Although the history of the Abbey is generally reckoned as beginning with the arrival of Saint Aldhelm in AD 705 as Sherborne’s first bishop, there is no reason to think that this as the start of the town or of Christian worship here.
The choice of Sherborne as the site of Aldhelm’s new bishopric was almost certainly not a shot in the dark, but influenced by the knowledge that an older Celtic Christian site had been here for many years. Coming some forty years after the Synod of Whitby had decided that English Church should follow the observance of the rest of the Catholic world, Aldhelm’s arrival in Sherborne spelt not the beginning of Christianity in this area but the local end of a type of Christianity which, cut off from the rest of Europe by the Saxon invasions, had persisted in Britain alone.
It seems therefore very likely that a Celtic monastic community had its home in Sherborne before St Aldhelm came to write his complaints ‘against the errors of the Britons in observing Easter at the wrong time and doing other things contrary to the orthodoxy and unity of the Church.’ Saint Aldhelm was an example of a new type of man in the English Church. Well educated, cultured and conscious of what he saw as his wide responsibilities, he was successful in his efforts to get the local people to toe the line. It was said of him that ‘by his preaching he completed the conquest of Wessex.’
Nothing now survives of Aldhelm’s cathedral. The Saxon work which can be seen at the west end of the present church is part of a later rebuilding. The Sherborne bishopric survived until just after the Norman Conquest, when in 1705 the See was moved from here to Old Sarum. Tradition has it that King Alfred the Great was schooled here, and certainly his brothers King Ethelbald and King Ethelbert were buried (AD 860 and 865) in Sherborne Abbey.
In 1998 was celebrated the millennium of the introduction of the Benedictines to Sherborne by St Wulfstan, replacing the community of secular canons which had served the Cathedral since its foundation. The Benedictine monks were to remain until the Protestant Reformation, viewed with a variety of feelings by the townspeople. It is to the Abbots of Sherborne that we owe the building as it stands, and in particular to Abbots Robert Brunyng (1385 – 1415) and William Bradford (1415 – 1436), who completed the rebuilding of the tower.
Monks, and particularly medieval ones, have never had a very good reputation in England, but there is no good reason to suppose that those at Sherborne were extraordinarily wicked. Providing hospitality and education and care for the sick, and the monotony of a daily round of prayer and administration, was no doubt occasionally compensated for by devotion to comforts which we might consider excessive. But if by the fourteenth century the widespread decline in monastic standards had affected the community here, and the Abbot had built himself a very grand house (part of which is now the headmaster’s study in King’s School), Sherborne could nonetheless boast that it has nurtured at least one saint in happier days. Saint Stephen Harding (d.1134) is remembered as the Abbot of the French monastery at Citeaux, where he received Saint Bernard into his Order, and wrote the Carta Caritatis on which the Cistercian rule is based. But Stephen was a Dorset man who entered the novitiate at Sherborne and here received his education as a young monk. He would have known the Norman Abbey well.
From the end of the fourteenth century the townspeople had their own church of All Hallows, which stood hard up against the west wall of the Abbey and was looked after by a secular priest employed by the monastery. Although quite large, All Hallows had only the status of a chapel-of-ease and for that reason the baptism of children had to be done in the Abbey, which was the legal parish church.
Trouble between the monks and the townsfolk erupted in 1437, when the Abbey was badly damaged in a riot precipitated by the Abbot’s decision to move its font and narrow one of the west doorways. The initial squabbling seems to have been rather childish; the priest of All Hallows rang his church bells early in the morning in the hope of annoying the still-sleeping monks. At length he took the more serious step of setting up his own illegal font, and the Bishop attempted to make peace between the two sides. He was not successful.
Eventually a ‘stoute Bocher’ called Walter Gallor smashed the All Hallows font, presumably having been urged to do so by the monks. In retaliation the townspeople broke into the Abbey and from the nave their enraged cleric shot a lighted arrow into some temporary thatching protecting building works at the east end. The resulting fire spread quickly in the draughty building and the Abbey was extensively damaged, with the melting of the lead and the bells. In the Choir you can still see where the flames have turned the stone red. The people had to pay for the repairs and in 1450 a second quarrel flared over a font in All Hallows, the parishioners threatening the Bishop with violence. This revolution was a successful one, and All Hallows, with its font, became the parish church until the Dissolution. The only comparable incident in Sherborne’s history was to occur nearly five centuries later when, during the Reform riots of 1832, the Vicar was badly beaten for being in league with the ruling classes at the Castle.
When Henry VIII decided to dissolve the English monasteries as a prelude to the Protestant Reformation, the blow fell softly in Sherborne for the ground had already declined to seventeen monks, and the corrupt and complaint John Barnstable was appointed Abbot as a result of a plot betweenSir John Horsey of Clifton Maybank and Thomas Cromwell. Horsey had his eye on collecting the major share of the monastic property from the Crown and, since he was successful, must have regarded the huge bribe he paid Cromwell for Barnstable’s appointment (nearly £100,000 in today’s prices) as money well spent. Having no use for the Abbey, Horsey sold it to the vicar and the town. During the 1540s All Hallows was demolished and the Abbey once again became the parish church. Barnstable received a large pension for his services.
In 1550 the former monastic lands were used in the re-founding of the Free Grammar School of King Edward VI – now Sherborne School. The monastic life was not to return to Sherborne until 1891, when the Belgian Women’s Order of Christian Instruction opened a convent and a catholic girl’s school in Westbury, now based at St Antony’s Convent in Leweston. Later, under the Tractarian revial of Religious Life in the Church of England, nearby Hilfield at Batcombe became the home of the Anglican Franciscan friars.
Two swathes of restoration – in the 1850s by Slater and Carpenter, in 1970s with assistance from the Department of the Environment – have kept the fabric in good order and the roof re leaded. In time for the Abbey’s Benedictine millennium in 1997 the great West Window was replaced with a new design by John Hayward. The Queen and Prince Philip attended its dedication in 1998.
The new century began with the restoration of the tower vaulting and the Quire. This has been followed by the rebuilding of the historic organ. The Abbey celebrates 1300 years of rich and varied life in 2005, and remains the spiritual centre of a large and vigorous congregation. The Abbey Choir has a very high reputation, and the church also hosts many concerts and recitals, and an annual Music Festival.
"On Monday Fisher took me a magnificent Ride to Sherborne: a fine old Town - with a magnificent Church finer than Salisbury Cathedral." - John Constable, 1776 - 1837.
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