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The Nunnaminster, later known as St Mary’s Abbey, was one of Winchester’s three great Late Saxon royal monasteries. Founded by Queen Ealhswith, Alfred the Great’s wife, in 903, it became one of the foremost centres of learning and art in England.

Winchester was home to the largest concentration of religious houses north of the Alps for much of the late Saxon and medieval periods. These great houses – Old Minster (forerunner of the present cathedral), New Minster and Nunnaminster / St Mary’s – became the foremost centres of religious thought, art and learning in England.


The site of Nunnaminster was founded by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, around 903. Following the Norman Conquest and re-dedication, it became the Abbey of St Mary and St Eadburga.

In 1536, its establishment included 26 nuns, children – receiving education – officials and servants. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII’s commissioners in November 1539. The nuns dispersed, many of the buildings were demolished and the land passed to the king.

Between1981-83, archaeological excavations carried out on the site revealed Nunnaminster’s fascinating history.


Ealhswith’s abbey around 903

The earliest remains uncovered during the excavations were part of Ealhswith’s church. Built of timber on shallow flint foundations, the nave was about 6.5m wide with a grand double-apsidal ceremonial entrance at the West Front. This plan is similar to a link building at Old Minster which is dated to the 970’s. If the Nunnaminster apses are of a similar date, then they may be later additions to the abbey church.

A masonry tomb was found in a prominent position within the southern apse and its careful removal prior to the reconstruction of the Saxon church has some parallels with the treatment of the tomb of St Swithun at Old Minster. This suggests it was the resting place of an important figure, perhaps that of St Eadburga, granddaughter of Alfred the Great, later to be elevated to sainthood. To the south of the church was a masonry base, perhaps of a monument or churchyard cross. Excavations at City Offices Extension (COE) located a substantial north-south aligned masonry wall (and an earlier ditch and fence alignment) which may represent the western boundary of Nunnaminster; this was demolished during expansion of the Nunnaminster later in the 10th century.


Ethelwold’s abbey around 964

Bishop Ethelwold rebuilt Nunnaminster, which by 960 was in a “ruinous state”, as part of his reforms to the city’s religious houses.  The new church was about the same size as Ealhswith’s but was built in stone with white plastered internal walls decorated with thin red lines. St Eadburga’s remains were carefully moved to a new tomb, perhaps a flint-built rectangular structure that was found set into the floor at the western end of the nave.

To the south of the church were the cloisters, a feature absent from the earlier church whose walls were built of flint and reused Roman tile. Nunnaminster was the first of the city’s churches to display this layout, which later was to become the norm for all of England’s monastic houses. As part of Ethelwold’s reforms, the Nunnaminster precinct was enlarged, removing the earlier western boundary.


St Mary’s Abbey around 1108

Following the Norman Conquest, Nunnaminster was rebuilt in the Romanesque style. The exact date of rebuilding is unknown, but it may have been sometime before in 1086 when Nunnaminster was rededicated as the Abbey of St Mary and St Eadburga. A record of a dedication to St Eadburga in 1108 likely refers to completion of the work. Evidently the cult of St Eadburga continued to flourish, and the abbey remained a prestigious house to which the daughters of nobility were sent.

Built on a grand scale, the new church was almost three times wider than its Saxon predecessors. Two rows of piers supported arcades dividing the nave from side aisles. Masonry pier bases that supported alternating large cruciform piers and smaller circular drum columns can be seen within the display area.

At COE the south-west corner of the cloister was found, this included remains of an undercroft below the refectory in the southern range. This had a vaulted ceiling support on ribbed columns on square pier bases. In the mid-19th century, a north-south wall found to the west of Abbey Passage which likely belongs to the cloister’s western range.

During the 13th century the church and cloisters were refloored with encaustic tiles many depicting heraldic devices. The church may have been further refurbished following a flood in the 14th century. Works included the partitioning of the south aisle into small chapels, the addition of a font and further reflooring with Flemish glazed tiles.

Little is known of other buildings within the abbey precinct although a survey at the time of the Dissolution in 1538 provides some information. Divided by the mill stream the western part of the precinct contained houses for abbey servants and a hospital as well as a Chapel of the Holy Trinity who’s vaulted undercroft served as charnel house. Elements of these latter structures have been recorded in 20th century observations. The eastern part of the precinct was reserved for members of the religious community.


Anglo-Saxon Nunnaminster

Nunnaminster was founded by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great and descendant of the Royal House of Mercia, around 903. They had married in 868, three years before Alfred became King. Ealhswith brough with her to Winchester a 9th century book of psalms, known as the Book of Nunnaminster, which may have been used by Mercian noblewomen. The Book of Nunnaminster was likely written by female scribes as some of its text uses certain female forms and a later prayer added to the book also uses female forms. The Book of Nunnaminster was to become one of Nunnaminster’s prized possessions and is now held in the British Library.


Eahlswith’s estate

On his coronation, Alfred granted Eahlswith an estate in Winchester, the bounds of which were inserted into the Book of Nunnaminster. Written in Early English, it is one of the earliest pieces of causal written English in existence. It is also the earliest description we have of Winchester. This estate passed to the Nunnaminster community on its foundation.


Made in Nunnaminster

In addition to being a centre of learning and training, Nunnaminster was a major centre of art, particularly of embroidery in Anglo-Saxon England

A maniple and a stole were presented to the shrine of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, Durham, by King Athlestan in 934. They were discovered when St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral was opened in 1827 and are now housed in Durham Cathedral Museum. The vestments were the work of the sisters of Nunnaminster between 909 and 916 and are recognised as the earliest known examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery in the country. Made of gold and silk thread on a silk backing it uses stem stitch, split stitch and surface couching.  The design shows influences from other decorative arts especially manuscript painting and it is possible that manuscript artists drew the initial design onto the ground material.

