During my Christmas vacation I enjoyed being the proud owner of a new Kindle, and downloaded a number of things from the Project Gutenberg site. Among these was a book by the great Hilaire Belloc entitled “The Historic Thames”. This work does not start out auspiciously, by any means, unless you happen to be a geologist or are in need of a non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. However, I recommend that you stick with it, for when the book gets going, about half-way through its length, the author pulls out all the stops.
In particular Belloc – being Belloc – slams the new English aristocracy which arose out of the Reformation. The arrivistes, parvenus, whores and bastards of Henry and Elizabeth’s time, writes Belloc, down to their present-day descendants, have busied themselves acquiring titles and wealth to cover up their seedy origins, and simultaneously attempting to destroy their country’s Catholic past. Belloc chastises their taking over the monasteries, convents, churches, and hospitals; in some cases demolishing them completely in order to build new country estates for themselves out of these consecrated stones, in other cases simply selling them for parts like scrap from a junkyard.
Because his book is not specifically about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or about the death of chivalry in England, but rather a survey of the tides of history along the banks of the Thames, Belloc cannot go into as much detail as one suspects he might have liked to in this particular section of his book. Indeed, Belloc subsequently moves on to the incorporation of towns and local governments, as well as the impact of the railway on economic development in the Thames Valley. The loss of England’s Catholic faith and heritage is not the primary focus of his research, even if it unquestionably flavors it and provides the most interesting sections for the reader.
What caught my eye however, was a tip of the hat by Belloc to an unnamed man of the 16th century, as the author catalogued the destruction of England’s past. In describing what happened to the religious houses of the Thames Valley, Belloc notes the miraculous survival of the medieval Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Dorchester-on-Thames, more commonly known as Dorchester Abbey. At the time of Henry VIII the church, which at one point had served as the local cathedral, was in use as the chapel for the Augustinian monks of the abbey.
“It is interesting to know,” writes Belloc, “that the church at Dorchester was saved by the local patriotism of one man, who left half his fortune for the purchase of it, and that not in order to ruin it and to sell the stones of it, but in order to preserve it: a singular man.” By Belloc’s time, the Abbey had been reduced in status to that of an Anglican church, and almost all of the buildings which composed the site, apart from the chapel itself, had been removed. Belloc was certainly right in noting the remarkable effort to preserve what it was possible to preserve of the Abbey, though truthfully not all was saved.
Still, naturally my curiosity was piqued by Belloc’s characterization of the Abbey chapel’s savior. It turns out that the “singular man” in question was a wealthy local merchant, Sir Richard Bewfforeste. Sir Richard paid Henry VIII for the value of the lead roof atop the church, and asked that the building thereby be spared so that the local community could use the chapel as its local church. For some unknown reason, Henry agreed – and I deliberately use the word, “unknown” for surely, wretch that he was, Henry could simply have taken the money, found some pretext to have Sir Richard imprisoned, and then had the entire thing sold off to someone else for building materials. As it was, the Abbey church survived the Reformation with (comparatively) minor losses.
Exactly why Sir Richard acted as he did I cannot ascertain through the limited research one can find on the man via the internet. Nor does Eamon Duffy address either Sir Richard or the Abbey itself in his excellent, authoritative book (which I highly recommend) “The Stripping of the Altars”. The internet raises as many questions as it answers.
There was, interestingly enough, an earlier Richard Bewfforeste who served as Abbot of Dorchester Abbey, and died in 1510; this earlier Richard’s tomb in the Abbey appears below. Perhaps Sir Richard was named for this relation, and did not want to see his or his family’s memory blighted? Or perhaps Sir Richard himself was a genuinely devout Catholic who wanted to save what was within his power to save from the hands of heretics and blasphemers?
Whatever the cause, this fragment of England’s Catholic past has been preserved, and would certainly be worth a visit. Those of my readers who happen to have more information about the life of Sir Richard Bewfforeste, that singular man, please let me know – particularly if there are some online sources you can direct me and my readers to. Sir Richard’s is certainly a soul I intend to remember in my prayers.
Abbott of Dorchester Abbey, c. 1510