SAINT MODWEN AND THE BURTON ABBEY

St. Modwen’s and the Nuns of Burton

Christianity came to the Midlands around A.D. 653. shortly afterwards the monastery at Repton was founded. Soon to follow was the religious settlement at Burton upon Trent by St. Modwen, where she built her church on a island called Andressey. The church was built at the foot of Mount Calvus or as we know it today as Scalpcliffe Hill. The church was dedicated to God and st. Andrew. St. Modwen spent seven years at the church with two other Irish nuns called Lazar and Althia.  St. Modwen and the two nuns went to Rome on a pilgrimage, and on their return from Rome they built another church on the Stapenhill side of the River Trent in honour of St. Peter and St. Paul. The present day St. Peters Church stands on or near the site of the aforementioned church. They apparently performed many miracles on Andressey Island, the well is said have healing properties.

St. Modwen performed many wonderful cures especially those connected with the eyes. . St. Modwen left Althea as the holy abbess and returned to Scotland where she died in Langfortin near Dundee. Her body was returned to Burton for burial and she was believed to have been 130 years old. The “Little Wooden Church” and the shrine to St. Modwen on Andressey along with Repton Monastery was destroyed by the Danes around A.D. 874. The Danes left their mark on the area in the form of place names. Broadholme and Horsholme are two islands on the river Trent. The word “holme” is Danish for water meadow or island. Place names ending in “by” or “thorp” also derives from the Danes. Derby, Bretby, Ingleby, Smisby, Donisthorp and Oakthorp are examples of this.

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The Burton Abbey

From the death of St. Modwen we move forward nearly 300 years to A.D. 1002 to A.D. 1004. It was approximately at this time when Wulfric Spot founded the Benedictine abbey on the banks of the river Trent. The site was chosen probably because of the site of St. Modwen’s church on the Andressey island. Wulfric Spot was a nobleman with the titles of the Earl of Mercia and Chief Councilor of State to King Ethelread. He had what was left of St. Modwen’s relics and remains removed from Andressey island and placed in a shrine in the abbey church. The inscription on her shrine was preserved and in a translation by a 18th Century historian called “Shaw” it read as follows:

Ireland gave Modwen Birth, England a grave, Scotland her end, God her salvation gave, Life gives the first, her death the third earth gives, the second earth her earthly parts receives, Lanfortin takes whom chief Tyr Connel Owns, and favored Burton keeps the virgin bones.

Wulfric Spot died on the 12th of October A.D. 1010. He was mortally wounded fighting in the ranks of Ulfrick Ealdorman of East Anglia against the Danes at Ringmere near Ipswich. He was buried in the cloister of Burton Abbey under a stone arch near the door of the upper church. He wife Elswitha was buried in the cloister under a stone near the door of the lower church.

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The town of Burton upon Trent began to spring up around the abbey, but hardly changed at all from around A.D. 1010 to the middle of the 17th century when the brewing industry started to expand. The town consisted of properties along the High Street, mainly on the river side only, but there was one property on the west side of the High Street which still stands today. It was built as part of a farm and is believed to be the farm cottage. It was thought to have been built towards the end of the 15th century and is one of the oldest and only timber frame building in Burton still standing. It is now Raybolds estate agents who have restored the building to its former glory inside. The main street and tracks that formed the town were from the Great Bridge along the High Street to the market place, Horninglow street from High Street to Guild Street.

Station Street from High Street to Union/Guild Street junction, and New Street from the market place to Union Street. All of these only had the odd property along them up to around A.D., 1560. So if you stood in the High Street at this time and looked towards the Town Hall area, you would see as far as Tatenhill and Shobnall and the Horninglow area. All you would see would be the odd cottage and grassland criss crossed by the occasional track and a few farms. You can see the growth of the town up to A.D. 1540 was mainly centered around the Abbey.

The Abbey of Burton had 35 abbots, starting with Abbot Wulfgate and finishing with Abbot William Edie, who surrendered the Abbey on the 4th November 1540 to King Henry VIII to be subsequently dissolved. Ironically it was not pulled down like the rest of the 300 abbeys in England, but it was given as a gift to Sir William Paget. The manor house that stands to the right of the market hall stands on the site of the original Manor of the Burton Abbey, the present one being built in the late 1700s and is now being used as offices. The Abbey Inn was part of the farmery/infirmary to the Abbey. The remains of the chapter house stand in the grounds of the Abbey Inn. The chapter house and parlour doorways form part of the remains of the cloister wall and can been seen by walking around the back of the market hall. The remains of the door ways were found by Mr. Robert Thornewill of Thornewill & Warham iron founders in 1850.

