- The market town of Bourne, Lincolnshire, England -

The Abbey Church

Bourne Abbey photographed in May 2003

NO TRACE REMAINS of the church that probably existed here before the Norman Conquest. The building we see today is the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, better known locally as Bourne Abbey, and was founded by the Lord of the Manor, Baldwin Fitzgilbert, in the 12th century. It was neither large nor wealthy but it was Norman and impressive and dates from circa 1138.

Baldwin's Abbey was one of the five English monastic houses attached to the Arrouaisian congregation that was a sub-division of the Augustinian order. They took their name from the French village of Arrouaise in Artois where in 1090, three hermits had combined to build a cell or oratory in honour of the Holy Trinity and St Nicholas and there were eventually 28 houses, mainly in France and Flanders. The Arrouaisian canons were not very different from other Augustinians and the distinction between them tended to fade out as time went on and soon after 1470, the order became extinct. However, the abbots of Bourne always retained some of their independence and kept up their connection with the abbey at Missenden in Buckinghamshire that had similar origins. 

The foundation charter of Bourne Abbey was granted to Gervase, Abbot of St Nicholas of Arrouaise, but the house at Bourne was not merely intended as a cell of that abbey. It was independent from the start with its own abbot and the first to hold that office of which we have any record was David about 1156. Baldwin also gave him several tracts of land in the vicinity, fisheries in Bourne marsh, the nearby fish pond, various rents from other properties and the tithes of mills and of deer hides killed in hunting and wool to make garments for the canons. When Baldwin's daughter married Hugh Wake, the patronage of the house passed into the hands of the Wake family and they retained it until the 14th century but twice, in 1311 and again in 1324, the king's escheastor tried to claim Bourne Abbey as a royal foundation but the Wakes managed to uphold their rights and when Edward III subsequently visited the town, these were confirmed.

The abbey never became rich or important and it is probable that there were twelve canons at the start but this number fell to seven after the Black Death. They worshipped in the church, a building largely rebuilt and restored, especially during the Middle Ages, although the 12th century plans of the building were much the same as today with a nave and narrow north and south aisles, a large chancel, a south transept and twin towers at the west end but only the south west tower was built and there is no evidence of a north transept. No traces remain of the other monastic buildings although it may be that the cloister lay to the north side and a stone stairway which was in the south east corner of the present organ chamber could once have been the night stairs from the dormitory into the church.

Bourne Abbey is the town's only Grade I listed building. Extensive alterations have been carried out to the fabric in a style transitional from Norman to Early English. This was probably the first stage of a scheme to replace the 12th century church with one of "cathedral-like proportions" but this did not come to fruition and it has been suggested that the ambitious plans were thwarted by the Black Death. The only Norman remains of the abbey are incorporated into the nave, four round arches on massive piers supporting scalloped capitals.

The nave looks towards the high altar and behind that the east window. On the right stands a fine brass Victorian lectern in the form of an eagle supported on a pedestal. It was presented to the church in 1902 in memory of Margaret Dainty and was restored in 1938. In the centre of the nave is a huge brass chandelier that was given by Matthew Clay in 1742 to the memory of his daughter who died at the age of 22. Its 24 candles are lit at festivals and this produces a splendid sight over the worshipping congregation. The chandelier is identical to that in West Deeping church that is also from the early 18th century and the two are therefore almost certainly the work of the same craftsman. The high altar was enlarged by a gift in memory of Charles Horne, a former vicar, who died a few days after his retirement in 1951. The stone pulpit however, is incongruous because it was installed in 1890 to replace its oak Jacobean predecessor that was sold to the parish of Frampton, near Boston, Lincolnshire, for 3. 3s. 0d in the belief that a Norman church should have a Norman pulpit. We now know that this supposition was incorrect and that such churches had no pulpit.

