Amesbury Parish Church
The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Melor
A Brief Historical Background
(based on a piece by Ron Steele – 2005)
There has been a Religious Establishment in the area of Amesbury since the 5th Century (about 440 AD). Legends of King Arthur are based on a romantic view of Welsh History contained in the Welsh Triads and a man called Ambrosius Auralianus. The Auralius family stayed in Britain after the Roman occupation ended, as did most Romano-British families. Ambrosius eventually became the leader of several British tribes. He formed the first "British Army" and opposed the ferocious and pagan Saxon invaders. He is thought to have established his headquarters in this area. His name came to be shortened to Ambrose and the area became Ambrose Burgh. This has lead some to think that the name "Amesbury" is derived from it.
Ambrosius was also a kind, compassionate and very religious man, founding a monastery here. It eventually became one of the largest religious establishments in the country. Approximately 300 monks lived in the monastery and it became known as the "Choir of Ambrosius". Some years later Ambrosius was visiting Winchester when he was assassinated by poisoning there, but he was buried in the monastery he had founded in Amesbury. The monastery was later sacked, looted and the monks put to the sword or dispersed by the ferocious Saxon invaders.
Little is known of the period which followed, but it appears that the warlike invasion gradually subsided and Saxon families began peacefully to move into the area and intermingle with the locals. In 975 King Edgar (who was known as "The Peaceful" and was a popular King of Wessex) died and his eldest son Edward became king. King Edgar had married three times. His first wife was Ethelfled, the mother of Edward. His third wife was Elftida who had a son by Edgar, called Ethelred. Edward was in his late teens when he became king. He preferred teen pleasures to the responsibilities of Kingship and was not popular. He was murdered at Corfe Castle in 978 and his half brother Ethelred became King. Ethelred was then not yet 13, and until he came of age he was advised by a Council of Elders who made several political decisions in his name, earning him the nickname of the "Unready". He could not have been that bad, because he reigned for 35 years!
There is no evidence that his mother, Elftida, was involved in the murder of Edward, but in 979 she founded two Abbeys. In those days, founding religious establishments was a well known way of doing penance. The Abbeys were Wherwell near Andover, and Amesbury. Wherewell soon fell into decay and now only outlines in the ground can be seen. Amesbury Abbey was a modest establishment dedicated to St. Mary and St. Melor but lasted 198 years. Edward was buried at Wareham. Soon after his death an aura is supposed to have surrounded his remains and miracles began to be reported. He was canonised and became known as St. Edward the Martyr. His remains were moved to Shaftesbury Abbey, which no longer exists, but Edward’s remains are still on display in a shrine created by a former owner of the ground.
We now move forward in years to 1175. That was the year in which Thomas a’Beckett was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Henry II was King at the time and involved in the murder. He was offered absolution by Pope Alexander III on condition that he founded three Abbeys. Henry was canny with money, and although he appeared to found three Abbeys, he in fact founded only one. That was Witham Friary in Somerset, sadly no longer in existence. The other two were refoundings. It is well known how he dealt with Amesbury Abbey and he probably dealt with Waltham Abbey (North London) in a similar way. Through various Subterfuges he found excuses to evict the "English" nuns. He then set about refurbishing the Abbey on a lavish scale and in 1177 invited the Abbess at Fontevrault (in France) to establish a Priory here. Henry was more French than English and his tomb can be seen in the Abbey at Fontevrault. Incidentally, English was not spoken by Kings of England until 1327!
The Abbess sent a Prioress and 24 nuns here. The Prioress was inducted by Richard of Canterbury in the presence of the King, his Nobles, Prelates and many other clergy on the 11th June 1177. Parts of the church were painted in many colours, (some of which can still be seen) and this decoration, together with Royal, Noble and Clerical robes and many coloured banners, must have presented a truly magnificent spectacle.
The priory enjoyed, Royal patronage for many years. In 1241 Eleanor of Brittany (Granddaughter of Henry II) died in Bristol but was buried in the Priory at Amesbury. In 1283 Mary (6th daughter of Edward I and Granddaughter of Eleanor of Provence) together with her half sister Leonora ''took the veil" in the presence of the whole Royal family. In 1285, Eleanor of Provence (widow of Henry III) entered the Priory and became a nun. She died in 1291 and was buried in front of the High Altar in the presence of Edward I and his court. Edward visited the Priory many times.
In 1400 a dispute arose between the Prioress and the Prior. As Fontevrault took no part in the dispute it is assumed that it had lost most of its authority. Shortly afterwards the establishment became an Abbey again. Katherine of Aragon lodged in the Abbey on her way to London to marry Prince Arthur. The Abbey suffered under the hand of Henry VIII. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries many buildings were destroyed, but the church was spared and given to the parish. The land was gifted to Edward Seymour, the brother of Jane Seymour.
The Royal connection continues to this day. The church is under the patronage of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and HRH Prince Charles has visited the church twice; once to plant a tree, in commemoration of the church's millennium in 1979 and once to attend a musical concert.