The Order of St Benedict
The Order and monastery were founded by Robert d’Arbrissel about the end of the 12th century close to the Loire near Anjou. The Order used double houses containing separate convents for monks and nuns, and followed the Benedictine rule. The abbess was supreme over all the religious of the Order, and heads of dependent houses were prioresses.
War and internal dissension affected the prosperity of the Order. There was a revival at the beginning of the 14th century, under the rule of Eleanor of Brittany who had taken the veil at Amesbury, but it wasn't until the 15th century that relaxation of some of the rules and some reorganisation allowed circumstances to improve. The history of the Order is principally that of the mother-house, and it never attained to any great importance outside of France.
The Angevin kings were much attached to Fontevrault: Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Guienne, Richard Coeur de Lion, and Isabel o Angoule’eame, the wife of King John, were buried in the Cimetie’ere des Rois in the abbey church, where their effigies may still be seen. The remains were scattered during the French Revolution.
The only English houses of the Order were the Priories of Amesbury and Nuneaton, and the cell of Westwood, in Warwickshire. A survey undertaken in 1256 shows that at Amesbury there were 77 choir nuns, 7 chaplains and 16 conversi. In the 14th century officials at Amesbury were appointed by the Abbess of Fontevrault. Bonds uniting the English nunneries to the mother-house gradually loosened until these houses became practically independent.
Lady Mary Gore was Prioress in 1420, during one of less illustrious periods of the priory’s history. At time of separation from its motherhouse of Fonterault weakening relationship with the English monarchy, resulting from the long wars with France the Priory still held the chief manor of nether wallop, the brass of Mary call may be seen in St Andrews Church.
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The first recorded religious house here was the Benedictine Abbey founded around 979AD. A Christian presence existed in southern England well before that, with the first indications in the third century during the period of Roman occupation.
The fact that Amesbury was a royal estate during the Saxon period suggests that there may well have been a Christian community and church here significantly before the abbey.
Archaeological work at Boscombe Down uncovered a burial possibly indicating an early Christian presence. It was dated to around 350 A.D. Its east-west orientation and the presence of a Chi-Rho coin gives the site significant importance.
The first abbey was founded by Queen Aelfthryth (Elfrida) as an act of penance following the murder of her stepson Edward at Corfe Castle in Dorset. The abbey lasted until 1177 when it ended as an act of penance for another crime; this time it was for Henry II’s complicity in the murder of Thomas Becket.
The Order follow the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 - 547 AD). The Rule became the norm for monastic living throughout Europe. By the 7th century it had been applied to nut, whose patroness was Scholastica, sister of St Benedict.
By the beginning of the 9th century the Benedictine Rule had supplemented most other observances in northern and western Europe, with monasteries multiplying in size and wealth. They were the chief repositories for learning and literature, and were the principle educators.
The great age of Benedictine predominance ended around the mid 12th century when decline set in. In the 15th century a radical new Benedictine institution arose, breathing new life into Benedictine monasticism. Decline was again evident in the 18th century but was reversed in the 19th century, with the movement gaining new strength worldwide.
The Order and Abbey of Fontevrault