Dorchester Abbey is currently the Church of England parish church for the town of Dorchester-On-Thames, Oxfordshire. It has been a centre of Christian worship for nearly 14 centuries, the first church was founded on the site in 635 A.D.

History

In 634 A.D., St. Birinius landed near Portsea, on the coast of Hampshire, and began a missionary church to the West Saxons. By 635 A.D., he had converted Cygnelis, the King of the West Saxons, as well as Oswald, King of the Mercians. The two kings gave him land in the town of Dorchester-On-Thames to build his abbey. Not much is known about this early building suffice to say it was probably build of stone plundered from the nearby Roman structures, and was probably built on the same site as the present church. Other Anglo-Saxon churches have been identified, and Dorchester could follow their general structure, a single long hall, with small chambers off the main axis, and a large, processional west doorway.

St. Birinius died in 650, and was buried in the church, and as war with the Mercians seemed imminent in the 660s, his see (and his remains) were moved south to the city of Winchester. After the Danish invasion of Mercia, Dorchester was re-instated in 869 as the seat of the vast Mercian see, stretching from the River Thames to the River Humber. The last Saxon Bishop, Wulfwig, died in 1067, and the new Norman Bishop, Remigius, moved the see to Leicester. The Abbey at Dorchester went into decline, but was still home to a community of secular canons.

In 1140, Bishop Alexander of Lincoln re-founded the abbey, and installed Augustinian canons. A large new church was planned in the transitional Norman style, and was built to a cruciform plan. The tomb of St. Birinius was restored, and the relics returned, and was opened to pilgrims in 1225. This influx of pilgrims (and their money!) lead to an extensive building programme, with the addition of a north choir aisle, and a rich shrine for their saint. Around 1320, a south nave aisle was added, and in 1340, a new sanctuary was constructed. During the reformation, the shrine was destroyed and Abbey was dissolved. The church and monastery were bought by Richard Beauforest who promptly gave the church to the parish for their worship. The tower was added in 1602, incorporating material from an earlier processional entrance. In 1846, William Butterfield restored the church, adding a magnificent rose window, and raising the roof. In 1872, Giles Gilbert Scott added vaulting to the south choir aisle and replaced the glass in the south side chapel. A recreated shrine was installed as a memorial to the first Suffragan Bishop of Dorchester, Gerald Allen, who died in 1964. A continuous program of restoration and conservation is planned, the first stage of a new entrance and pentice was completed in 2002, and a full archeological dig of the abbey grounds is planned.

A Tour around the Present Church

Entry to the church is through the south porch, and into the south nave aisle, or People's Chapel. This section was added in 1340 for use a parish church, and a fine 14th century wall painting of the crucifixion, with St. Mary and St. John, and the sun & moon. There are traces of wall-painting above, which may be part of a Day of Judgement scene. In front of the altar platform is a gravestone with a bizarre inscription:

SARAH FLETCHER unable to 'bear the rude Shakes and Jostlings which we meet with in this transitory World, Nature gave way; she sunk and died a Martyr to Excessive Sensibility' in 1799 her 29th year.

Also in the south nave aisle is a rare Norman lead font from 1170. It shows the figures of 11 apostles under elaborate arcading.

The nave is surprisingly large, much bigger than it seems from outside. The chancel arch is slightly pointed, indicating the beginnings of a transition to Early English Gothic. A chancel screen would have been here to separate the monastic and parish sections of the abbey church. Two square-headed windows from the 14th century have medieval armorial glass in them, showing the arms of England, and the Earls of Cornwall and Lancaster. The choir contains two Tudor stalls, with carvings of Abbot Bewfforeste's crozier as well as the crossed keys of St. Peter and St. Paul. The east end of the church was remodelled in the Decorated Style, and contains some of the best tracery carving from this period in England. The main east window has superb flowing tracery, contrasting with the rather plain tracery in the nave windows. On the south side of the sanctuary is the sedilia, with 3 canopied seats. The canopies are covered in ball-flower ornament, and have miniature carved saints standing on them, amongst the flowers and tracery arms. Stained glass is incorporated into the canopies, introducing colour. On the north side is the most famous window in the church, the Jesse Tree (a literal take on Christ's Family Tree, Isaiah 11.1 and Matthew 1.6-17). This is quite unique, the tree is actually represented by tracery arms curving throughout the window. The 'tree' sprouts from a carved Jesse figure on the windowsill, and has carved depictions of Old Testament prophets and kings standing on the branches. The glass contains images of these prophets as well. The figures of Christ and the Virgin and Child were smashed during the Civil War.

In the north choir aisle, there is now a chapel dedicated to St. Birinius, with some good early Decorated Style tracery and a small stained glass roundel depicting St. Birinus's blessing. This chapel also has a fine old piscina, and a small blocked-up flue, which is suspected to have been some sort of oven for communion wafers, or some sort of heating arrangement.

The south choir aisle contains the re-created Shrine of St. Birinus, and an effigy of a knight, whose body seems to be twisting in the act of drawing his sword. His hand is clasping his sword, and there's a definite expression of displeasure on his face. It is an outstanding piece of 13th century sculpture, full of movement and dynamic energy.




Leaving the chapel, and heading towards the high street, you pass the old grammer school, which is now a museum for the abbey and a great charity-run tea shop. Note the fine Victorian lych gate, and then proceed over the road to the George Hotel for a well-earned pint.


Dorchester-On-Thames is signposted from the A4074 between Oxford and Wallingford. The Abbey is quite hard to miss, being easily the largest building in the town, and is open during daylight hours. The tea shop however, only operates on Sunday afternoons.

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