm clouds were blowing up…
After the break from Rome, which process started in fact before 1530 (the relevant Parliamentary Act, the Act of Supremacy, was in 1534), Henry VIII was particularly badly in need of money. On account of the revenues which perforce would revert to the crown, he caused a small number of the country’s religious foundations to be dissolved in 1536 on the technical, but questionable, grounds of “treason” (then, as until recently, a capital offence). In the event, some foundations preferred to pay fines to avoid, or rather postpone, this fate. The 1536 Act resulted that autumn in a fruitless uprising (the so-called “Pilgrimage of Grace”) and a consequent series of executions which were indiscriminate enough to include several heads of religious houses. This rebellion gave Henry the excuse, if he needed one, in a further Act of 1539 to dissolve the larger and richer houses (the 1536 “ceiling” had been set at the “clear value” figure of £200 income a year).
Elstow Abbey, with an annual “clear value” income of £284 12s 11¾d, according to the “Valor Ecclesiasticus” commissioned in 1535 by Henry, is recorded in David Baker’s careful study in the late 1960s as being the eighth richest nunnery in England. Some houses, such as the modestly wealthy Elstow preferred to “surrender” rather than go to trial for treason and risk losing everything if – or rather when – the courts decided against them. Elstow Abbey finally “surrendered” on 26th August 1539, thereby allowing the Abbess and 23 remaining Nuns to be granted pensions. Within four years of 1536 there were no monastic houses left in the country. [For a fuller picture of the financial status of the Abbey, please see the footnote at the end of this article.]
There was, at this point, a vote carried in Parliament to create a cathedral for Bedfordshire using the now available site but the motion never received the royal assent hoped for by its sponsor, Bishop Stephen Gardiner of Winchester [see Gilbert Burnet’s “History of the Reformation of the Church of England” for a fuller account of this rather sinister man’s life]. Gardiner, before being appointed to the see of Winchester in 1531 had been archdeacon of Bedford…..
And that, really, was that, except that the Church, significantly reduced in size to what we so fortunately have today, was to survive the Dissolution and the Abbey’s more-than-partial destruction in around 1580. However, although the Abbey was closed down and virtually destroyed, the “laity” of Elstow did not go away, so that there was still a requirement for a Church to serve their needs.
But there remains one loose end to this story. Why is the Abbey Church dedicated not just to St Mary, but also to St Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great?
The answer lies in the fact that in 1272 a man named Ivota, about whom nothing seems to be known beyond his name, built a Chapel in the grounds of the Abbey and dedicated it to her. The Chapel was in fact pulled down, along with most of the Abbey, after the Dissolution. It is this which accounts for the dual dedication of the surviving Church to St Mary as the dedicatee of the Abbey and to St Helena as the dedicatee of the Chapel.
A replica in oak of the Abbey’s Seal, as affixed to the Deed of Surrender, is to be seen placed over the great West Doors of the Church. It depicts the two patron saints. St Mary is holding the Holy Child in her arms, and St Helena has a cross in her hands. Below are figures clearly depicting the pastoral role of the Abbey, with the Abbess, holding a bishop’s crosier, flanked by nuns.
© TJ Elliott MA, April 2008 and 2011