Cerne Abbas is full of hidden wonders. If you venture down Abbey Street and turn right through the churchyard gate, follow a small path that hugs the cemetery wall and venture down a small slope through a cluster of trees then you will find a beautiful though rather obscure spot – St Augustine’s Well. But what is the link with St Augustine?
There are several variations of the story which connect Augustine of Canterbury to Cerne Abbas. To briefly summarise William of Malmesbury’s account:
Augustine was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great on a conversion mission. Augustine found he was not welcome in Dorset – fish tails were even tied to his clothes in an effort to drive him away. However, Augustine cried out ‘Cerno deum!’, a Latin phrase translating as ‘I see God!’. The non-believers repented and begged Augustine for forgiveness. In this moment a spring emerged from the ground, providing Augustine with the water needed to baptise the local people. The place in which this spring sprung was called ‘Cernel’ by the saint, a mixture of Latin ‘cerno’ (‘I see’) and Hebrew ‘El‘, (‘God’).
St Augustine’s Well is allegedly the same spring mentioned within this tale. John Leland also refers to the Well as ‘Silver Well’ when describing how St Edwold, brother of St Edmund, King of East Anglia, came to live as a hermit near the Well following Edmund’s death in 869. A small chapel dedicated to St Augustine used to stand over this place. However, all that exists now is a small stone water channel and a more recently constructed stone altar. On one of the stones next to St Augustine’s Well a carving of a Catherine wheel can still be seen. This is potentially a stone from St Catherine’s Chapel which was located on a nearby hill to the North-East of the village.
There are a few different legends associated with the St
Augustine’s Well. The (very cold) water is said to be able to heal sore eyes,
to cure infertility and to help young women find husbands. Moreover, it is said
that if you look into the water at Easter you will see the faces of all those destined
to die that year. St Augustine’s Well is a site of wishing, healing and
The cover of tree branches and the ribbons hanging from them, many containing tributes to lost loved ones, creates the impression of a sort of naturally formed chapel. Indeed, there is utter silence here – you almost forget that a village exists down the road. This is a place to leave behind the worries and heaviness of modern-day life. It is a site that still channels a sense of ancient sacredness. One cannot help but take a moment to stop and reflect.
By Micah Mackay
Bibliography and Further Reading
Dugdale, William, ‘Cerne, or Cernell Abbey in
Dorsetshire’, Monasticon Anglicanum: A History of the Abbies and Other
Monasteries, Hospitals, Frieries, and Cathedral and Collegiate Churches with their
Dependencies in England and Wales, (London: 1846), pp.621-624.
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.
UNDER the wide skies of southern Norfolk there are two villages called Tivetshall – two twins only recently united as one civil parish. Two villages produced two churches and, as is often the case with pairs of churches, they are of unequal popularity. While the church at Tivetshall St Margaret is well used and admired for its sixteenth-century tympanum and rood screen, its sister church at Tivetshall St Mary is now a ruin – even before its final abandonment in the 1940s, it was, according to Henry Munro Cautley, “an extraordinarily plain building”, long bereft of an active congregation. I can imagine the place: white-washed walls, flaking and crumbling in places, growing greener through damp, as cobwebs and dust blanch the once deep-russet wood of the pews, pulpit and unadorned altar, with the faded arms of George IV looking down from on high – altogether no embellishment beyond the liturgical and national necessities.
The origins of the Tivetshall twins, Mary and Margaret, may date back to before the Norman Conquest, since the Domesday Book records two churches under ‘Teueteshala’, a place name etymologically divisible into the comfortably familiar healh ‘a nook of land’ and the more mysterious ‘teuetes-‘; Mills suggests an origin in ‘tewhit’, a dialectal word for lapwings, itself an onomatopoeic creation based on the sound of their call. It’s a reasonable derivation; East Anglia in fact has the similar ‘peewit’, which today remains a popular variant of the bird’s name, and is a word my grandfather taught me to insist on.
However, what remains of the church at Tivetshall St Mary is younger than this, the village’s small introduction into history. The walls of the nave and chancel have been largely dated to around the year 1300, though parts may be as old as the twelfth century. The church stands apart and adrift from the village; nearly all the houses sit beside the Street and Rectory Road, which turns off from the A140, a modern route that follows the course of the Romans’ Pye Road between Venta Icenorum and Camulodunum. St Mary’s, however, lies on the Gissing Road, one field west of the houses – and indeed it is only when heading westwards that its old east window is at all noticeable to the traveller. Like an optical illusion, the elegant branching tracery of the window, somehow still in situ, merges with the surrounding trees and vanishes easily unless approached from the right direction.
Wood and stone are becoming one in Tivetshall; the boundary between nature and human effort is blurred as flintstones fall back down to the earth and trees push up through their rubble. This process of decay is mostly too slow for appreciation, though time was on one occasion aided by artificial intervention when in 1947 a jet aircraft broke the sound barrier overhead and caused the the fourteenth-century tower to collapse into the nave. This, a rare episode of rapidity, provides us with an appealing border in time between unloved church and romantic ruin, which we should remember are two very different types of place. We tend to be much more at ease with the definitely dead than with the decaying and dying; a skull is always preferable to a corpse. Thus, in 1947, St Mary’s entered into a new type of existence: ruination, or delightful death.
And what a ruin it is too! As you arrive, you are struck by the perfection of the place, with its tall, glassless east window looking out no less imposingly, though now blindly. You may even feel that, though you had never considered it before, that St Mary’s is how a ruined church should look, as if the archetype for all the others. It is certainly ideal for both the historian’s sleuthing mind and the melancholic soul in search of the sense of time that ruins offer. It is complete enough to engage even the amateur church-crawler; with a little guesswork and a rummage in the foliage, paving slabs, a piscina, a stoup and a couple of crested and cursive-lettered memorials begin to emerge, and with them the lost life of a valued, hallowed space.