The abbey has a few minor monuments and some colourful Victorian stained glass. The east window commemorates members of the Dodsworth family, the centre panel being in memory of the Rev Joseph Dodsworth who died in 1877. It was he who gave the stone and marble reredos to the church in 1866. The actual date of the installation of the stained glass is not known but it was in situ by 1868. During 1986, the stonework and stained glass underwent major restoration and repair at a cost of 13,000, the money being raised by special events, public donations and grants. The north window in the chancel was placed there in 1860 as a memorial to various members of the Dove family while the southern window is in memory of Margetta, wife of Edward Parrish who died on 15th December 1858. This window was re-leaded in 1983.

There are also memorial tablets on the walls to the Digby family who lived at the Red Hall circa 1730-1836. One of the most interesting is to Catherine Digby who left 500 in trust towards the salary of an organist, the first instrument being installed in the west end gallery by John Gray two years before her death although this gallery was removed in 1870 when a public subscription of 1,200 financed extensions to the north aisle that was widened to provide a vestry and an organ chamber with a newly-constructed organ by Gray & Davison.

Little work was done on the fabric of the church after the dissolution until the late 19th century and since then there has been successive work to maintain and improve the building with money from local benefactors. One of the most important projects was undertaken in 1892 when a new high-pitched roof was erected, the bosses showing the shields of the patron saints of Peter and Paul, the Diocese of Lincoln, the Clare family coat of arms (Baldwin Fitzgilbert, the founder, came from the House of Clare) and the coat of arms of the Wake family who were benefactors of the abbey. The chancel was also repaired and wainscoted with oak and choir stalls installed as a thanksgiving for Queen Victoria's jubilee together with a chancel screen.

During the 20th century, the bells were re-hung in 1927, two having been re-cast, and further work was undertaken to strengthen the south west tower. These repairs started in the autumn of 1934 after the tower had been found to be in serious danger of collapse but the following January, as work was progressing, the full extent of the deterioration became apparent. The architects, Traylen and Lenton of Stamford, said in their survey report: "The imminence of the danger of collapse was even worse than anticipated." They also discovered that in the west, south and east faces of the tower, were four very wide cracks extending from the base mouldings through all three stages of the tower. An appeal for 2,000 was launched to pay for the restoration work and the entire tower was encased in scaffolding and immense shores and timbers were built on concrete bases to counteract any possible movement while the repairs were carried out. They included washing out the disintegrated rubble core, inserting metal rods to bond the inner and outer walls, the injection of a water and cement mixture and the replacement of damaged stonework.

The office of vicar of Bourne was constituted in the early 13th century and the first to be appointed was Geoffrey de Brunne, some time between 1209 and 1228, with a stipend of 4 a year and several other considerations such as food for himself and his servant, fodder for his horse and twenty shillings a year towards his clothing. He was also to have a cottage or house within the abbey near the gate. There have been 49 other vicars since and the present incumbent, the Rev Christopher Atkinson, was appointed in 2003.

The priest eventually lived in a purpose built house or vicarage. The first was Brook Lodge, built in 1776 by the Rev Humphrey Hyde who was the incumbent from 1763 until 1807, and the building still stands at the end of Church Walk with the frontage on a bend in South Road but it no longer serves its original purpose having been used as a doctor's surgery and now converted into flats. It was replaced by a new vicarage in 1879 and materials salvaged from the former Abbey House that had been built a century earlier were used in its construction but it was a large and rambling building and by the late 20th century was no longer an acceptable home for today's incumbent, being costly to run and maintain on a modest stipend. Similar parsonages around the country were sold by the Church of England and replaced by modern properties and so it was at Bourne where the new vicarage now occupies a site close to the Abbey Church while the old building, which survives nearby, is still in useful service as The Cedars, a residential care home for the elderly. The church hall is also a modern building erected within the abbey precincts in the early 1960's but has little to commend it architecturally although it does provide a useful place for community events.

A detailed and illustrated history of the Abbey Church, the organ and bells, together with a list of the incumbents since the 12th century, can be found on the CD-ROM A Portrait of Bourne.

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