Nestled in a valley in the heart of Dorset is Cerne Abbas. Medievalists will know of this place because of its connection with Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific writers in Old English. However, many will mainly associate the village with its particularly well-endowed chalk giant which overlooks the valley.
A Benedictine abbey was established here in 987 when Æthelmaer gave ‘Cernel’ (as Cerne Abbas was then known) to the Church. Cerne Abbey was then dedicated to St Mary, St Peter and St Benedict. To get to the former site of the Abbey one must venture down a winding road, past the Pitchmarket, a sixteenth-century building once used by farmers to display their produce. A large stone building stands at the end of this road. A sign at its side proclaims that you have found Cerne Abbey.
The Abbey House itself, now a private residence, originally formed part of the South Gatehouse, the main entrance to the Abbey from the town. However, much of what is seen today was constructed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 using materials from the Abbey . In 1919 the house was sold for £7600 by the Pitt-Rivers family as part of the sale of much of Cerne Abbas and associated lands. The village consequently celebrates the sale’s centenary this year.
After paying £2 into an honesty box on the right-hand side of Abbey House you can venture down a small pathway into what, at first, merely seems to be the gardens of the House. However, a small building to the right of the entrance path suggest that all is not what it seems.
Indeed, peering into the bottom windows of this building it appears to just be an old house now used for storage. Built in the late fifteenth century this building was, in fact, the Abbey Guesthouse. This building is said to have sheltered Queen Margaret of Anjou and her young son ahead of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
Although you cannot enter the Guesthouse, I would advise walking completely around it. Not only does this allow you to see the beautiful oriel window from all sides but if you look closely at the brickwork as you walk you can see the marks indicating the location of earlier doors. This gives an impression of the changes the building has undergone over time – the passing of the ages marked by the alteration of design. This building speaks of transition. From behind the guesthouse one can also see the tower of St Mary’s, a church established by the abbey for the village in the early fourteenth century. In many ways the Abbey would have been the ‘beating heart’ of Cerne Abbas – connected to the village both financially and spiritually.
Deeper into the garden, initially obscured from view by the boughs of age-old trees, lies a tower-like structure known as the Abbot’s Porch. Three stories high with magnificent oriel windows the Porch originally marked the entrance to the Abbot’s Hall. Beneath these windows lies a panel decorated with coat of arms of different benefactors to the Abbey as well as that of Abbot Thomas Sam, who was responsible for the Porch’s construction in the late fifteenth century. The rooms behind the oriel windows are thought to have been the Abbot’s living quarters and possibly his library. It is possible that parts of a manuscript known as the Book of Cerne were kept in these rooms. Looking at the building one can just imagine the light streaming through those windows providing natural illumination for the Abbot as he perused his books.
Going under the entrance way you are greeted by what must have once been an impressive vaulted ceiling. Today it is chipped and broken in places, such are the effects of the passing of time. However, considering that most of the Abbey is lost to us as a result of the Dissolution, even a small glance into the grandeur of past days is precious.
As the sixteenth century progressed Henry VIII established a commission headed by Thomas Cromwell to gather information on the monasteries that could justify their closure. The monks at Cerne Abbey, particularly Abbot Thomas Corton, were accused of a variety of different misdoings. As part of the enquiry Thomas Corton was accused of ‘keeping concubines in the cellars’, soliciting ‘honest women in the town and elsewhere’ and imprisoning another monk, William Christchurch, for speaking against him. All of this provided the evidence needed for the closure of the Abbey and, eventually, its destruction.
If you wander out of Abbey House gardens, through the churchyard gate and up a small path into the field behind the Abbot’s Porch you may see several mounds. These probably indicate where parts of the Abbey once stood, showing just how expansive the Abbey was before its destruction. On the wall separating the field and the cemetery is a sign erected in 1987 commemorating the passing of a millennium since the Abbey’s founding.
A swing has been built on the top of one of the mounds to the right of the field. Sitting on this swing and surveying the mounds in the utter silence that blankets Cerne Abbas, it is clear that even though the Abbey itself has been destroyed, the songs, prayers and footsteps of monks are still somehow embedded in this place, in the landscape. This is a place of calm and contemplation. It is a place to remember what was, what is and to wonder what will be.
By Micah Mackay
Bibliography and Further Reading:
‘A History of the Abbey’, Cerne Historical Society, https://cerneabbashistory.org/pdfdocs/abbey_history.pdf, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.
‘Cerne Abbey’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1323849, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.
‘Cerne Abbas: When The Village Was Sold At Auction’, Dorset Life, (2012), https://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2012/05/cerne-abbas-when-the-village-was-sold-at-auction/, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.
‘Guest House of Cerne Abbey’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1119470, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.
‘Thomas Corton, Abbot of Cerne’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 8, January-July 1535, ed. James Gairdner, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1885), p.46, British History Online, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol8/pp32-53, Accessed: 23rd September 2019.