A History of Tewkesbury and it’s Abbey

“…his wit is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard!” (Shakespeare’s King Henry IV p2, act 2, sc. 4)

A History of Tewkesbury


Tewkesbury is a town in Gloucestershire, 1.5 miles from the M5, and close to both the cathedral towns of Gloucester (10.6 miles) and Worcester (17.2 miles).

I visited by bus from Gloucester, which was very easy.

It is a riverside town by the Severn and Avon, and still has many historic buildings, including Tewkesbury Abbey.

Many centuries of history grace Tewkesbury, and it is thought that the settlement dates back to Saxon times, when a Hermitage was established by a man called Theoc.

It is possible that Tewkesbury can trace its name back to this time.

There was little of note in Tewkesbury at the time of the Norman conquest, however William the Conqueror’s Queen, Matilda gave

By the river in Tewkesbury
By the river in Tewkesbury

permission for a market, and in 1087, the Abbey was founded by Robert FitzHamon, an Anglo Norman baron who was related to William the Conqueror.

The Wars of the Roses came to Tewkesbury on the 4th of May, 1471 where the Battle of Tewkesbury was fiercely fought.

This was a decisive battle, with the Lancastrians being defeated and a victory for King Edward IV who, due to the outcome, was finally secure on his throne.

If you are keen to read more about the Battle of Tewkesbury, I wrote about it here in my Wars of the Roses series of posts.

Some of the beautiful historic buildings in Tewkesbury
Some of the beautiful historic buildings in Tewkesbury

Tewkesbury also saw visits from many monarchs over the years, with King John spending Christmas there in 1204.

Henry III, Richard II, Mary I and Henry VIII also visited the town.

In 2007, Tewkesbury was hit by a devastating flood, 13 people died and the Abbey was flooded.

This case study shows more information and includes an aerial photo showing Tewkesbury Abbey completely isolated by flood water.

The West Front of Tewkesbury Abbey, with it’s glorious Norman arch

Tewkesbury Abbey

Approaching Tewkesbury Abbey from the East
Approaching Tewkesbury Abbey from the East

Tewkesbury Abbey is a lesser known, jewel of a church located on the south side of Tewkesbury.

Founded by Robert FitzHamon as part of a Benediction monastery in 1087, the building of the current church was begun in 1102, and was close to completion when it was consecrated in 1121.

It is the second largest Parish church in England, and survived mostly unscathed despite Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, due to the townspeople buying the church to become their parish church for £453 ( ca. £143k in today’s money)

Foundation: 8th – 10th Centuries

East End chapels, Tewkesbury
East End chapels, Tewkesbury

It is thought that the origins of worship began in Saxon times, with the foundation of a hermitage by a man called Theoc.

In 715 a Saxon Lord named Dodo started to build a church in honour of the Virgin Mary, and in 980, Aylward Meaw established the beginnings of a Benedictine monastery.

The Current Church: 11th – 14th Centuries

The Romanesque Tower of Tewkesbury Abbey
The Romanesque Tower of Tewkesbury Abbey, completed by 1150

After the Norman conquest of 1066, the lands of Tewkesbury were confiscated and given to the crown. The lands came into the possession of Robert Fitzhamon, and the building of the current church began in 1102.

Robert was killed in the siege of Falaise in 1107, and the building of the church was continued under his son in law Robert Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of Henry I.

By 1150, the Choir, Nave and Tower were completed. Originally, the Nave had a wooden ceiling, but this was replaced by the current vaulted ceiling in the early 14th century.

The East End of the Abbey, completed by the 14th Century
The East End of the Abbey, completed by the 14th Century

The Tower rises above the surrounding meadows and town and is one of the distinctive features of the Abbey.

It is one of the finest Romanesque towers in England, and measures 46 feet (14m) square and 148 feet (46m) high. Originally it had a spire, but this collapsed in 1559.

The Abbey church was renovated and saw much Gothic decoration in the 14th century.

