Romsey Abbey is far older than most of the churches featured on this website, except for those that were substantially restored or extended by well-known architects in Victorian times. But this Grade I listed church too was the subject of close attention in those years, especially under two of its vicars.

The Abbey was originally founded in 907 by King Arthur's son Edward, as a nunnery (Jenkins 292), and then refounded in 967 under Benedictine rule. St Ethelflaeda was the third abbess after the refounding, and the abbey was dedicated to her rather than (as is often supposed) to Edward's daughter Ethelflaeda, who had been the first abbess but had not been made a saint. Inevitably, the fabric underwent many changes during the early centuries. It was rebuilt in both Saxon and Norman times, the present building dating to 1120. Although the westernmost three bays were completed in the mid-1200s and are Early English in style, the church remains largely Romanesque. Since the north aisle and transept had been in use as the parish church, the town took over the abbey after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and it survived to undergo further changes. It now has the distinction of being the largest parish church in its county.

Left: Interior of the Abbey, looking east. Right: The chancel.

Descriptions of the church praise its many distinctive architectural features: Simon Jenkins, who gives it four stars in his England's Thousand Best Churches, says it "offers a rich gallery of art of all periods" (293). In Victorian times, two well-known architects did do some important work on the church (see below), under the auspices of two vicars: the Hon. and Rev. Gerard Noel in 1840-51, and the Rev. Edward Lyon Berthon in 1860-91. The latter is better known now for his nautical inventions — especially that of a kind of collapsible boat deployed for life-saving purposes. Carrying over some of his constructional skills into his work here, the Rev. Berthon "for many years ... devoted himself to the restoration of the church" (Laughton). B

The pulpit of 1891, with figures of the four evangelists carved by Harry Hems of Exeter (Perkins 59-60; O'Brien et al., 571).

The Rev. Thomas Perkins, writing in the early twentieth century, gives a brief summary of the changes in the previous century, starting on an amusingly critical note:

The internal appearance of the church about the middle of the nineteenth century was extremely distasteful to those affected by the Gothic revival, and drastic changes were made. "Restoration" was begun at first under the direction of Mr. Ferrey, who also restored Christchurch Priory. The inner roof of the three western bays of the nave aisles which had not been, like those of the other bays, vaulted in stone, were restored in wood and plaster about 1850, when the Hon. Gerard Noel was vicar; the nave roof was rebuilt a little later. Under the direction of Mr. Christian, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the chancel roof was restored, and the roof of the north arm of the transept was taken in hand by Mr. Berthon. [23-24]

Parish historian Liz Hallett has kindly supplied more detail about these Victorian interventions, the importance of which has, she suggests, been underestimated. The Rev. Noel, for example,

removed up to fifteen to eighteen layers of limewash from the whole interior using scaffolding ninety feet high. This had completely hidden all the Norman carving in the arches. He also had to do major restoration of the stonework revealed when the limewash came off. He next removed a massive gallery across the nave which held the organ and was backed by the curtain which reached right up to the ceiling – this opened up the full length of the building from west to east for the first time for some centuries. He replaced the nave seating in the gallery with pews at ground level. Yes, he also filled the three EE side aisles with lath and plaster ceilings as described above. He also raised the crossing ceiling (which was also the floor of the ringing chamber) by twelve feet which exposed a lovely gallery around the inside tower walls to view from below, whereas it had previously been hidden in the ringing chamber.

Not all the Victorian work, however, earns Hallett's approval: "The nave ceiling was replaced by the Revd Charles Avery Moore in 1855. This was under the direction of Benjamin Ferrey who made a wrong decision in removing the great tie beams – in the 1970s the nave walls were splaying alarmingly and had to be tied together with metal bars."

As for the Rev. Berthon's work, Hallett explains how his nautical enterprises helped him in his work on the church, saying that, of the many changes he made,

the most spectacular was to lower the two central windows in the retrochoir which had been set too high during alterations after the Dissolution. He did this by means of a special jack which he invented and, after preparation, the windows were lowered in just three hours each, with not a pane of glass broken and for negligible cost. Remarkable. Berthon also constructed a new roof for the north transept using the skills of his boatbuilding company.

However, Hallett adds that "Berthon also replaced the stonework of a number of the windows with imitation Norman style, thus losing features which made up part of the history of the building over the previous centuries."

In addition to such significant, if sometimes misguided, structural work, the Victorians are represented at the abbey in a number of other ways, from its fine pulpit, already illustrated, to the stained glass, of which they have left a splendid array. Special mention is also made in the Pevsner "Buildings of England" guide of the Victorian monument shown above — the effigy of little Alice Taylor, who died in 1843 aged only two years old: beautifully designed and carved by her father, "she lies asleep on a bed clutching a rose, the very essence of touching Victorian sentimentality" (572).

Photographs (top) © John Firth; (middle three) © John Salmon; and (bottom) © Mike Searle. The last one has been cropped to lessen the distracting background. All were first posted on the website Geograph, and have kindly been made available for reuse on the CC BY-SA 2.0 (Attribution Share-Alike 2.0) licence. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Related Material: stained glass and mosaic work in the church


"Abbey Church of St Mary and St Ethelflaeda, Romsey." Historic England. Web. 21 May. 2019.

Eberhard, Robert. Stained Glass Windows at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire. Church Stained Glass Windows. Web. 21 May 2018.

Jenkins, Simon. England's Thousand Best Churches. Rev. ed. London: Penguin. 2009.

Laughton, J. K. revised by Andrew Lambert. "Berthon, Edward Lyon (1813–1899), inventor of nautical aids and Church of England clergyman." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 21 May 2019.

O'Brien, Charles, Bruce Bailey, Nikolaus Pevsner and David W. Lloyd Hampshire: South (Buildings of England series). New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018.

Perkins, Rev. Thomas. Bell's Cathedrals: A Short Account of Romsey Abbey A Description of the Fabric and Notes on the History of the Convent of Ss. Mary & Ethelfleda. London: George Bell & Son, 1907. Project Gutenberg. Web. 21 May 2019.

Further Reading

Note: the following books are all available from Romsey Abbey, price £15 each, or via The Parish Office,—

Hallett, Elizabeth. Romsey Abbey, the First 1100 Years (a chronological history), 2015.

Lamb, Brian. Romsey Abbey, The Grand Tour (a walk-round guide of the Abbey, section by section, as it was in 2018), 2018.

Walker, Judy. Romsey Abbey through the Centuries (a general history). Revised edition, 2013.

Created 21 May 2019