How Missenden Abbey played a part in some of British history’s most notable events
PUBLISHED: 11:58 20 February 2015 | UPDATED: 11:58 20 February 2015
© Avico Ltd / Alamy
For nearly 900 years Missenden Abbey has provided the scenic site for numerous buildings, been put to various uses and seen owners come and go.
But it’s only by delving into its history that you realise the extraordinary heritage of the Abbey and how remarkably it reflects some of the best known stories of British history and some of the world’s formidable power brokers over the centuries.
What’s more, the story is continuing as many of the finds of the past are now becoming part of the digital age in the latest chapter. We will come back to today, but the Abbey’s tale starts back in 1133 with the arrival of Augustinian Canons from Arrouaise in Northern France. The long reigning and pious Henry III was often welcomed by the Abbot there.
From court to trade
Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries was to lead to the first big change in the Abbey’s use. It was handed to one of the king’s ‘gentleman ushers’ for some years before the young Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son, gave it for life to his sister, Elizabeth.
She, of course, was to become Elizabeth I and shortly after her accession granted it to her favourite, the dashing courtier Robert, Earl of Leicester. Within a couple of decades Leicester had passed it on to Sir William Fleetwood, Recorder of London and Member of Parliament for the City. Once again control of the Abbey was reflecting the changing times, and there was more of this to come.
For although the Fleetwoods used it as a manor house until the mid-18th century, the male line died out and the person with enough money to purchase the estate was one Richard Oldham, a rich London ironmonger, who set about pulling down the old Abbey (the Fleetwoods had previously made some changes). It’s easy to imagine Oldham puffed up with pride as he surveyed the grand results of his endeavours!
The next owner was John Ayton, who had his own ideas, who rebuilt it into Neo-Gothic building we know today.
From across the world
Meanwhile, events across the Atlantic would lead to the next development. By the end of the 18th century the previously fabulously rich British West Indian sugar planter families were struggling. The American Revolution had diminished the market and there was less demand in Europe for sugar. Among them were the Carringtons, who came to settle in Buckinghamshire, farming across the county.
In 1946 the Carringtons sold the Abbey to Bucks County Council for use as an adult learning college. Then 30 years ago a major fire left the interior gutted. But this was not to be the end of the Abbey’s story as major restoration restored it to the original splendour, with many of the important features carefully recreated. By 1988 the Abbey was reopened, once again welcoming a royal guest, HRH the Duke of Gloucester to what is now Missenden Abbey Conference Centre, owned by Bucks New University.
The current house stands where the original monks would have prayed in the cloister, and much of the surviving old masonry has been used. Throughout the Abbey and outbuildings pieces of the heritage, from the 13th to 19th century still remain.
Into a new world
And so we reach the 21st century with the conference centre set to be the focus of a fascinating community project which will see the completion and digitisation of original records made during an excavation of the Abbey site 30 years ago, when many fascinating medieval and post medieval objects were discovered. It was excavated during the 1980s and among the archaeologists’ findings were several complete human skeletons, animal bones, coins, glass and pottery.
Some of the items, such as stained glass, are on display at the Abbey but the majority of the finds and relevant documents were stored at the Museum Resource Centre in Aylesbury. However museum staff, archaeologists and volunteers have now established the Community Archaeology Project to complete the identification of finds, and to digitise and document all the original excavation plans and records. They are planning to publish the results of this work so that more people can discover the history of the Abbey and how people lived there in medieval times.
The Community Archaeology Project relies on crowd funding and direct donations to generate support for the work, and aims to raise £4,000 through local communities keen to discover the history of the Abbey.
Katie Shrives, Marketing Executive at Missenden Abbey Conference Centre, said: “It will be fantastic to discover the hidden secrets of the Abbey and to better understand the history of the place. To have the findings recorded and digitised is very important to us and I’m sure what is produced will be something many people would be keen to explore.”
The Community Archaeology Project leader, Dr Yvonne Edwards, from the Chess Valley Archaeological & Historical Society, added: “We are delighted with the progress made on this project so far. Most of the finds are now recorded and the plans, maps and photos digitised. We very much hope the final effort during 2015 will allow us to get this valuable information into the public record.”
The complete history of Missenden Abbey, including all of the information acquired during excavation and recent researches, will be produced as a fully illustrated book. Members of the public will be able to view and purchase copies of the book from the Museum Resource Centre and the Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury, and longer term there are plans for the book to be available online.
See www.crowdfunded.microplasts.org/projects/living-and-dying-at-great-missenden-abbey. Alternatively you can send a donation to Honorary Treasurer, CVAHS Missenden Abbey Project, Hollybank, Botley Road, Chesham HP5 1XG.
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