The Chantry chapels you can see today were completed by the 14th century, and many of these contain the remains of prosperous families including the DeSpensers, the Beauchamps, and the de Clares.

Conflict – 15th Century

The Nave of Tewkesbury Abbey
The Nave of Tewkesbury Abbey

On May 4th, 1471, two rival factions for the throne of England met in a battle called The Battle of Tewkesbury.

For years, the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the royal family had been meeting in terrible battles for the throne, and this battle was to prove decisive.

The Yorkist King Edward IV won the battle and the heir to the Lancastrian cause Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales was killed in the fighting.

His mother, Margaret of Anjou was captured, and Edward IV entered the last decade of his reign in relative peace.

Beautiful medieval painting within the Trinity Chapel, Tewkesbury Abbey

Many of the Lancastrian rebels had sought sanctuary at the Abbey, but they were dragged out and executed.

The Abbey was closed for a month and was reconsecrated, such was the horror that it had born witness too.

Many of the noble dead of the Battle of Tewkesbury are buried in the Abbey, including Edmund Beaufort who led the Lancastrians into battle.

A brass plaque in the sanctuary marks the grave of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales.

George, Duke of Clarence
Depiction of George, Duke of Clarence. Dated 1780. Owned by The National Portrait Gallery

George, Duke of Clarence was a younger brother of King Edward IV. He fought by his side at the Battle of Tewkesbury, however he was a thorn in the King’s side for many years.

He rebelled against him with the Earl of Warwick in the hope that he would be made King, married the Earl’s daughter Isabel without the King’s permission and was seen as ruthlessly ambitious.

When the Earl of Warwick died, George was given his lands but this was not enough for George, who tried to prevent Isabel Neville’s sister Anne from marrying so he could retain Isabel’s families entire inheritance.

Edward was a forgiving monarch, and pardoned George on many occasions, however it is thought that once George’s wife died, possibly of consumption or child bed fever, he became more reckless.

North side aisle of the Nave, Tewkesbury Abbey
North side aisle of the Nave, Tewkesbury Abbey

George accused her maid of poisoning her and had her judicially murdered, which Edward was unhappy with.

He seemed to be increasingly unstable and Edward became convinced that he still had ambitions for his throne.

On the 18th of February, 1478, George was executed for treason and legend tells us he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.

It is said that George was laid to rest next to his wife at Tewkesbury Abbey, and their bones were moved in later years and re-interred behind a glass window in the wall behind the High Altar.

But with much of the legacy of the York dynasty there is debate as to whether or not the bones identified as the Duke and his wife are actually them.

There is an interesting article on the NSW Richard III Society Website that goes into detail about this.

16th Century – Today

East End of the Abbey
East End of the Abbey

The dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 – 1541 came to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1539 when the monastic buildings were destroyed.

It is such a joy that we still have the church today, thanks to the townspeople of Tewkesbury who bought it from the Crown to become their parish church.

The Abbey seemed to be unaffected by the Civil war in the 17th century and the 19th century saw renovation by the famous and prolific Sir Gilbert Scott.

In Summary

The Crossing at Tewkesbury
The Crossing at Tewkesbury

What can I say about Tewkesbury! If you like pretty market towns, history and beautiful churches then you shouldn’t miss it.

I was particularly taken by the Abbey, the glorious Gothic chapels of the East End, the medieval paintings in the Trinity chapel and the stoic, solid Norman nave which talks of all its years of history.

The vaulted ceilings are a delight and are painted with wonderful colour. You can feel the years of worship in this place.

I was only lucky enough to visit it once, and on my return to England it will solidly be on the list.


To view all my photos from my visit to Tewkesbury, please visit my flickr

Britannia.com – Tewkesbury
British-history.ac.uk – Tewkesbury
Tewkesbury Flood Facts
Case Study – Tewkesbury Flood
Wikipedia – Tewkesbury Abbey
Tewkesbury.cotswolds.info – Tewkesbury Abbey
Britain Express – Tewkesbury Abbey

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