On the back of both the maniple and stole is embroidered text translated as “Aelflaed ordered this to be made” and “for the pious bishop Frithstan”.  Aelflaed was the second wife of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great and step-mother of King Athlestan.


St Edburga

Edburga was the daughter of King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. Most of the information on her life comes from hagiographies written several centuries after her death. According to one account, as a three-year old, a chalice, a paten and a pile of gold jewellery, were placed in front of her. She picked up the chalice thus convincing her father that her vocation was to be a nun, after which she was placed in the charge of Abbess Ethelthritha of Nunnaminster. She was especially known for her singing ability.

Edburga died around 960 and was buried in the church, possibly in the tomb excavated in the southern apse. Soon after, the sisters found they were unable to close a window above the tomb. Regarding this as a miracle, they became convinced of her sanctity and when further visions and healings occurred. The cult which developed around her was first mentioned in the Salisbury Psalter from the early 970’s. Edburga was elevated to sainthood 12 years after her death.

On 15th June 971, her remains were moved to a costly new shrine covered in ‘precious metals and decorated with topaz’ located in front of Nunnaminster’s high altar. Some of her remains were also transferred to Pershore Abbey in Worchestershire, where a number of parish churches were dedicated to her.

Following the Conquest, the Normans’ dislike of English saints saw many Saints days removed from the religious calendar. Edburga’s cult flourished however, and following the construction of St Mary’s Abbey her remains were moved into an even more costly shrine attracting pilgrims from far afield.


10th century reformation

The mid-10th century witnessed major reforms to the religious life of the country. In Winchester, Bishop Ethelwold introduced the strict Rule of St Benedict to the city’s monastic houses.

This had profound effects on the city and Nunnaminster. The three minsters of Old and New Minster and Nunnaminster were given high surrounding walls to protect them from the noise and bustle of the growing city, which led to the disappearance of the Anglo-Saxon street layout in the south-east corner of the city. This, with the bishop’s palace at Wolvesey, meant that a quarter of Winchester’s urban space was now in religious use.

Nunnaminster was the only Winchester church re-built during this time. Domestic services – for eating, sleeping and so forth – that were previously scattered amongst the secular community, were brought within a single enclosure, the cloisters, attached to the south side of the church. This was the first of the city’s churches to display this layout, which later became the norm for all of northern Europe’s monastic houses.


The Graves

To the north of the abbey church lay a cemetery and the earliest graves comprised one adult, one child and four infants. Monasteries were in the forefront of medieval medicine and ladies of noble birth entered the Nunnaminster during their pregnancy. The infant burials are a reminder of the high infant mortality rate at the time.

Burial within the Norman church itself did not commencing until the 13th century. Within the excavated area within the nave and south aisle of the medieval church a total of 36 tightly packed burials were located. They likely represent members of the higher ranks of Winchester’s society or important members of the abbey community. Their high status is reflected in the use of stone coffins for some of the burials. Six stone coffins were carved from a single piece of stone, one of which was of polished Purbeck marble.

The graves were very shallow, seldom being covered by more than 20cms of soil. At times the church must have had the stench of corrupting flesh, a deliberate act by the church to remind the faithful of their mortality.

Landscaping within Abbey House grounds in the late 19th century may have disturbed other burials within the church, with many chalk cists or coffins apparently revealed.


South aisle

Within the south aisle of the church one stone coffin contained the remains of a mature female, perhaps over the age of 45. Analysis of the skeleton indicates she suffered from chronic arthritis. Within the coffin a bone and elephant ivory head from a staff was found. This suggests she held a high status within the abbey community and it may have been from a staff of office or crosier.


The end of St Mary’s Abbey

By divorcing Catherine of Aragon in 1533, Henry VIII directly defied the authority of the Church of Rome. Parliament passed a number of acts confirming him as Supreme Head of the Church of England and the Dissolution followed. The abbeys, monasteries, nunneries and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland were destroyed, and their incomes appropriated by the king.

St Mary’s was surveyed by Thomas Wriothesley, Henry VIII’s commissioner for the dissolution of Hampshire’s monasteries in 1536.He wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the hking’s chief minister:

….” we intend at St. Mary’s, to sweep away all the rotten bones that be called, relics; which we may not omit lest it be thought we came more for the treasure than avoiding the abomination of idolatry.”

The survey found 26 nuns, 26 schoolgirls, five priests, three corrodiers, 29 servants and 13 lay sisters in residence. Although a temporary reprieve was granted, in 1538 St Edburga’s shrine, the focus of devotion for countless medieval pilgrims, had been destroyed and the abbey finally dissolved in November 1539.

The archaeology of the site tells a poignant story of these troubled times. Several graves had been opened, either to remove bodies for reburial elsewhere or to steal any valuables. A small hearth found cut into the church floor indicates systematic removal of treasure and church plate with globules of melted gold and silver, burnt amethyst and pearls recovered from the hearth ash deposits. Finally, the lead roof was removed, and the church and cloister dismantled stone by stone.

A number of secular buildings survived the Dissolution, including the abbess’s lodgings, and the gate house which became town houses. The mill, barn, bakehouse and brew house also passed to new owners. Several buildings on the north side of the abbey precinct were also retained, including the chantry chapel and the hospital which subsequently became the city’s Bridewell (prison).

The abbey’s lands were later granted by the Crown to the City Corporation to help defray the costs of hosting the wedding of Mary Tudor to Philip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral in 1554.

The eastern part of the site disappeared beneath the fine town house and formal gardens that survive today as Abbey House, the official residence of the Mayor of Winchester. The western part developed into small-scale industrial premises, cleared in 1871 to make way for the Guildhall.


Further Reading