The chapter house was built by Abbot Robert Longdon and finished by his successor Abbot Robert Bricknell. Sadly the remains have repeatedly been left to decay until we have hardly anything left to show of what must of been a wondrous site. The wall that runs East to West down the right hand side of the market hall are also remains of the Abbey outer wall. It is hard to believe that as recent as the 1790s the cloisters were intact and what we have left today was in 1540 a magnificent Abbey covering 14 acres. It stretched from the North side of the market place where Ellis men’s outfitters are today along Lichfield Street down Abbey Street, left into Fleet Street to where the end of the Ferry Bridge is today, then left along the line of the river behind the college up to the back of what is today Saint Modwen’s Church, and then left again along the front of shops in the market place back to Ellis’s corner. The Abbey gate that once stood facing New Street was built in the 15th Century and formerly had an arch and shops either side. The janitors house was also by the gates. The gate of the Abbey was pulled down in 1927 for road widening along with the boundary wall that stood along Lichfield street. The wall that stands today was built approximately 6 feet further back and lower that the original.

looking nothing like the fine wall the Abbey had. Part of the gate and one of the arches of the Great Bridge were rebuilt in Newton Park where they still stand today. Friars Walk that was once called Church Lane runs from the northwest corner of the old church yard, or as we know it today as the garden of remembrance runs northwards towards the library, then turns right and runs down to where now stands the Andressey Bridge. At the end of Friars walk was an inlet from the river that ran into a large pond called the Stew Pond and was also know as the Harbour. The lawns next to the library stand on the site of the original pond. This was where the monks kept their fish stocks. The Stew Pond ran into the Hay Ditch which was an artificial channel that ran from the Stew Pond to Bargates. It past along the bottom of the gardens in the High Street and was crossed at intervals by small wooden bridges to gain access the Hay Walk. The ditch served two purposes 1) as a irrigation ditch. 2) as a way of keeping fresh water flowing into the Stew Pond.

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To the northwest of the old church yard in Friars Walk stands what was the old grammar school founded by Abbot Beyne the 32nd abbot around 1529. He gave annually 5 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pence for a school master and to maintain the school. The school was rebuilt in 1834 and was enlarged and improved in 1959. The school has been used for many different purposes over the years and is know being used as a school as the building was originally intended. One of the most famous old boys of the school was Admiral Sir John Jervis (also known as Lord Saint Vincent) who attended the school in 1745 to 1749.

The Abbots house with its great hall was a beautiful timbered building and was built by Abbot John Ibstock (the 23rd Abbot) between 1348 to 1366. This building was part of the priory which was pulled down in 1881 to make way for the present day Market Hall. The old Market house built by Abbot Thomas Feylde (the 30th Abbot) was built between 1472 to 1493 and was demolished and on its site in 1772 the Earl of Uxbridge (The Lord of the Manor) who was Henry Lord Paget built the old town hall. It was a spacious and attractive building and all meetings, entertainments and the towns courts were held here. This was also pulled down in 1882 to make way for the alterations to the area when the present day market hall and market place was built. The only visible sign remaining of the old town hall is four brass corner plates set in the market place floor which can only been seen when the market traders are not there with their stalls. The head stone from the old town hall is set in the wall adjoining the Andressey bridge. This head stone states the date of when the Town Hall was built in 1772 and when it was pulled down in 1883 and the Paget Crest.

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The Andressey Passage once know as the Marriots Yard which leads from the side of old grammar school in Friars Walk through to the High Street once contained workers cottages. It is recorded in 1841 the cottages were occupied by 6 laborer’s and a Butcher. Its has been a public right of way since Anglo Saxon times (around the year A.D.660). It was probably used by Saint Modwen to get to Andressey Island, by the people seeking a cure or a blessing from Saint Modwen, by pilgrims visiting Saint Modwen’s Shrine after her death, by the Monks of Burton at the time of the Abbey, by scholars attending the old grammar school, and by the Burtonians and visitors to the town right up to present day. The passage has been in use for over 1000 years

The Abbey Inn

If you take a closer look at the Abbey Inn from the car park in front of the main entrance, you will see on one of the chimneys the common seal of the Burton Abbey. Also on the West end wall is a sculpture of Saint Modwen herself. The wall that runs from North to South along the side of the car park has several stone busts set into it. These date from the time of the original Abbey, which could possibly mean these date at least 500 years. The North end of the Abbey Inn is thought to be the remains of the chapel to the infirmary of the Abbey. It was built by the 20th Abbot William Bromley between 1316-1329 A.D. The East and West windows can now only be traced from inside the building within the roof space. On the outside the windows have been filled in with stone.

The Great Hall and Infirmary Hall

North of the Abbey Inn stood the Great Hall. The chapel (The Abbey Inn) directly adjoined the Great Hall. Dividing the chapel from the Great Hall were stone archways with removable screens. If we look at the end of the Abbey Inn today you can still see the archways in the exterior stone wall. The Abbey Inn consisted of the chapel and another smaller hall. The small hall was built of stone from the ground up to the first floor, then half timbered to a fine open roof all in English oak. It was the home of the monk with the title “Master of the Infirmary”