The site of Keynsham Abbey is a very important place of religious significance and has been for nearly 1000 years. It is known that an Anglo Saxon Minster and burial site was located where the Augustinian Abbey was later built. Some important people were also buried at this location. We have produced below some articles that provide a chronology of the Abbey site from c.871 to the 1960s. We hope you find these of interest.
9th Century Anglo Saxon Charter
Anglo Saxon Minster
Before Keynsham Abbey was founded, Keynsham is known to have had an Anglo Saxon Minster and burial grounds probably located on the same site as Keynsham Abbey. Keynsham would have been a place of significant religious importance.
Artist impression of the Keynsham Abbey site as it would have appeared in c.871
Reproduced with kind permission from the artist, Peter Williams.
Anglo-Saxon History - Bishop Heahmund (died 871)
Bishop Heahmund was the Bishop of Sherborne (867-871) and was thought to be a warrior Bishop who fought the Vikings alongside King Aethelred of Wessex and his brother, the future King Alfred (The Great). This YouTube video provides a montage of the fictional Bishop Heahmund, played by the actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the TV series Vikings (parental approval recommended - warning contains some scenes some people may find upsetting).
9th Century Charter
Location of Anglo- Saxon Finds
Newspaper Article - Published in the Keynsham Voice, 2020
“What connects Keynsham with a King, a Bishop, a Saint, the Vikings and an Abbey? The answer to this question is Bishop Heahmund (pronounced Heckmund), the Bishop of Sherborne from 867 to 871. I first became aware of Bishop Heahmund through watching the Amazon Prime TV series ‘The Vikings’. During Series 4 Bishop Heahmund makes his first appearance. His larger than life character, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, portrays the Bishop as a famous warrior and religious advisor to King Aethelred of Wessex. In the series he is feared by the Vikings because of his skills as a warrior; he goes on to have numerous affairs (contrary to his religious status) and is eventually kidnapped by the Vikings because of his fighting skills, before returning to fight the Vikings alongside King Aethelred.
“As an amateur researcher I decided to do some initial internet research on Bishop Heahmund and couldn’t believe what came back……he actually existed…..on 22nd March 871 he died in battle fighting alongside King Aethelred and his brother, the future King Alfred the Great. He was ‘killed by the sword’ during the battle of Merton (believed to be Mardon near Devizes) fighting the Vikings, he was appointed as a Saint in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and his body lies buried in…….. KEYNSHAM….. yes…. KEYNSHAM! I couldn’t believe that someone with such a reputation who fought alongside the reigning and future King, who was considered a Saint, was actually buried in our town of Keynsham! It was hard to understand why someone with such a history, who was buried here, was not celebrated, or his burial site marked.
“I set about my research in an attempt to corroborate this internet information. Specifically, I wanted to know where was the most likely place that Bishop Heahmund would have been buried in Keynsham. As a result, I came across the work of this Society and the archaeological work of the late Barbara Lowe. Thanks to her recording of work during the excavation of the Keynsham by-pass and later, I was able to conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, the most likely location for Bishop Heahmund’s burial is in Keynsham Memorial Park, close to the surviving remains of Keynsham Abbey.
“The evidence for this is compelling – in 871 Keynsham was believed to be a location of significant religious importance. At the time it had an important Anglo-Saxon Minster with a large burial site and it was within the diocese of Sherborne. Keynsham was also in closer proximity to the battleground than the Bishop’s church in Sherborne. Other documentary evidence supports the fact that Keynsham was a very important religious site, leading to it being chosen in 1166 by William 2nd Earl of Gloucester for the huge Abbey complex. From the excavation and archaeological finds recovered from under the Abbey foundations, I was able to cross-reference the location of Anglo-Saxon burials, masonry and artefacts and overlay these with the plans of the Abbey. This has helped to narrow down and identify the most likely burial site for Bishop Heahmund as being in close proximity to the remaining Abbey ruins within Keynsham Park.
“At the time of writing, further research may be about to start, with the help and support of Exeter University. We are hoping to learn more about Bishop Heahmund and his burial in Keynsham, which in turn may lead to the discovery of more information about Keynsham Abbey. In terms of marking the location of Bishop Heahmund’s burial and in order to preserve this history and his legacy, it would be remiss of Keynsham not to honour and preserve this location. I hope that with support and help we will be able to preserve and treasure this heritage for future generations.“
I acknowledge and thank Professor James Clark, Exeter University for his support and direction in this research.
Andy Williams (volunteer and researcher)
Medieval History - Keynsham Abbey
The following page provides more information about Keynsham Abbey and its history, including the archaeological work that was undertaken in the 1960s and beyond.
Keynsham Abbey was a twelfth century Augustinian abbey. It was large, it was rich and it was powerful. Nowadays few people know of its existence and little physical evidence of it remains. This is a brief summary of its history.
Keynsham Abbey was founded by William, second Earl of Gloucester, at the dying request of his son, Robert. After obtaining permissions from the King and the Pope, building of the Abbey commenced in the late 1160s. It is uncertain exactly why Keynsham was chosen for the site, but there was almost certainly a religious house already there – possibly a Saxon minster church.
The Abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles Peter and Paul. The Order chosen was that of St Victor of Paris following the rule of St Augustine. It was an Abbey of Canons Regular (priests living a communal life, who took vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience).
Archaeological evidence shows that much of the building work took place between 1170 and 1180. The original Charter, which has not survived, is believed to have been signed around 1172.
The full complement of the Abbey would have included around 17 offices headed by the Abbot. Then there were the Canons and the lay brothers (who also took vows, but were chosen for their knowledge of a trade or craft). In addition there were the Novices, poor men and clerics, auxillary Canons (short term guests), Corrodians (long term guests), Honorary Canons (Bishops, Brothers, Sisters, widows, elderly and recluses), the Abbot’s guests, ordinary guests, devout girls, Sisters of Mercy and lay sisters. At any given time there would also have been some servants and their families belonging to the Abbey and also arriving with guests. Thus it was a considerable and very mixed community.
The lives of the Canons were very controlled with the day being separated into different activities divided by prayer. The order determined their clothing, their diet and other matters relating to their welfare.
Through its founder and patron the Abbey had links to royalty (William was the grandson of Henry I) and from time to time the patronage passed back to the royal family. At one time Prince, later King, John was its patron. The Abbey had been richly endowed and continued to acquire lands and rights from benefactors.
By the 1230s construction of the original church and main buildings of Keynsham Abbey had been completed. The church was approximately 230 feet by 138 feet across the transepts and the Abbey precinct covered about 18 acres. Improvements to the Abbey Church were undertaken around 1270-80, including the laying of tiled flooring around the altars and in the Chapter house and Abbot’s Hall. Improvements to the Abbey buildings, begun in the late 13th century continued until about 1314 when the Abbey’s fortunes began to change. The work was halted as the Abbey hit hard times (no doubt influenced by the poor harvests and famine which affected the rest of the country). However, building work resumed in the 1340s as fortunes started to improve.
There is no evidence to suggest Keynsham was directly affected by the Black Death in 1348/9, but even so there would have been indirect consequences. Bishop’s visitations in 1350 and 1352/3 resulted in complaints of disorderly conduct.
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries the Abbey church was considerably enlarged and the presbytery extended.
In 1447 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a citation for the Abbot and Canons to appear before him in their Chapter House because of reports of “the Abbot’s weak and negligent governance” leading to the Canons to “commit every kind of wickedness, even wilful murder, mutilation, perjury and other fearful crimes”. During archaeological excavations two skeletons of Canons were found bearing severe injuries including a sword cut above one eye. There are also reports of the Canons entertaining women in their chambers.
The Abbey still retained its links to royalty and by the 1480s its patron was Sir Jasper Tudor, the uncle of Henry VII. When Sir Jasper died in 1495 his Will directed that he be buried at Keynsham Abbey. Between 1450 and 1500 building improvements were carried out including the addition of Sir Jasper’s Chantry.
By 1508 Edward, Duke of Buckingham, was patron of the Abbey and visited St Anne in the Wood (the Chapel belonged to Keynsham Abbey). The previous Christmas had been spent at Thornbury Castle where the Abbot had been amongst the guests. Buckingham was executed for treason in 1521 and the King seized his estates and became the patron of Keynsham Abbey.
In 1526 there was a formal visitation of the Abbey. The Canons would all have been interviewed separately and their grumbles are recorded. The “visitor” complains that the church and choir were too dirty and sometimes full of dogs. He orders that, in future, the Canons must not keep hounds. An order which had also been made nearly 80 years before. Keynsham was lucky though. The purpose of these visitations were to find bad practices with a view to closing down abbeys and monasteries.
Henry VIII needed funds for his expensive foreign policies and, through Wolsey, increasing demands were being made on the monasteries and convents. As well as their normal obligations to the poor, abbeys were “expected” to grant corrodies and pensions to royal servants and gentlemen of the chapel royal. Religious houses with fewer than six members were closed and monasteries to the value of 3,000 ducats were suppressed for the purposes of forming colleges. In 1531 all clergy were declared guilty of treason and a total sum of £118,840 was demanded to pay for their pardons.
In 1533 Henry VIII secretly married Anne Boleyn. This was followed by an Act declaring that all recourse to Rome be illegal.
On 18 August 1534 Keynsham Abbey signed the Acknowledgement of Royal Supremacy. In 1535 the Chancellor appointed commissioners to carry out a survey of all religious houses (so that that taxes could accurately be demanded). Keynsham’s endowments were valued at £450-3s-6d and their tithes at £41-19s-0½d.
The end for Keynsham Abbey finally came on 23 January 1539 when the Abbot and 10 Canons surrendered to John Tregonwell acting on behalf of the King. The Abbot was granted a pension of £60 per annum and the Canons were awarded pensions depending on their position and age as were lay brothers.
At its end Keynsham Abbey held over 4,000 acres of land in and around Keynsham. In addition the Abbey held avowsons of churches, grants, lands, rents or other assets in Somerset, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Wiltshire, Kent, Glamorgan, Hampshire, Shropshire and Ireland.
Elaine Cook (Chair of the BHAS)