ELSTOW ABBEY - THE BUILDINGS
Interior - East End
As a result of the demolitions in 1580, the first impression one receives on entering the Church by the West door is that its height is out of proportion to its length. Fortunately, it still retains six of the 11th century Norman arches set on massive square pillars, which make a striking contrast with the two “Early English” bays added later. The 16th century East wall is adorned with some curious corbels which at one time would have supported statues, having been moved to their present position from the monastic chancel. The elaborate one in the centre is a fine example of the early English Renaissance style. Below this is a memorial to Sir Humphrey Radclyff and his wife. For many years the head of the male was missing, but was found embedded in the wall when the Church was repaired in 1880-2. Sir Humphrey, who had died in 1566, was probably buried in the Abbey Chancel before it was demolished. His wife, Dame Isabel, died in 1594, the memorial being put in its present position above the 1580 Altar by their son soon afterwards. The three windows are of a late perpendicular style, the glass being of Victorian date and pleasing in colour and design. The South aisle windows were inserted in the 1880 restoration. The glass in the windows of the North and South Chapels are Bunyan Memorial windows, depicting “The Holy War” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” respectively. The credence table on the left of the Altar is made of alabaster and was dug up in the churchyard.
Interior - North Aisle
The main object of interest is the perpendicular Font, in which John Bunyan was baptised on 13th November, 1628, followed by his two daughters, Mary (who was born blind) in 1650 and Elizabeth in 1654. In the west wall is a good splayed early English window, and underneath it is the recess formed by a former entrance, now blocked up. This can be seen from the outside. In this corner is a memorial to Mr Robert Crompton, the Magistrate who refused to allow Bunyan to be bailed out of prison. On the north wall hang several funeral hatchments belonging to the inter-married families of Hillersden, Farrer and Colquhoun. To the east of the north door are the remains of a Holy Water stoop.
The 2-manual organ (please see the separate and fuller article under the “Music” tab) is positioned in the North Aisle and was built in 1939 by William Hill & Son and Norman & Beard Limited of London. It replaced an earlier 1-manual barrel organ by J W Walker installed about 1845, but retained some of the old stops. The pipe work of the present organ is housed in a 1930’s light oak case, designed by Peter Hartley, who was a student at the Slade School of Art, and the son of the then Vicar of Elstow, the Revd Stanley Hartley. The Bedford firm C A White built the organ case, and also the Altar, Lectern, and Clergy Stall. The detached organ console is positioned beside the choir stalls on the North side of the nave, an excellent position for seeing all that is going on during services. The organ has a fine traditional sound, and its specification is recorded in the National Pipe Organ Register in Cambridge. Peter Hartley suffered subsequently as a Far East Prisoner of War. On his safe return to Elstow, he studied for the ministry, and became vicar of Elstow following his father’s death in 1953. In 1976 he was appointed Canon Residentiary of Bermuda Cathedral and died in 1992. His ashes are buried in Elstow’s Churchyard.
Interior - South Aisle
This aisle differs in character from the north, having two arches in the roof with carved corbels. These two arches were probably added as internal buttresses when the buildings outside (i.e. the monastic buildings on the west side of the former cloisters) were partly demolished. This aisle may possibly have housed the Chapel described in the old records as the “Chantry Juxta Pontem”. Near the East of the aisle there are traces of a Piscina with aumbry and trefoiled arch. This marks the position of an Altar. Nearby on the floor are two fine brasses, one of which depicts the last Abbess but two, Elizabeth Hervey, who died in 1527. This is one of the only two brasses in this country which shows an Abbess with her crosier. The other brass is of Dame Margery, twice a widow, and Grandmother of Elizabeth Hervey by her first husband. She died in 1427 leaving a sum of 20 marks to be expended in Masses for the repose of her soul.
The “Bunyan Chapel”, so called because of the stained glass window, has the table and altar rails which were in use in John Bunyan’s time. The perpendicular pulpit belonging to the same period is now on display in the Elstow Moot Hall. The oak reredos was given by the Bedfordshire Branch of the Far East Prisoner of War Association. It was positioned there because Bunyan himself was a prisoner, and because Canon Peter Hartley and others associated with this Parish, such as Doug Gautrey, our Reader for many years, were prisoners in the Far East in the Second World War. Elstow was, until a few years ago when anno domine precluded its continuance, the venue for the annual reunion service of prayer and remembrance for the Bedfordshire Far East Prisoners of War Association. On the south wall above the brasses is a memorial to Thomas Hillersden, grandson of the Thomas Hillersden who purchased the property in 1616. Above his memorial tablet are his helmet and the battered remains of his jerkin or tabard. By the time of his death, in 1656, armour was no longer worn in battle. However, jousting for sport was carried on until the civil war put an end to it.
