Haughmond Abbey

I had seen pictures of Haughmond and the incredible intact chapter house which meant it had been near the top of my list of places to visit recently.

Ancient staircase steps bowed with centuries of use

It was a crisp, beautifully sunny January Sunday afternoon with pure blue skies and feeling the warmth of the sun on skin was most pleasant. The abbey remains casting atmospheric silhouette shadows across the grass with frost remaining in the shaded parts all afternoon long.

In front of the chapter house. Impressive 3 highly decorative 12th century arches, the central one being the doorway into the building. There are 8 carved saints under canopies between the arch shafts and it is believed these were made in the 14th century.

I found the place to be incredibly tranquil and remarkably intact compared with other Abbey sites not to mention the sheer scale of it – the abbey is considerably larger than many sites and the remains delightfully impressive.

Site of the Great Hall within the Abbot’s lodging looking through the west window

The site lies a few miles to the East of Shrewsbury and as you gaze over at the horizon the Shropshire hills rise in the background making a wonderfully picturesque setting – one that any one of the inhabitants of this place across the centuries would have recognised had they been walking around this very afternoon.

Abbot’s Great Hall with the turrets either side

Haughmond was an Augustinian Abbey founded in 1135, although it is built on the site of an earlier religious foundation. The abbey reflects the generosity of one of its early patrons the Fitzalan family, Lords of Oswestry and Clun.

Inside the Chapter house with the font at the front and late medieval timber ceiling in the roof from the 1500s. The canons would meet here daily to discuss religious business with the Abbot and deal with non-religious matters relating to the running of the Abbey. These meetings were preceded by a reading of a chapter from the rules of the order, hence it’s name. During meetings the Canons would have sat around the walls and the Abbot beneath the central window at the far end of the room.
How the front of the chapter house would have looked around the cloister

The Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but rather communities of canons, or priests – living under the rule of St Augustine. In England they came to be known as `black canons’ because of their dark coloured robes and to distinguish them from the Cistercians who wore light clothing. Canons did not necessarily lead sheltered secluded lives, but often worked or travelled outside their monasteries and attended the needs of the local lay communities.

They based their ‘rule’ and way of living on the writings of St Augustine of Hippo, after which their order was named (there is a statue of St Augustine carved into the arches of the chapter house).

Bay window of the Abbot’s private rooms

Over 200 Augustinian houses were established in Britain, with a heavier concentration in the Midlands and East Anglia. Their houses were usually quite small, a status of a priory, but Haughmond was unusual as it attained the status of an Abbey.

On the site of the church to the side of he chapter house overlooking the cloister

Wandering around the peaceful ruins I contemplated at length how rooms and doorways would have looked 900 years ago and who would have walked through them.

Kitchen area on the left with the chapter house on the right
Carvings of John the Baptist with lamb and flag and St Margaret of Antioch spearing a dragon from the front of the impressive chapter house

The first impressive building was the Abbot’s Hall which was built in the 14th Century. This would have had a timber roof and housed a large open fire in the centre. The hall served as an entertainment and public dining chamber for the Abbot and his household and was meant to be impressive with the large west window setting the room ablaze with light. There were very interesting, intricate turrets either side of the main, western entrance which remain intact for the most part. I imagined the sights and sounds of the great ceremonial processions which once passed through these doors into the hall. I was also greatly intrigued by a very well surviving staircase leading up to a second story where they abruptly ended, the steps wearily worn and bowed with over 900 years’ worth of feet treading over them. Where did they lead to, who was using them, I imagine the monks hastily hurrying up them to attend to some important business, the cold steps illuminated by candlelight.

Secret staircase

The most impressive remains are that of the Chapter House which rather incredibly retains its original medieval roof dating from around 1500. The incredible arches at the front of the Chapter house date from around 1200 and the original configuration of the building with the polygonal plan and new windows also inserted around 1500.

13th and 14th Century tomb slabs. One striking one bears a false-relief Lombardic script framed by two crosses.

It is known that Canons based at this abbey looked after the wounded from the nearby battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. It is said the place is haunted and that Phantom monks have been see walking through the arched doorways of the ruin before fading away.

Octagonal font from the church
St Michael the Archangel slaying a dragon
Looking over the Shropshire hills
Chapter house from the back

On the north side of the cloister are the foundations of the late 12th century church, partly incorporating the remains of the earlier church. The building is sloped on the natural land so the alter would have been 4 metres higher than the nave. Within the chancel are the tombs of two of the abbey’s patrons, John FitzAlan (died 1272) and his wife, Isabel de Mortimer.

The abbey was dissolved in 1539 as part of Henry VIII’s nationwide Dissolution of the Monasteries. Records show that the then Abbot and 10 cannons were present at the signing of the deed of surrender, each of them receiving generous pensions.

After dissolution the new owner Sir Edward Littleton converted the Abbots Hall and adjoining rooms into a private residence up until the Civil War where it was badly damaged by fire and later abandoned.

Sluice in the refectory undercroft
Undercroft of Dining Hall and refectory area. This is where food and drink would have been stored. The refectory, or dining hall would have been on the upper floor reached by a stone or timber service stair.

As the shadows stretched behind the high abbey walls and across the cloister, the main hub of the abbey, where daily life and the comings and goings of all those in the abbey would have culminated either in mediation or prayer it was fascinating to literally be walking through history as I imagined men 700 years ago walking on these very stones, perhaps to a meeting, a meal or to prayer amongst their busy day. They might have appreciated how beautiful a spot this truly was, on a day just like today.

Site of the Church looking over the site and the cloister on the right

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