History of Ramsey Abbey

History of Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire, UK


So little remains above ground of the buildings of Ramsey Abbey that their history cannot be told at any length. The wooden chapel for three hermits built by Earl Ailwin the founder was soon replaced by a new wooden chapel and offices to accommodate the monks sent by Oswald. In 969, however, a stone church was begun which was cruciform in plan, with a great tower at the crossing and a smaller tower at the west end. This church when completed was dedicated to St. Mary, St. Benedict and All Virgins by St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Oswald, Archbishop of York, on 8 November 974. Some ten years later, owing to faulty work both in the foundations and masonry, a crack appeared in the central tower which spread from the summit downwards. After long consultation the tower was taken down and rebuilt, the work being chiefly done by the young monks. Earl Ailwin, the founder, presented the new church with organs and a 'tabula' set with sheets of silver plates and gems, to be placed before the high altar. In 991 the church was again dedicated by Archbishop Oswald in the presence of a great concourse of people.

Cnut proposed to found a monastery for nuns adjoining Ramsey Abbey and went so far as to begin a church which was to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Providentially, as the Ramsey chronicler wrote, the idea was abandoned. The crypt below the high altar of Cnut's church was completed and remained for centuries in the cemetery of the monks.

The monastery seems to have been gradually rebuilt during the 12th century. Building operations were evidently contemplated in the 11th century by the acquirement of stone quarries, but it was not until 1116 that Abbot Reginald began to rebuild the church. As we may imagine by the analogy of other monasteries, this rebuilding was carried out on a larger scale. The monks were excluded from the church for seven years and re-entered it in 1123. A check was given to the further rebuilding by dissensions within the monastery itself and disturbances without in the kingdom. In 1143 the 'infamous earl' Geoffrey de Mandeville seized the monastery, expelled the monks, and fortified it against the forces of King Stephen. It took long to repair the damage done by the earl's followers, but probably the rebuilding of the church, already begun, was completed at the close of Stephen's reign (1154) when, we are told, the great tower was built by Abbot Walter. At about the same time, the refectory and other offices, probably completing the cloister range, were finished.

Ramsey Abbey's Charter from Henry II, 1155-1162

The Latin Version
Henricus, Rex Angliae et dux Normanniae et Aquitaniae, et comes Andegaviae, justiciariis et vicecomitibus suis de Bedefordescyra, et Hertfordescyra, salutem.
Praecipio, quod abbas et conventus de Ramesia teneant, bene et in pace, molendina sua de Iclesforde, cum omnibus pertinentiis suis, quae Johannes de Argentein clamat, sicut illa tenuerunt tempore regis Henrici avi mei, et sicut carta ipsius, quam habent, testatur.
Testibus Ricardo Episcopo Londoniae, et Manassero Biset, Dapifero, apud Wodestoke.
An English Translation
Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his justiciars and sheriffs of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, greetings.
I command that the abbot and convent of Ramsey shall hold, well and in peace, their mills of Ickleford, with all their appurtenances, which John de Argentein claims, as they held them in the time of king Henry my grandfather, and as his charter, which they have, attests.
Witnesses: Richard, Bishop of London, and Manasses Biset, Steward, at Woodstock.

The charter is recorded as an 'inspeximus' in the charter of confirmation of Edward III for Ramsey Abbey, dated 10 June 1334. Rolls Series vol.79, part i, p.251 (Cartularium Monasterii de Rameseia; from which the version above is taken).

Versions with slight variants are given in part ii, 60, 61 and vol.83, p.291 (no 351) (Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis); in these versions, the surname is spelled 'Argenton' and 'Argentoin' respectively. The charter is dated to between 1155 and 1162 in Rolls Series vol.79.

The monks continued to press for compensation for the damage done by Mandeville and at length in 1163, by the intervention of Archbishop Thomas [Becket], they obtained redress from the earl's son. The wealth which the monastery acquired at this time and later was expended rather on the ornaments of the church than on the fabric. Thus in 1192 new shrines were provided for the bones of St. Felix, first bishop of East Anglia, St. Ethelred and St. Ethelbreth, two Saxon princes whose bodies were removed to Ramsey by St. Oswald, but the shrine of the more famous St. Ive had to wait some seventy years for its renewal.

A new refectory was begun by Abbot Hugh de Sulgrave (1254–67) but was not finished until 1276 under the abbacy of William de Godmanchester. The same abbot in 1277 made a water conduit to the abbey. He also erected a new cistern in the abbey court, built the abbot's hall and the south gate in the court and provided a monumental brass for the tomb of Earl Ailwin, the founder, showing the image of the earl 'in subtile workmanship.' The lady chapel was built or rebuilt about the middle of the 13th century, and a century later references are found to special wardens for the maintenance of that chapel.

