Last Photographed: Saturday 10th August 2013
Sherborne Abbey has enjoyed a somewhat convoluted and unusual history. It is possible that there was a Christian settlement in the area dating back at least as far as the 7th Century, as some evidence exists to suggest the presence of a Celtic British community dedicated to St Probus within the vicinity of Sherborne prior to the establishment of the later Saxon church.
In 705AD, King Ine of Wessex founded the Diocese of Western Wessex, and Aldhelm became its first bishop, with his seat at Sherborne. Although little is known about the construction of the Saxon church, William of Malmesbury (writing in the 12th Century) speaks of 'a magnificent cathedral' which was still standing during his lifetime.
In 998AD, Bishop Wulfsige III established a monastic community at Sherborne, replacing the existing priests with Benedictine monks. The church remained the seat of the bishopric however, thus functioning as both religious house and cathedral.
In 1075AD, the bishopric was transferred to Old Sarum, relegating Sherborne the status of priory. Around 1122AD, bishop Roger de Caen of Salisbury elevated Sherborne to the status of abbey, and installed Prior Thurstan as its first abbot. Around this time, work would have begun to rebuild the existing Saxon church, largely replacing it with a grander Norman structure. When this work was complete, all that remained of the earlier church was the western doorway in the north aisle and part of the adjoining wall.
Later abbots continued to expand and improve the structure of the church. The Lady Chapel and Bishop Robert's Chapel were added in the 13th Century. Late in the 14th Century, the west end of the church was extended to create a new church, dedicated to All Hallows, for use by the parishioners of Sherborne.
In the 15th Century, work was undertaken to remodel much of the church, with the choir being rebuilt and the famous fan vaulting added. During this time, the parishioners were denied access to the abbey church for baptisms, causing a riot that resulted in much of the building being badly burned. The walls of the crossing and choir still carry the marks of this event, in the form of reddened walls. The townsfolk were made to bear the financial burden of the subsequent repairs, and the vaulting was finally finished around 1490AD.
In 1539AD, the abbey was dissolved, but the people of Sherborne were eventually able to purchase the building for use as a parish church. The All Hallows extension was demolished, but some of the abbey buildings were retained for use as a school.
Today, sympathetic restoration work carried out by the Victorians, and then later in the 1970s, has ensured that the fabric of Sherborne Abbey remains in good condition. Other fragments of the monastic buildings can be seen in the surrounding urban area, including the gatehouse (now serving as a museum), the almshouses, and the hexagonal monks' conduit (a washing area once located in the centre of the cloister, but now relocated to the market area of the town).
The town itself retains a distinctly medieval flavour, and the array of unusual shops and quality eating places provide a pleasant backdrop for a visit to the abbey.