Tewkesbury Abbey

Chapter 2 : History

Early Days

The first Benedictine Abbey may have been founded at Tewkesbury in the late eighth or early ninth centuries by a local Saxon lord. The structure we see today, however, was begun in 1102 by Sir Robert de Hamon who was granted the lordship of Tewkesbury by William II.

Chantry of Sir Robert de Hamon d. 1107 (dates from 1241) © Tudor Times 2015

The Lordship, and the care of the Abbey, passed with the marriage of de Hamon's daughter, Mabel, to her husband, Robert, Earl of Gloucester (c. 1098 – 1147). Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I, and the greatest supporter of his half-sister, the Empress Maud's, claim to be the legitimate heir to the English throne.

The Abbey was consecrated on 23 rd October 1121 by the Bishop of Worcester and four other bishops.

Eventually, the Earldom of Gloucester, including the Lordship of Tewkesbury, passed through one of Robert's daughters to the de Clare family. The de Clare Earls of Gloucester were important figures in the reigns of Henry III, Edward I and II. The last de Clare Earl, Gilbert, fell at Bannockburn, and as his sister-in-law was the wife of the Scots King, Robert the Bruce, his widow was permitted to bring his body back to Tewkesbury for burial.


The de Clare inheritance was now broken up and divided amongst Gilbert's sisters. The eldest, Eleanor de Clare, was the wife of Edward II's favourite, Hugh le Despenser the Younger, and she received Tewkesbury as part of her portion. She paid for the seven windows that line the quire of the Abbey and it was under Eleanor's care that the quire and east end were rebuilt in the Decorated style.

The Chantry of Hugh le Despenser (the coffin is of a later Abbot) © Tudor Times 2015

Eleanor and Hugh's son was a hero of Edward III's French wars, present at Sluys and at Crecy. The last Despenser lord was Richard.As he died heirless, his estates passed to his sister Isabella, who married in turn, two cousins, both named Richard Beauchamp. The first was Earl of Worcester, and the second was Earl of Warwick.

The Earl of Warwick was Regent of France for Henry VI in the 1420s. He and Isabella had a son, but the little boy died young, and the Tewkesbury Lordship and the rest of the Earldom of Warwick passed to their daughter, Anne.

Wars of the Roses

Anne Beauchamp was the wife of Richard Neville. He held the title of Earl of Warwick in Anne's right, and is famous to history as Warwick the Kingmaker. Playing a prominent part in the Wars of the Roses, first fighting for York, then for Lancaster when he was not as well rewarded by the Edward IV of York as he had hoped, Warwick was finally killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

Before the dead of Barnet were buried, the two sides met again in the water meadows just behind Tewkesbury Abbey on 4 th May 1471. The Battle of Tewkesbury, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, second only to Towton in its death toll, was fought after the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies had raced each other to the Severn crossing.

The Lancastrians, led by the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Devon and Lord Wenlock, with the young Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales, were confronted by Edward IV of York and his brother, the Duke of Gloucester.

The Battle was a decisive victory for York. Prince Edward was killed, probably on the battlefield, but perhaps in cold blood afterward. The Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the Abbey, and Abbot Strensham protested vigorously against the Yorkists dragging them out and killing them, but to little avail.

The Earl of Warwick now dead, the lands of his wife, Countess Anne, were illegally parcelled up between the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester who were married to his daughters Isabel and Anne, respectively. Tewkesbury came to Isabel, and it is here that she and Clarence are buried, in a crypt behind the High Altar.

Tomb of George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Neville, Duchess of Clarence © Tudor Times 2015

Clarence, too, died a traitor, but his son, Edward was recognised as Earl of Warwick. Unfortunately for the new Earl, his uncle, Richard III was deposed by Henry VII, and Warwick was in due course despatched to the Tower and executed. Before his death, the Warwick lands were restored to Countess Anne, but only on the condition that she will them to the king.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The Abbey continued in its Benedictine way of life through all these changes, but on 9 th January, 1540, the last Abbot, John Wakeman, surrendered it to the Crown at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The holdings of the Abbey, still one of the richest in the land, filled 74 parchments. Wakeman enjoyed a later career as the Bishop of Gloucester.

A grisly reminder of mortality: the cenotaph of John Wakeman, last Abbot of Tewkesbury © Tudor Times 2015

Part of the Abbey was pulled down by the King's Commissioners, but the town of Tewkesbury was permitted to buy the main church for the princely sum of £453, reckoned to be the value of the lead bells and roof.

On Henry VIII's death, the abbey lands were granted to Sir Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley, but he too came to a bloody end in the Tower, and once again, the lands returned to the Crown. They were eventually sold to the town corporation by James VI and I in 1609 for £2,453. The Crown retained the right of presentation of the Vicar, and the Abbey is still under the patronage of HM the Queen.