Interior -The Vestry
The Vestry with its vaulted roof and central pillar of Purbeck marble is in the south west corner of the Abbey. A small door leads down some steps, left, into a vaulted 13th century chamber, contemporary with the two West bays of the Nave in the early English style. It compares with the “cellarium” of Fountains Abbey, and was originally a cellar or place for (cold) storage, although there is a local tradition that it may have served as the Abbess’s Outer Parlour. Its roof is supported by the one central pillar, and the quirking is a fine example of its kind. The two window panels depict St. Mary and St. Helena (left and right, respectively), to whom the Church is dedicated. Under the windows a new altar has recently been installed. This altar was presented in 2004 by the Smith family in memory of John Smith, son of a former rector of Olney and a long-lived and loyal parishioner.
Interior - General
The whole building was extensively restored, starting in 1880, at a cost of some £14,000, mainly provided by Samuel Whitbread, by whose family the estate was purchased in 1792. Prior to this it was in a very poor state of repair. The architect, Thomas Jobson Jackson, changed some aspects of the Church. For example, he lowered the south aisle so that it would be the same as the north aisle. As he left no records of the Church as he found it, one concludes that he combined accurate with whimsical restoration. During the incumbency of the Revd Stanley Hartley (1919-53) many improvements were made, especially in the furnishings. The Altar table, Altar rails, the Sanctuary chairs and the Lectern were given. This last was presented by the Sunday School as a Memorial after the Second World War, and features carvings of John Bunyan on one side (shown in the photograph), and an Abbess on the other. The oak inner doors at the West end are a memorial to the late Revd Stanley Hartley. All the work listed was designed by the late Professor Sir Albert Richardson, PPRA. In recent years, further restoration work has seen the repair of stonework, pitched re-roofing of the vestry, the cleaning of the inside stone and woodwork, the re-lighting of the church, the re-ordering of the West end and the vestry, the recarpeting of the main aisle and the creation of a “Children’s Corner”. There is a War Memorial and some mural brasses, which came to the Abbey from the Chapel of Elstow School in Ampthill Road now demolished. The Altar Cross was a gift from the Old Boy’s Association, and the insert of stained glass in the north aisle Chapel was from the School.
Exterior of the Abbey
The north doorway, though rebuilt in 1880, is an exact copy of the old Norman doorway, which was then sited in the extreme western bay of the north aisle before the 13th century extension of the nave. The tympanum above this doorway is probably of 11th century origin, depicting Our Lord in the attitude of blessing, flanked by St. Peter holding the keys, and St. John. The small doorway in the west wall, nearest the tower and now blocked up inside, contains part of its original oak door, and a beam, possibly from the old oak rood screen. It is preserved because tradition has it that this is the “Wicket Gate” of John Bunyan’s imagination, through which Christian fled for refuge. The main West End doorway is early English and is flanked on the north side by a massive buttress which shows traces of arcading, which may be the relics of elaborate statue niches. The whole wall appears to be somewhat of an architectural puzzle. The window is apparently 16th century, but an offset in the wall on the inside suggests that a larger window once existed there. In 1963 the oak doors were put in, surmounted by the carved facsimile of the Abbey Seal. These were given in memory of Claude Prole, Churchwarden for 42 years.
Exterior - The Tower
Detached from the Church, this may have served as a flanking tower to guard the western entrance to the Abbey, like the Abbott’s tower at Buckfast Abbey. A Cross of Sanctuary is to be found near the base on the west wall. Originally built in the 13th century, the tower was extensively rebuilt in about 1500. There are six bells. The fifth is commonly called the Bunyan Bell, because it is believed that Bunyan rang it. Before a service, the five minute bell could have been rung from the doorway of the tower, and Bunyan is reputed to have rung this, and not the others, for fear that the tower should fall on his head as a retribution for sin. The tower may have given him the idea for the Castle of Beelzebub, from which Bunyan imagined arrows were wont to be shot at pilgrims entering the gate. The restoration of the tower was completed in 1965.
Exterior - The Ruins
Comprising parts of the west and south ranges of the monastic building, these are all that is left of Thomas Hillersden’s mansion. In old prints the house appears to have been L-shaped, and the two stories, with a high-pitched roof, were joined to the south west of the Church above what is now the Vestry. In the field to the east of the ruins can be discerned the carriageway from the High Street. The Fish Ponds were in a field to the west of the Cottages.
This was the scene of regular markets and fairs. The Nuns of Elstow had been granted a Charter by King Henry II confirming their right to hold a fair during four days in May. The stump of the old Market Cross can be seen, around which it is recorded that Bunyan used to play Tip-Cat, a sort of rounders.
Extensive archaeological work has been done on the site, and has been filled in again to prevent further deterioration. Pagan Saxon and Roman-British remains were uncovered. The Abbey was built over a large Saxon Parish graveyard. The monastic buildings followed the usual basic plan but with some variations. The entire cloisters and associated buildings, except the Church, were rebuilt on a different plan in the 14th century. The work is described over several reports by David Baker: see “Excavations at Elstow Abbey 1965-1970, Third Interim Report, Bedfordshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 6, 1971”.