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Tewkesbury Abbey
TewkesburyGL20 5RZ
Tewkesbury  locality
England  country
United Kingdom  country
Europe  continent
Main date(s)
early 12th C
51.968604° N, 1.928353° W
Free; donation requested
01684 850959


The nave of Tewkesbury Abbey features fourteen impressively stout Norman pillars that form eight bays of round arches. This very Romanesque architecture, graceful in its strong and simple austerity, is topped by a Decorated Gothic lierne vault.

The vault is delicately painted and studded with gilded bosses of musical angels and other figures. Happily these have gone untouched by either decay or iconoclasm in the seven centuries since they were installed. A mirror on a cart near the west door helps you get a better look. If you have a zoom lens or binoculars along, look for the Last Supper boss near the center of the nave.

The side aisles are narrow and also beautifully vaulted. Their side windows are all filled with Victorian glass. The two circular windows at the end of the aisles at the entrance to the ambulatory are also Victorian. See this diagram for details on their content and dates.

The choir has a beautiful scarlet and white ceiling with gilded bosses including a ring of shining suns, the emblem of the Yorkists. The suns are said to have been added by Edward IV after the defeat of the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury in 1471, the last important battle of the Wars of the Roses.

The stained glass windows of the choir are from the 14th century; they are the only medieval windows surviving in the church. They were given by Eleanor de Clare (d.1337), the wife of Hugh le Despenser and, after his death, of William de la Zouch. The left window centers on several of the church's patrons, which is unusual for medieval stained glass.

The organ on the south side of the choir has an illustrious past: it was played by the poet John Milton at Hampton Court when he was secretary to Oliver Cromwell. The Milton Organ, as it is known, was bought by the Tewkesbury townspeople in 1727.

Surrounding the chancel are a number of high-quality monuments and chantry chapels to some of Tewkesbury's greatest patrons, including the Fitzhamons, De Clares, Despensers, Beauchamps, Warwicks and Nevilles. Many of them include their own elaborately vaulted ceilings, reflecting the Abbey in miniature.

The best monuments belong to the Despensers, especially Sir Edward Dispenser (d.1375), who was standard-bearer to the Black Prince. His effigy kneels on the roof of the Trinity Chapel to the right of the high altar (best viewed from the north aisle). The Beauchamp Chapel (1422-38), to the left of the altar, features a fine fan vault.

The barrel vault of the south gallery chapel has a 12th-century fresco of a red foliate "boss." It was only fully uncovered and restored in 1996.

Worth a look in the ambulatory, which has a splendid scarlet and blue vault, is the macabre Wakeman Cenotaph, carved in the 15th century. Its history and the person it commemorates are both unknown. On it is depicted a decaying corpse being consumed by snakes and other creatures. Also in the ambulatory is a display of loose carved stones and other historic artifacts uncovered at the abbey.

Holly Hayes
December 31, 2011


The exterior of Tewkesbury Abbey has cathedral-sized proportions, with a long nave, east end ringed by chapels, and the largest Norman tower in the world (14 m square and 45 m high).

The west front has a unique recessed arch that soars 65 feet high, making it the largest exterior arch in the country. Entrance is through the great west door, which is uncommon in large churches nowadays (a side porch is more frequently used). The tracery of the west window dates from 1686; its glass from the Victorian restoration of 1886.

Holly Hayes
December 31, 2011

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