Dorchester Abbey in the rain
Dorchester Abbey in the rain

On a very wet Saturday morning, having driven all the way from North Wales the day before, I set out with offspring Adah and Tobias in search of medieval tombs. We went to the small Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-upon-Thames, located near the confluence of the rivers Thames and Tame.

Medieval cross-shaft

At the east end of the historic core of the village is Dorchester Abbey, otherwise known as the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. This is one of only two surviving monastic churches from Oxfordshire (the other being Christ Church cathedral, Oxford).

We visited the abbey church but the museum is only open in afternoons and so we didn’t get the opportunity to look around, although their website promises exciting new displays. That will have to be seen on another visit. Still, in the rain we enjoyed the beautifully kept graveyard and marvelled at the medieval cross-shaft.

Anglo-Saxon Dorchester

Prior to its dissolution, this was an Augustinian foundation, and before it was a priory it had been a far older Anglo-Saxon religious site with cathedral status. Indeed, this was the oldest known Christian church in the territory of the Gewisse, the West Saxons, who converted to Christianity during the reign of Cynegils. The first bishop of the West Saxons, Birinius, an Italian bishop, founded his church at Dorchester-upon-Thames AD c. 634/35.

Looking east down the nave of Dorchester Abbey church

The choice of site was not incidental. The site had been an Iron Age power centre (oppidum) and then Roman small town. It was amid the Roman ruins and surviving defences of the Iron Age site (The Dyke Hills) that the first church of the West Saxons was built. This would have been an appropriate and familiar setting for the baptism of Cyngeils in the presence of his godfather, King Oswald of Northumbria, in whose kingdom (and in Kent) former Roman sites had already provided the choice settings for church foundations. There is evidence of fourth and early fifth-century west-east aligned burials at the Queenford Mill and Church Piece extra-mural cemeteries, which might hint at a Christian presence during the final phases of the settlement, although whether a British Christian community persisted here through the fifth and sixth centuries has to remain highly questionable. What is evident is that the vicinity of Dorchester was an early foci of Germanic settlement and/or influence in the fifth century. A distinctive cluster of late fifth- and sixth-century Anglo-Saxon burial sites and settlements, have been found over the last two hundred years, attesting to a concentration of population and power post-dating the Roman activity and pre-dating the church’s foundation.

Archaeology at the Church

Excavations in and around churches tend to be small keyhole excavations, but even small areas of investigation can reveal fascinating new discoveries. In Oxoniensia, Graham Keevill reports on the discovery of early finds from the Cloister Garden (i.e. just to the north of the present church), which might relate to the early foundation. Keevill also reports on a range of later medieval burials excavated ahead of the construction of a boiler room and pentice north of the nave, including some find medieval sarcophagi.

Medieval brass, like most at Dorchester they have lost their brass, leaving the present-absence of the silhouettes of architecture and figures

Medieval Brasses and Tombs

Sadly only hints of the pre-Conquest church remain above ground (Saxon fabric on the north wall of the nave) and unlike Anglo-Saxon churches elsewhere in the country, no architecture or sculpture of Anglo-Saxon date has been located.

Still, there is a fabulous collection of later medieval brasses and effigy tombs. On our visit, many of these were obscured by furnishings and furniture, but with my kids’ help I did my best to photograph as many of these as possible.

Medieval knightly effigy

The finest effigy is that of a thirteenth-century knight with hand upon sheathed sword and legs crossed. The mythology of effigies tells us that cross-legged effigies memorialise crusaders, when of course, as I explained to my kids, the truth is that the knight spent so long posing for the sculptor that he got desperate for the toilet…. That was a joke.

Seriously, what is interesting about effigies from the perspective of  a modern visitor is how kids interact with them in a fashion unlike any other memorial type. They see them as person-like, despite the lack of colour and despite their frequently fragmentary and graffiti-covered state. And also, as at Dorchester, despite their occasional inaccessibility, they are sought out.

Medieval effigy tomb, Dorchester Abbey
Not-so-happy effigy

My serious point about this is a speculation regarding whether this close engagement involving touching, while varying in character and significance over time, was an integral component of their aspired character as foci for intercessory prayer and remembrance. A further dimension of their corporeal nature is their singling out for post-medieval graffiti, as mementos for visitors who left an indelible mark on the place through the inscription of the tomb. I’ve seen a comparable interaction with skeletons in displays at museums by my offspring and this foregrounds the distinctiveness of this memorial media and its affordances later in their biographies of display and reuse.

Saying hello to the knight

Post-Medieval Memorials

Floor comprised of reused gravestones

The walls of the abbey church are adorned by only a modest number of post-medieval mural monuments, while the current flooring of the church has a typical range of ledgers. Of particular note are memorials I would reckon have been brought in from the graveyard and reused as flooring in the nineteenth century, including some fabulous cherubs and deaths heads.

Post-medieval gravestones reused in the flooring of the chancel
18th-century memorial with deaths head