Tewkesbury Abbey

Tewkesbury Abbey from the east
Tewkesbury Abbey from the east

The Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, one of the finest Norman buildings in England, is the second largest parish church in England, having become so at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Its massive crossing tower was rated “probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England” by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. Fourteen of England's cathedrals are of smaller dimensions; only Westminster Abbey contains more medieval tombs.

Construction time-line:

  • 23 October 1121 -- the choir consecrated
  • 1150 -- tower and nave completed
  • 1178 -- large fire necessitated some rebuilding
  • ~1235 -- Chapel of St Nicholas built
  • ~1300 -- Chapel of St. James built
  • 1321-1335 -- choir rebuilt with radiating chantry chapels
  • 1349-59 -- tower and nave vaults rebuilt; the lierne vaults of the nave replacing wooden roofing
  • 1400-1410 -- cloisters rebuilt
  • 1438 -- Chapel of Isobel (countess of Warwick) built
  • 1520 -- Guesten house completed (later became the vicarage)


The Chronicle of Tewkesbury records that the first Christian worship was brought to the area by Theoc, a missionary from Northumbria, who built his cell in the mid-7th century near on a gravel spit where the Severn and Avon rivers join together. The cell was succeeded by a monastery in 715, but nothing remaining of it has been identified.

In the 10th century the religious foundation at Tewkesbury became a priory subordinate to the Cranbourne Abbey in Dorset. In 1087 William the Conqueror gave the manor of Tewkesbury to his cousin Robert Fitzhamon, who, with Giraldus, Abbot of Cranbourne, founded the present abbey in 1092. Building of the present Abbey church did not start until 1102, employing Caen stone imported from Normandy and floated up the Severn.

Robert Fitzhamon died at Falaise in Normandy, in 1102, but his son-in-law, Robert Fitzroy, the natural son of Henry I who was made Earl of Gloucester, continued to fund the building work. The Abbey's greatest single later patron was Lady Eleanor le Despenser, last of the De Clare heirs of the FitzRoys. In the High Middle Ages Tewkesbury became one of the richest abbeys of England.

After the Battle of Tewkesbury in the Wars of the Roses on May 4 1471, some of the defeated Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the abbey, but the victorious Yorkists, led by King Edward IV, forced their way into the abbey, and the resulting bloodshed caused the building to be closed for a month until it could be purified and re-consecrated.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the people of Tewkesbury saved the abbey from destruction in 1539: Insisting it was their parish church, which they had the right to keep, they bought it for the value of its bells and lead roof (which would have been salvaged and melted down, leaving the structure a roofless ruin :the price came to £453.

The bells merited their own free-standing belltower, an unusual feature in English sites. After the Dissolution, the bell-tower was used as the gaol for the borough until it was demolished in the late 18th century.

The central stone tower was originally topped with a wooden spire, which collapsed in 1559 and was never rebuilt. Some restoration undertaken in the 19th century under Sir Gilbert Scott included the rood screen that replaced the one removed when the Abbey became a parish church.

The churches' 17th-century organ was originally made for Magdalen College, Oxford. After the Civil War it was removed to the chapel of Hampton Court Palace and came to Tewkesbury in 1737.

Abbey precincts

The market town of Tewkesbury developed to the north of the abbey precincts, of which vestiges remain in the layout of the streets and a few buildings: the Abbot’s gatehouse, the Abbey Mill, Abbey House, the present vicarage and some half-timbered dwellings in Church Street. The Abbey now sits partly isolated in lawns, like a cathedral in its close, for the area surrounding the Abbey is protected from development by the Abbey Lawn Trust, originally funded by a United States benefactor in 1962.


One of its most distinguished abbots was Alan, the biographer of Thomas a Kempis.


The Abbey has its own choir which sings at weekend services. Weekday evensongs were first sung by the choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury which was founded for this purpose in 1973 by Miles Amherst. After the closure of the Abbey School in 2006, weekday services continue to be sung with the choir being based at Dean Close Preparatory School, Cheltenham.

Famous graves in the abbey


  • Richard K. Morris and Ron Shoesmith (editors), 2003. Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art and Architecture ISBN 1904396038
  • Official site
  • Britannia.com Detailed tour
  • Illuminated armorials in the Founders' and Benefactors' Book of Tewkesbury Abbey, early 16th century, at the Bodleian Library
  • David Bagley, "The bells of Tewkesbury Abbey"
  • Heritage Trail: Tewkesbury Abbey
  • Abbey School
  • The abbey of Tewkesbury, Victoria County History of England: Gloucestershire, Vol. 2, pp.61-6.

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