The Mysteries of Tewkesbury Abbey
The Black Alchemist was a book written by Andrew Collins in 1988 which went on to become something of a cult classic. To briefly summarise, Collins and his friend “Bernard” - a powerful psychic – travelled up and down England in a supernatural search for various magical artifacts, with the aim of stopping the mysterious “Black Alchemist” from carrying out their “Great Work” which would bring chaos and ruin to Britain. The book is held up as a true story, with Collins claiming that the Great Storm of 1988 was actually raised and unleashed by the Black Alchemist and his coven, to sow discord while they sent the second Antichrist out into the world to eventually rule over the darkened lands.
What does this have to do with the Midlands though? The book begins in the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury, with Collins claiming that his psychic partner Bernard entered the great abbey there. He tells us that the founding patron of the abbey, Robert Fitzhamon, spoke to him in a ghostly voice, telling him to find an ancient Egyptian relic known as the “Stave of Nizar”. The voice came from within Fitzhamon's tomb to the side of the high altar, although it isn't discussed how a first generation Norman baron would know how to communicate in Modern English!
I did actually enjoy reading The Black Alchemist and Andrew Collins went on to write other volumes in his “psychic questing” series, with other locations around the Midlands being visited to retrieve various magical implements from history, and it was this that piqued my interest in Tewkesbury Abbey in the first place, Although an Anglo-Saxon monastery was already there, a new abbey was founded by Fitzhamon in 1092 with major reworking during the early 1300s funded by the patronage of Lady Eleanor le Despenser. Eleanor was the daughter of the infamous “Red Earl” Gilbert de Clare and married to Hugh le Despenser who went on to become the right hand man of Edward II after the death of his first favourite Piers Gaveston. The excesses enjoyed by Despenser through his relationship with the weak king provoked treason and an invasion by Isabella, wife of Edward, and her alleged lover Roger Mortimer. Despenser was later hung, drawn and quartered on a ladder at Hereford castle with Isabella and Mortimer spectating. A body part, believed to be his, is buried within a tomb at Tewkesbury Abbey within sight of the tomb of his beloved Eleanor.
Another notable and rather strange memorial is the Wakeman Cenotaph, built in memorial of John Wakeman the last abbot who handed the building over to the men of Henry VIII upon the Dissolution. A statue of his corpse lies prostrate along the tomb, depicted as a rotting ghoul, his face set in an agonised grimace. Rats, snakes and beetles crawl over his body. What this is all meant to represent isn't exactly clear but one other very strange thing about the structure is that he isn't even buried here, he lies in Gloucester Cathedral and this cenotaph was designed by him while very much alive! For some reason the Wakeman statue has been etched all over its surface with “graffiti”, much of it actually dating from the Tudor Age. Various initials and dates are here along with crude depictions of the coats-of-arms of some prominent families. I'm not entirely sure why visitors did this kind of thing back then but it can be seen at lots of other places too.
The spectacularly colourful vaulted ceiling above the high altar was commissioned by Eleanor le Despenser and looks as good today as it would have back then. The gigantic columns along the aisle are awe-inspiring as are the stained glass windows, some of which survive from Eleanor's day. Arriving on a Sunday quite soon after mass, incense still hangs in the air, illuminated by shafts of light through the coloured windows and the effect can only be described as spiritual.
Of course the Abbey is reputedly haunted, by a team of cowled monks who roam the lawns on random evenings, even making their way across to the main street where some of the Tudor buildings still hold parts of the old Abbey precincts. If you are visiting this quite simply magnificent building you should be safe from them during the daylight, but if you hear a booming voice inside your own head telling you to head out on a psychic quest...please let us know how you got on!
If you like these posts you might like my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available here -
Magnificent columns and arches inside the abbey
The beautiful ceiling above the alter
Light pierces the incense filled air
The tomb of Robert Fitzhamon, alleged starting point of the psychic quest to defeat the Black Alchemist
Centuries-old graffiti etched into the Wakeman cenotaph
Grimace - or grin? John Wakeman lies here.
Atmospheric resting place of a knight
Tewkesbury Abbey sometimes takes on a darker aspect