Elstow Abbey

Elstow Abbey

Stone from crossing of the cloister vaulting, on display at Bedford Museum
Monastery information
Full name The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Helena, Elstow
Established c.1075
Disestablished 1539
Location Elstow, Bedfordshire, England
Coordinates 52°06′54″N 0°28′10″W / 52.11495°N 0.46935°W / 52.11495; -0.46935Coordinates: 52°06′54″N 0°28′10″W / 52.11495°N 0.46935°W / 52.11495; -0.46935
Visible remains church

Elstow Abbey was a monastery for Benedictine nuns in Elstow, Bedfordshire, England. It was founded c.1075 by Judith, Countess of Huntingdon, a niece of William the Conqueror, and therefore is classed as a royal foundation.[1][2]


The Church dedicated to St Mary and St Helen, used to extend eastwards for some considerable distance, and contained a central tower, chancel, and Lady chapel. The foundation stones still cause much trouble to the Sexton, though he sometimes unearths beautiful tiles from the old chancel floor.

The monastery was known to have been involved in numerous lawsuits, with an array of monasteries including that of Dunstable Priory, Newhouse and St Albans Abbey, concerning the advowson of various parishes. The nuns often appear to have resorted to aggressive behaviour. There was further trouble in the 14th century when the nearby hospital of St Leonard needed to close and divert a footpath used by the abbey, for the purpose of building construction. The abbess objected and even following a lawsuit in which the abbey lost, they still prevented the work for a further two years until the hospital successfully sought intervention by the Crown, obtaining letters patent.

Further incidents followed:

In 1337 Elizabeth Morteyn, who was then abbess, claimed the 'third penny' from the town of Bedford, in virtue of an alleged grant from Malcolm IV, King of Scotland; the case was carried before Parliament, and the burgesses were successful in proving that Malcolm never had any lordship in the town.

There were numerous reports and complaints of unorthodox behaviour, with a visiting bishop commenting that there was 'too much wandering of the nuns out of the monastery.' Also, as many of the nuns and usually the abbess came from high ranking families, they had friends at court who often visited and even stayed in the monastery purely for social reasons. Some 'secular' women even seem to have been living in the monastery and eventually Bishop Gynwell ordered that none were to stay except those granted a special licence to do so. Even so, in 1379 Bishop Buckingham had to order the abbess to dismiss all secular persons from the monastery.

Various records of subsequent years show that little ever improved and if anything the monastery became increasingly secularised, with the nuns maintaining individual households, dining with friends and wearing secular clothing. Successive attempts at intervention seem to have been unsuccessful and probably ignored.

Apparently there used to be a separate Parish Church for the villagers, but this was destroyed about 1500, and the Abbey church was afterwards fitted up for public worship, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

The dissolution and beyond

There were twenty-three nuns in residence besides the abbess, Elizabeth Boyvill, when the monastery was closed in 1539, all of whom were then pensioned off. The land then passed to Edmund Harvey.

Following the dissolution, the majority of the church nave was blocked off and retained for parish use. The remainder of the church was demolished after 1580. In 1616 Sir Thomas Hillersdon purchased the remaining monastic buildings and incorporated them into a new house, which itself later became a ruin. The church contains some 15th-century brasses, 17th-century and later tombs and furnishings. Another survivor of the monastery is a small vaulted building on the south side of the church, originally a parlour and now used as a vestry.


Three bays of the church are Norman, (about 1075); the two western bays are of Early English style, about 1225. In 1539, during the suppression, much was lost. By 1580, the east end had been completed, with a west window, and detached tower. A watercolor by Thomas Fisher (c.1815) shows a timber-framed north porch. From 1823 to 1828, restoration work was done. Around 1860, a vestry on the north side of the church was demolished.

From 1880 to 1882 restoration work was done, by architect Thomas Jobson Jackson. In 1883 and 1885, the John Bunyan stained glass windows were added in the east wall.[3]

It became a listed building on 13 July 1964.[4]

List of Rectors

See also



External links

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