The road to Crowland Abbey
Drive to Crowland Abbey along the lonely fen roads on a misty December afternoon as the dusk is falling and you feel as though you are driving into the past, when the world seemed to consist only of water and sky; where small, isolated communities clung to muddy islands that raised themselves a few feet out of the undrained fens.This was the world to which the former soldier Guthlac came in 699 AD, to one of the little islands – Crowland – where he would live and die, and where a great abbey would be built in his memory.
Guthlac was originally a Saxon nobleman turned soldier, who by the age of twenty-four had tired of bloodshed and entered the abbey of Repton in Derbyshire. But after two years he decided he wanted a more secluded life and headed towards the Lincolnshire fens. At Thorney Abbey he heard of an isolated island out in the fen and against advice persuaded one of the lay brothers, Tatwin, to take him there by boat. They arrived on what become Croyland –then meaning ‘crude and muddy land’ on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August.
It was here that Guthlac decided to stay, spending his days in prayer and contemplation. He had wanted seclusion, but maybe he even had misgivings. The local people were unwelcoming and hostile, the low-lying island was unhealthy and plagued with mosquitoes and Guthlac fell ill with fevers and chills. At his lowest point he felt he was under attack from demons and legend has it that he sought the help of St Bartholomew, who gave Guthlac a three-thonged whip to ward them off.
Perhaps it was the way that Guthlac refused to be overcome by his difficulties that gradually won over the locals; gradually they came to accept him and sought his advice. Eventually he became respected as their resident ‘holy man’ whom people travelled some distance to consult. One of these was Ethelbald, in exile from his cousin Coelred, then king of Mercia. Guthlac prophesied that Ethelbald would himself become king, and Ethelbald promised that, if this were true, he would build a monastery on the site where he had spoken with Guthlac. In 714 Guthlac died and in 716 Ethelbald became king. He laid the foundation stone of what would become Crowland Abbey on St Bartholomew’s Day that year.
The first abbey was built of wood, reeds and straw of which there is no trace, though some of the oak piles, driven into the marshy ground to firm up the foundations, have survived. Because of its weak building material and its vulnerable position in the fens, the abbey was from the first prey to attack from the Danes, who easily navigated the Fens in search of anything valuable they could take.
The abbey has been destroyed by Danish attack and fire many times however surviving parts of that first Norman abbey (c.1000) can be seen in the font and the west arch of the central tower. The abbey underwent its final destruction in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. Sadly, only the north aisle now remains but in spite of this, enough remains to give a good sense of the glories that were Crowland.
Guthlac had come to Crowland seeking solitude and silence in which to pray and meditate in a remote, watery world. The short spire of Crowland Abbey, visible today above the flat landscape, stands as his legacy.
Crowland Abbey is on our doorstep, and being one of the first places we visited after moving up to Lincolnshire, we were shocked to find that the Abbey was founded by a 'Guthlac'... which is spookily similar to my Married name of 'Guthrie' :)
We wandered though the small Fenland village to see the curious 'Trinity Bridge' .
A 14th century stone bridge, which had many earlier wooden versions dating from at least 943.
It now stands watch over the main high street junctions, however once upon a time, when the Fens were still waterways, it spanned the River Welland at its meeting point of 3 rivers. You can stand at the top of the bridge & look down the 3 roads and perfectly imagine them as waterways.
It is thought to be a very unique & unusual structure.
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