Entering by the south porch, passing the box that contains, of course, a visitors book, you find yourself within the shell of the church proper. If you are able, I would recommend climbing the rubble of the tower to view the ruins from higher up, from which point you come to see how, though devoid of human furnishing, St Mary’s is by no means empty; a soft blanket of grasses and flowers completely covers the hard stone floor, having crept in through the doorways, like seawaters reclaiming loaned land. It is peaceful and open to the windsong and all the daylight; it is also heavy with time. Do the trees outnumber the gravestones? It is so hard to tell; ivy and moss have made memorials of life into trees of stone, while all the names, mostly still legible, slowly form in the mind the feeling that, in fact, you are far from alone, but rather standing amongst a whole host of the time-taken dead, whose only difference to you is a few fleeting years.
When you finally turn to drive, walk or cycle away, you may well feel a quiet but sincere reluctance to leave and return to the present day, with all its garish vitality. I go as far as to say that we need places like this – places that kindly interrupt the present with the past. Better still, St Mary’s Church, if you make the effort to find it, which I hope you will, will be yours alone to enjoy, such is its seclusion and lack of renown. An oasis it is, and an immersive refuge for those who need it – which is all of us, I believe, whether we know it or not.
Danny Bate 2019
Cautley, H. M. (1949). Norfolk Churches. 256. Norman Adlard & Co.
Mills, A. D. (2011). A Dictionary of British Place Names. 462. Oxford University Press.
Welcome to The Wandering Academic and our first post! We’re really excited to share some of the amazing places we’ve visited with you and tell you more about them. So, without further ado, we hope you enjoy reading a bit about Knowlton Church and Earthworks in Dorset. – Micah and Danny
So, today I decided were going to brave the rain and visit one of my favourite places in Dorset – Knowlton Church. I came across Knowlton a few years ago and the relative isolation of the site and the odd, slightly mysterious, atmosphere that it exudes has drawn me to it ever since.
As we were driving through the depths of deepest, darkest Dorset towards Knowlton Church and Earthworks, the first thing we saw was the top of a ruined tower. Going through the gate and into the site itself we were greeted by a rather stunning view – the ruins of a small church situated in the middle of a henge, part of a system of neolithic earthworks in the area.
About the earthworks…
John Gale writes that the earthwork system at Knowlton is made up of ‘five “circular” earthworks’: the Southern Circle, the Northern Enclosure, the Old Churchyard, the Great Barrow and the Church Circle (105). The Great Barrow is part of a large network of ring ditches surrounding Knowlton – in total there are 178 ring ditches within a 1.5km radius from the site (Stoertz 40-43). This suggests that the Knowlton site was one particularly associated with burial activity. Knowlton church itself, however, sits in the middle of Church Circle, a henge thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes.
But why is there a church in the middle of one of the henges?
Well, the church itself is Norman, built in the 12th century (although the tower was built later on in the 15th century). It’s generally agreed that the church was built in this location, in the middle of the Church Circle, precisely because of its associations with pagan rituals. Knowlton church is literally an attempt to ‘Christianise’ a pagan ceremonial site. When viewing the church in this light it can be seen as a visual demonstration of one culture or religion attempting to displace or, in a way, gain dominance over another. This is particularly emphasised by the fact that the eye is instantly drawn to the church when approaching the Knowlton site as it sits directly in the centre of the henge.
Some other interesting features…
Although the tower is probably the most complete part of the church I actually found the opposite end of the building the most interesting. It is on this side of the church (the eastern side) that there was probably a side chapel, most likely a lady chapel. Here you can see some worn away stone work jutting from the wall, to the sides of what used to be a window. I assume that these potentially held candles, statues or other devotional items associated with Mary.
Two yew trees also border the henge and church at the eastern end of the Knowlton site. If you venture under the trees you are greeted by a collection of brightly coloured ribbons. On these people have written a variety of different messages – from prayers for sick loved ones to notes for those who have passed. It is a very haunting and beautiful sight and a beautiful spot for a quick moment of reflection. I have included a picture of the ribbons below but have attempted to avoid the messages out of respect for those who left them. The church was also framed beautifully by the branches of the yew trees as I looked out from this spot. Yew trees are important to both paganism and Christianity and it is not uncommon to find them close to a church. As Mark Silber and Gordon P. DeWolf write, ‘the yew is believed to have been but one of the many pre-Christian symbols of nature that influenced later religious beliefs’ (140). The yew, as such, just further emphasised the connection and relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds already so boldly and beautifully evident at the Knowlton site.
Knowlton Church and Earthworks is certainly a stunning spot surrounded by the beauty of the Dorset countryside. Exploring the site feels like taking a real step back in time. This is not the first time that I’ve visited Knowlton but each time I come away feeling that I’ve discovered something new. It is a place of such contrasts and a truly spectacular visual display of history. It’s also lovely and quiet – we were the only people visiting today and it was a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life! I also love that the site is completely free to access (my bank account loves this too).
It is precisely because of places like Knowlton that I feel this blog is important – I hope it can open more people’s eyes to the rich history that surrounds us (even in the fields of Dorset!) and perhaps play a small part in making history more accessible for all.
A quick thank you to Toby Nelms for driving me to Knowlton today and exploring it with me despite the miserable weather!
Bibliography Gale, John, ‘Knowlton Circles: A Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Ceremonial Complex and Its Environs – A Review’, Landscapes, 18.2, (2017), pp.102-119.
Stoertz, C. ‘Aerial Photographic Survey of Knowlton Circles’, in Prehistoric Landscape Development and Human Impact in the Upper Allan Valley, Cranborne Chase, Dorset, eds. Charles French et al, (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007), pp.40-43.