The Blessed Virgin Mary
Sherborne is arguably the most attractive town in Dorset. It is an ancient place with roots in the Saxon period when it was already a village. Surprisingly, the centre is still largely unspoilt by encroaching red brick terraces or mindless housing estates or even inappropriate modernization of the old buildings. It has the venerable feel of a small cathedral city and certainly the calm of a place of learning, which it still is. Timber faced buildings jostle with stone from the Georgian period and others with quaint half-hidden courtyards. Right in the middle of this wonderful cacophony of styles rests the Abbey behind its green, resplendent like some fabulous crown on a velvet cushion.
The view from the south over the green, shows an almost entirely 15c perpendicular style, apart from the south porch, which is a mix of 12c ground-floor rebuild and 19c above. Yet it is the rich golden colour of the Hamstone from which it is constructed coupled with the majestic tower and superb flying buttresses that all combine to produce an unforgettable image. When the sculptural floodlighting illuminates the Abbey at night, there is a wholly serene quality about it.
In 705, King Ine divided the vast see of Winchester into two by establishing a new see at Sherborne, where he appointed his relative Aldhelm, the abbot of Malmesbury, as its first bishop. It was still very large because the new see included, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Leaving aside the size, this became an important place because the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that two Kings of Wessex are buried in the church: Ethelbald (860) and Ethelbert (866), older brothers of Alfred the Great (the fifth son of their father King Ethelwulf). Although Cornwall became a Saxon see in its own right as early as 870, the rest lasted for 200 years before being divided again in 909 by the creation of sees at Wells, Credition and Ramsbury. Towards the end of the Saxon period, Sherborne was joined to the see of Ramsbury (Wiltshire and Berkshire). However, soon after the Norman Conquest (1066) in 1075 the Bishop's seat was moved to Old Sarum (Salisbury). The Bishops of Salisbury retained the great Manor of Sherborne and their 12c castle remained theirs for centuries.
The site on which the present Abbey stands has been consecrated for more than 1200 years. St. Aldhelm's Abbey church was a cathedral seat for a total of twenty seven Saxon Bishops. From 1075 to the Reformation, it was the church of a Benedictine monastery. The monastery was dissolved in 1540 as part of Henry VIII's Reformation, since when the building has been a parish church.
The original Saxon single-cell building probably stood to the west of the present nave. In the late 10c, a large eastern tower and side chapels were added. The last but one Bishop of Sherborne, Alfwold (1045-58) started to build a new church on fresh ground, consisting of a nave with crossings and a choir, although shorter than today. A Lady chapel was added during the 13c.
By the 14c, the town of Sherborne had grown considerably and a new, but separate parish church for the benefit of the townsfolk, dedicated to All Hallows, was erected to the west of the cathedral church and over the site of the original Saxon Abbey.
The Abbey as we see it today, was largely the work of Abbot Ramsam (1475-1504), who completed the exquisite choir and rebuilt the nave and north transept. In total, however, the rebuild took more than 100 years to complete. Building in those days tended to be a slow process, partly because it depended on funds being available, but also partly due to the nature of the workforce. Building only moved forward between March and September because the unskilled workers had to return to their land for the harvest in the autumn and could not leave until they had ploughed and sown their crops in the spring. Only the skilled masons etc. remained to work through the winter preparing stones for the next building season.
Just before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the Abbey building, along with some land, was purchased by Sir John Horsey. After the Dissolution, he sold the building to the townsfolk for the sum of 100 marks, but somewhat slyly demanded more money for the lead on the roof and the bells. Since by then the monks had been dispersed, there was no further use for the old church of All Hallows and it was demolished and the stones sold off. The Abbey school was re-founded by King Edward VI and in 1564 the western end of the Lady Chapel was converted into the headmaster's house.
Little maintenance was carried out until 1850. The interior stonework had been painted white and box pews covered the whole building. Galleries spanned the nave aisles and the north transept.
The church was restored by public subscription and great generosity by the Digby family in 1850-8, the work being supervised by R C Carpenter and William Slater. R H Carpenter was responsible for the tower restoration in 1884. It is to these people that future generations must be deeply indebted for saving the Abbey so sensitively and avoiding what the Victorians regarded as 'improvements' that so often led to irretrievable damage to so many medieval churches in the county.
The huge roof, which extends to nearly half an acre (1/5th hectare) plus all the windows were re-leaded and much stonework renewed during 1978-81. The cost of £750,000 was raised by public subscription and a generous grant by the Department of the Environment.
There are some excellent guides available for the Abbey.
The Dorset Historic Churches Trust wishes gratefully to record its sincere thanks for the assistance received in the preparation of these notes by the Vicar, Canon Eric Woods, and the staff of the Abbey.
The Trust gratefully acknowledges images and text by Robin Adeney ©