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Chertsey Abbey

1995/2 pp6–7


Chertsey Abbey


The November 1994 Newsletter gave a brief account of Merton Priory which owned the manor of Ewell at one period. However, the church was built on land owned by Chertsey Abbey, and it seems appropriate to give an account of that also.


Chertsey Abbey, founded by Erkenwald in the year 666, was the first religious house to be built in Surrey. The greater part of the site was an island encircled by the Thames and the Abbey River, that was known as Cirotesige, or the island of Ceorot.


The early building, which is thought to have been of timber, was sacked by Viking raiders in 871; fifty monks were slaughtered. In 964 the Abbey was refounded with thirteen monks from Abingdon and prospered to the extent that when Domesday came it held over 50,000 acres of land. There was then a decline so that by 1107, when Abbot Hugh of Winchester took over, the buildings were in a ruinous state. The new Abbot initiated a rebuilding programme that went on until the end of the thirteenth century.


The well-watered site was suitable for the fish ponds, gardens and orchards that were necessary for the Benedictine lifestyle. A rule of the order states that: ‘A monastery ought to be so arranged that everything that is necessary – water, a mill, a garden and a bakery – may be made use of, and different arts be carried on within the monastery so that there shall be no need for the monks to wander about outside, for this is not good for their souls’. The tranquil life within the walls of the Abbey came to an end at the Dissolution: the buildings were dismantled by order of Henry VIII in 1537.


Large scale excavations carried out in the 1860s and the 1950s have brought to light many details of the Abbey buildings. The church was 275 feet long and lined with Purbeck marble. The decorated floor tiles are the most famous in England. They were encaustic tiles made by inlaying the pattern in white pipe clay on the red earthenware body. Most were a standard 9 inches square. In some instances each tile was decorated with a complete, beautifully detailed picture, such as the head of a king: others were fitted together to form large compositions with figures and scroll work. One single tile depicts the Abbey gatehouse with the gatekeeper peering out. According to the Benedictine Rules the gatekeeper should be: ‘A wise old man who shall know how to receive a reply and to return one; whose ripeness of age will not permit him to trifle’.


The remains of the kiln used to fire the tiles were unearthed close to the site of the Abbey church. The Chertsey tiles played a part in the revival of the encaustic technique in Victorian times, when A.W. Pugin made some brilliant designs for Minton.


The demolition of the Abbey was thorough. In the eighteenth century, Stukeley wrote: ‘Of that noble and splendid pile, which took up four acres of ground and looked like a little town, nothing remains, scarcely a little of the outer wall of the precincts. I left the ruins of this place, which had been consecrated to religion ever since the year 666, with a sigh for the loss of so much national magnificence and national history’.


Today’s visitor to Chertsey will see little of the Abbey except fragments of walls and a simple stone arch, probably thirteenth-century, in what would have been the outer wall of the precinct. There, however, two barns of Tudor brick that could be pre-Dissolution.


Charles Abdy

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