St. John's Abbey, Colchester
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Colchester Abbey was a Benedictine monastery founded by Eudo, son of Hubert de Ria, seneschal of King William II (William Rufus) in 1096. This particular location was chosen for the monastery by Eudo as it was believed to be the site of a supposed miracle.
The first Abbot was Hugh of York, elected in 1104. Not soon after, the monastic living quarters were moved to the opposite side of the church due to the noise from the town and in October the first church was itself completed. At this point there were over twenty monks in residence.
There was considerable conflict between the abbey and the town for much of its existence, common enough circumstances at the time, as for example with Cirencester Abbey and Wymondham Abbey. In 1272, a riot took place at the Midsummer fair between the townspeople and men from the abbey, and a corpse was subsequently discovered which the abbey claimed to be a victim of the riot, killed by the townspeople. However it was soon discovered to be a body removed from the town gallows by the monks for the purpose of presenting him as a murder victim. Later, even a fortified tower was constructed to defend the abbey during local conflict.
Financially and materially, the abbey was in difficulty during, and beyond, the fourteenth century, with the church known to have been damaged by both flooding and fire. During this period there was also a significant conflict, culminating in a violent riot when the canons of nearby St Boltophs Priory appear to have stormed the abbey and attacked some of the community including the abbot himself.
In 1396, a monk of the abbey, John Colschestre was appointed bishop of Orkney by the pope, who in 1399 also granted the abbots of Colchester the use of the mitre, thus enhancing their status.
In 1403, the abbot was involved in a conspiracy to restore a supposedly still living King Richard II to the throne. The plot failed and the conspirators, including the abbot were arrested, though he had by then fled. He was later pardoned but got into further trouble and was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle. He died not long after.
There were further political problems involving the community in 1534, with the abbot and other monks refusing to give the oath of fealty to Henry VIII and his successors.
The Dissolution and beyond
In 1538 the order was given to suppress the abbey though this was not undertaken until the following year, by which time the abbot was under investigation for treason. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, he was subsequently found guilty and hanged for speaking out against the King, for supporting rebellion and opposing the dissolution. The abbey became the possession of the Crown and was leased to Sir Thomas Darcy in 1546.
The only surviving monastic structures are that of the impressive two storey gatehouse, dating from the 15th century, and some stretches of the precinct wall. Whatever other buildings survived following the dissolution, were destroyed during the siege of 1648.
- 'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Colchester', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 93-102.
- Anthony New. 'A Guide to the Abbeys of England And Wales', p119-20. Constable.
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