When people look at The Abbey, they see different things. Some see the finest building in Dorset, with its glorious fan vaulting – of which Simon Jenkins says in his book England’s Thousand Best Churches, ‘I would pit Sherborne’s roof against any contemporary work of the Italian Renaissance.’ Others see a place renowned for its choir, its music and its bells – the heaviest peal of eight bells in the world. Some see thirteen centuries of history, ever since St Aldhelm, new bishop of the West Saxons, chose to build his cathedral here. Two Saxon kings are buried here; for over 800 years the chanting of Benedictine monks filled the air. Thomas Wyatt, Tudor courtier and poet, has his grave here; Sir Walter Raleigh worshipped here. The Abbey is the spiritual home of a large and vibrant Christian community and, above all, a place of prayer and worship.
First, a little history
The See (or Diocese) of Sherborne was created in AD 705 when the great Diocese of Winchester was divided in two, and Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, was appointed as the first Bishop of the West Saxons. Aldhelm chose the place of the Scire-burne – the ‘clear stream’ – as the site for his seat, or cathedra.
The new Cathedral of Sherborne served St Aldhelm and twenty-six succeeding Saxon Bishops. Small at first, it was later enlarged. A few important early features still survive (when you come into the Abbey, see the fine Saxon doorway in the NW corner).
Soon after the Norman Conquest the Bishop’s seat was moved to Old Sarum, and later Salisbury. Earlier, in 998, St Wulfsin had ejected the community of secular canons who served the Cathedral, and invited monks of the Order of St Benedict to replace them. Sherborne Abbey remained a Benedictine house until 1539 when Abbot John Barnstaple and his sixteen fellow monks surrendered it to King Henry VIII.
Relations between the monks and the people of Sherborne were not always good, such that the Church of All Hallows was built by the monks, actually joined to the Abbey itself. On the outside, to the left and right of the West End the ‘joins’ can still be seen. This smaller church was for the use of the townspeople – who always resented being pushed out of what had once been ‘their’ church.
Tensions between the monks and the town came to a head in 1437 when the people decided they had had enough of having to go cap in hand to the Abbot every time they wanted to use the font for a baptism, and decided to erect a font of their own in All Hallows. The Abbot was enraged, and according to the contemporary chronicle sent a ‘stout butcher’ armed with a hammer into the smaller church to break the font. This caused a riot, during which a burning arrow was shot into the east end of the Abbey, at that time full of wooden scaffolding for the rebuilding of the roof. The fire that resulted permanently reddened the walls of the quire and the crossing. It took the Pope himself to settle the conflict – and the people had to pay for the repairs!
No wonder that at the Reformation they were delighted to regain possession of what has ever since been their parish church. They immediately pulled down All Hallows as being surplus to requirements. Ironically, as you now enter the Abbey by the SW porch, you will see not only a large Victorian font just inside the door, but if you look straight down the south aisle you will see in the distance another font, in the Bow Chapel. The bowl of this is clearly medieval, and just possibly all that remains of the broken font from All Hallows.
Stunning fan-vaulted roof
The centre of the Abbey Nave is dominated by the fan-vaulted roof. This is the earliest great fan-vaulting in England, and possibly the finest. Also in the Nave is the Great West Window, By the eminent stained-glass artist, the late John Hayward, this was dedicated in 1998 at a service attended by HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.
The Quire contains medieval misericords in the back stalls on either side, a painted vaulted ceiling, glorious coloured glass (some of the earliest known by Clayton and Bell), and a fine reredos of the mid-19th century restoration. Beyond the Quire is the Lady Chapel, with a fine engraved glass reredos by Lawrence Whistler.
The Abbey also contains some notable monuments. There is a fine monument to John Digby, Third and Last Earl of Bristol, and his two wives. He played an important part in throwing Dorset behind William of Orange at the time of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 which led to the flight of King James II and the accession of William and Mary.
The St Katherine’s Chapel contains the fine Leweston monument and also most of the Abbey’s surviving medieval glass. There is a monument to Sir John Horsey, the man who bought the Abbey estates from the Crown at the time of the Reformation. The massive release of monastic lands led to many a rich merchant acquiring a great country estate at a knock-down price and contributed to the rise of a gentry class in England
In addition to the above there are regimental standards and emblems and memorials to the Dorsetshire Regiment, the Devon and Dorset Regiment and also the Rifles. There are tombs to former Abbots, a window by Augustus Pugin and a fine organ by Grey and Davidson.
But above all it is a place of prayer, worship and quiet where one can come, whatever your faith or belief, small or great, to be still, reflect, wonder, admire, look for answers, give thanks, or to just offer up your own personal prayers. We are open 365 days of the year. Do come and tread where thousands have trod before.
Reducing our carbon footprint
Sherborne Abbey Shop
Our newly-refurbished shop is now located within the Abbey itself, on the North Aisle, directly opposite the main visitor entrance.
We invite you to support the Christian church by visiting us for a wonderful selection of greetings cards, books, CDs, Icons, prayer cards and gifts for all ages.
We also have an ordering service for Bible study books, such as Guidelines, New Daylight, Daily Bread and Every Day with Jesus. Our friendly and knowledgeable volunteer staff can also help you with book & CD ordering.
We accept contactless payments.
Please call in and see us during Abbey opening hours.
The Digby Memorial Hall
The Digby Memorial Hall is available for hire and is ideal for markets, fairs, fitness classes, lectures, parties, music and exhibitions.