Extensive rebuilding was continued into the 14th century. In 1330 Abbot Simon de Eye began the new presbytery and the greater part of the work was completed before his death in 1342 when his body was buried on the left side of the high altar there. The rebuilding of this part of the church continued for some years later. At the end of the century there was an intention to rebuild the Lady Chapel, and in 1396 lands were given for the maintenance of the Lady Chapel, then to be newly built.  In the same year the Bishop of Lincoln issued an injunction that the timber, lead and marble left by the faithful for the repair of the monastery and chapel of the Virgin were to be restored to the warden of that work and that the nave of the church, notoriously in want of repair, was to be repaired within a year. We have no evidence whether the Lady Chapel was rebuilt; there are references to new work, but nothing to show what it was. The gatehouse we know from architectural evidence was rebuilt in the 15th century.

After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 Sir Richard Williams, alias Cromwell, the crown grantee, merely used the monastic buildings as a source of profit, by selling the building material. During the third quarter of the 16th century Gonville and Caius College, King's College and Trinity College, Cambridge, were all very largely built of these materials. The towers of Ramsey and Godmanchester parish churches were built of them, and the gateway at Hinchingbrooke is thought to have been taken from Ramsey. The miserere stalls in Over church and stalls in Somersham church also came from Ramsey and no doubt much of the material found its way into the walls of the neighbouring houses.

Refectory Arches

Refectory Arches in Ramsey Abbey House

Refectory Arches in Ramsey Abbey House


The Cromwells continued to use Ramsey Abbey as a quarry well into the 17th century, but during the last few years of the 16th or the first year or two of the 17th century Sir Henry Cromwell seems to have begun the present house which he is said to have used as a summer residence. His son, Sir Oliver, lived at Hinchingbrooke until, owing to financial difficulties, he sold it to Sir Sydney Montagu in 1627 (q.v.). He then took up his residence at Ramsey, a comparatively small building. Ramsey Abbey House at that time consisted of the eastern part of the present building, three stories in height, facing north, with the present four-storied towers at the north-east and north-west corners. Forming the main eastern portion of the basement of that house is the lower part of a large rectangular building, 68 ft. by 23 ft. (internal measurements) running east and west which has now been cut up into various rooms. It dates from the middle of the 13th century and obviously was some portion of the monastic buildings. It is divided into six bays by buttresses, and around its internal walls is a fine 13th-century wall arcade composed of moulded trefoiled arches with moulded and foliated capitals and moulded bases, now sadly mutilated. The west wall of the building is thicker than the other walls and is possibly of the 12th century. There were doorways on each side in the second bay from the west; that on the north belongs to the time of the building of the house and that on the south, now blocked, is of the 13th century. The original windows were above the level of the surviving part of the building; the remains of only one can be seen in the modern corridor. Until recently this building has been taken to be the monastic refectory which is known to have been rebuilt in the middle of the 13th century, but it has lately been suggested that it is more probably the Lady Chapel, projecting eastward from the north transept, in the same position as the Lady Chapel is known to have stood at Peterborough.

Ramsey Abbey House

Ramsey Abbey House (circa 1911)

Ramsey Abbey House (circa 1911)


In 1839 the house was considerably altered and enlarged from designs by Blore. A wing was added on the west side and a new north front was built between the towers some 10 ft. northward of the old front, a pierced parapet and a new porch being also added.

At the end of the corridor on the ground floor is a late 13th-century figure in grey marble which is supposed to represent Ailwin the founder of Ramsey Abbey. The figure has a beard and curled hair and wears a civil dress with a long cloak. He holds two keys and a wand in his right hand and his left is placed across his chest. Over the head is a trefoiled canopy and above are angels holding the soul in a sheet. The feet rest on a lion. In the basement is a late 16th-century door said to have been brought from Biggin House, which has an oval boss in the middle bearing the initials H.C. for Henry Cromwell, brother of Sir Oliver Cromwell.

The present lodge is a fragment of the Great Gate of the monastery which when perfect must have been a fine specimen of a 15th-century gatehouse. The arched gateway stood on the west side of the lodge across the present road and was pulled down when the road to Warboys was made in the early part of the 18th century. The octagonal turret has panels richly carved. In the north side is a plain two-light window lighting the ground floor and a two-light cinquefoiled oriel window above. The gatehouse was at one time used as a prison and was thatched with reed. Possibly at this time the upper part of the house was destroyed.