FEATURE: Tales of demons, skulduggery and legends at Crowland Abbey

The view of the abbey across Snowden Field in Crowland. Photo by Tim Wilson (SG100817-100TW)
The view of the abbey across Snowden Field in Crowland. Photo by Tim Wilson (SG100817-100TW)
  • Site now deemed to be of ‘National Importance’

As you approach Crowland on the A16 from Spalding or Peterborough, its magnificent abbey church and ruins dominate the skyline.

I’ve driven past the view hundreds of times but it’s been a long time since I’ve visited the abbey.

Sybil Speechley with what is believed to be Abbot Theodores skull. It was stolen in 1982 and re-appeared 17 years later. (SG100817-123TW)

Sybil Speechley with what is believed to be Abbot Theodores skull. It was stolen in 1982 and re-appeared 17 years later. (SG100817-123TW)

And with Historic England recently naming the ruins and site of Crowland Abbey as being of ‘National Importance’ , it was time I found out more.

Volunteer guides David Searle and Sybil Speechley are just two of a team of 14 who are on hand daily from 11am-4pm to give tours of the abbey church and site.

David has been a guide for 25 years and Sybil has been going to the abbey for 60 years, joining as a guide as she wanted to do something different. “It is like a new career,” she said.

“There are several hundreds of years of history here.

It was reported that Crowland was inhabited by demons and devils

Guide David Searle

“It started with Guthlac arriving in 699. He was a ‘soldier’ in Derbyshire and at one point thought ‘where is my life going?’ so he became a monk. He asked ‘where is the most inhospitable place to go on earth?’ He was told Crowland! Although David does not agree.”

David said: “When these holy men want to prove themselves to God they want to go somewhere their prayers are poignant.

“It was reported that Crowland was inhabited by demons and devils - and the devil himself - so he thought it was a good way to fight the devil.

“Crowland was an island back then, surrounded by water so when Guthlac asked a chap where he should go, he was told ‘I know just the place.’”

Guide Sybil shows the lid of a sarcophagus, later discovered to be made of rare Alwalton marble. (SG100817-108TW)

Guide Sybil shows the lid of a sarcophagus, later discovered to be made of rare Alwalton marble. (SG100817-108TW)

Prior to the later draining of the fens, the main streets of Crowland - North, South and West were actually waterways, and the Trinity Bridge, which still stands in the town centre over the now paved roads, is testament to that.

The abbey came into being when Guthlac was visited one day by Prince Ethelbald of the ancient Anglo -Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Mercia was one of several early counties of the UK, in what we now call the Midlands.

Guthlac, who later became a saint, had established a reputation for counselling. Worried that his cousin wanted to kill him and succeed the throne, Ethebald fled to Crowland for advice and protection.

David said: “Guthlac said to him that he would be the King of Mercia and no blood would be shed, meaning Ethelbald would not have to kill his cousin.

“Ethelbald said that if this happened he would return to build Guthlac a religious house. Although some academics disagree with this story.”

Ethelbald did become king, and it is said that he built the first abbey in 716 as a thank you to Guthlac.

But it was entirely destroyed by the Danes in 870.

Since that time, the abbey has been rebuilt, destroyed by fire and earthquake, rebuilt twice more, and changed in form over the years.

Today, the present church has services and concerts held regularly in the beautiful nave.

Tours are available up the 117 steps to the bell tower, which was the first to have bells hung in Britain.

And the abbey has been the victim of real skulduggery.

What is believed to be the skull of one of its first abbots - Abbot Theodore - is kept in the church.

It shows a deep cut which is said to have been caused when Theodore was attacked with a sword by the Vikings as they slayed the monks in the abbey.

The skull was found many centuries later.

In 1982 it was stolen and was not recovered until after 17 years, when it reappeared in the Lady Chapel with a note of apology. The note read: “As a callow youth I stole the skull and as a responsible adult, I return it.”

Other stories related to the abbey are that Hereward the Wake may be buried there, along with his mother Lady Godiva, his wife Torfida and his daughter.

There is also the legend that one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ may have been brought to the abbey for refuge and eventually became its abbot.

And then there’s the story that Henry VIII, mourning after Anne Boleyn had a stillborn son, was brought a 15-year-old youth from the town to become his court jester to ‘cheer him up.’

Sybil said: “Much of what we know about the abbey also comes from our visitors. We rely on people coming in and sharing their stories and knowledge.”

○ For large group tours, please book ahead with the abbey.

The lid of a sarcophagus (stone coffin) in the abbey had been sat on for years, and used to display flower arranging - until it was discovered it contained rare Alwalton marble and is possibly connected to a past pope.

Sybil said: “Someone pointed it out to us and said it was full of oyster shells.

“We think the pastoral crosier engraved on the top of it was connected to the only English pope.”

Among the ruins outside, engravings show scenes from the life of Saint Guthlac, and another engraving shows what is believed to be Halley’s Comet when it passed the earth in 1147.

There is an interactive visitor centre inside the abbey church, built with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has touchscreens to take people through the abbey’s history.

○ On September 9, the abbey has an open day and on September 16 and 17 re-enactors will recreate the events of the 1643 Siege of Crowland Abbey. This is where “the town’s people stood defiant against Oliver Cromwell and his puritan troops”.

The flower festival is coming up on Friday, August 25, until Monday, August 28.

This year’s theme is ‘Art and Artists.’

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