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  • Andy Williams

Research Update - Bishop Heahmund, The Polychronicon and Links to Keynsham Abbey!

One of our Abbey volunteers has been conducting research with Exeter University seeking to uncover as much information as possible, about the warrior Bishop Heahmund. Heahmund was the Bishop of Sherborne killed in battle fighting the Vikings in 871CE and was buried in Keynsham. From research already undertaken, we have established that Heahmund was the Bishop of Sherborne from 867-871CE and when he died, he died fighting alongside the King of Wessex, Æthelred and, his brother the future King Alfred The Great.

New research on Heahmund has revealed evidence that prior to taking up office as the Bishop of Sherborne (the second most important bishopric in Wessex), he served as a Royal Priest in the Royal Court of Wessex. He travelled across Wessex and Kent drawing up and witnessing charters for the King of Wessex (charters were legal documents usually allocating land to subjects of the King). As a reward for his service, he appears to have been appointed by the King of Wessex, to the very important position of Bishop of Sherborne.

There is some suggestion that Bishop Heahmund was venerated as a Saint for his royal service and his status as a warrior. However, from research so far, this cannot yet be verified.

Fast forward to the early medieval times and the establishment of Keynsham Abbey. It is believed Keynsham Abbey was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon Minster. This was an important religious location at the time, and it was very common for Abbeys and Monasteries to be built where Anglo-Saxon Minsters once stood. Given that we know the warrior Bishop was buried at the Minster, the research is seeking to establish if the Abbot and Canons at Keynsham may have documented any reference to Heahmund. To encourage pilgrims to the Abbeys and Monasteries, Abbots would often “advertise” the fact that famous people were buried in their grounds, especially if they were once considered to be a Saint. Attracting visitors and pilgrims to the Abbey improved the status of the Abbey and often led to increased revenue.

One of the places this may have been “advertised” is a beautifully written document used by many Abbeys at the time, called the Polychronicon. The Polychronicon was written in Latin, and it provided a history of Christianity that Abbeys could share and read aloud. Very often the Canons in the Abbeys would insert text into the margins of the Polychronicon to indicate an important event that related to the Abbey or area. It follows that if we could find the Polychronicon for Keynsham Abbey, there was a possibility we may uncover some text, written by the Canons to indicate that, Heahmund the warrior Bishop (and possible saint), was buried at the site.

We were delighted to learn in late 2022 that the original Polychronicon for Keynsham Abbey still existed and was stored in the Somerset Archives. Access and permission to view this Polychronicon was obtained and the photographs you see in this blog are a selection of some of the beautifully written pages created for Keynsham Abbey. The annotations in the margins are those directly written by the Abbot and/or Canons of Keynsham Abbey. It would appear the last entry written as an annotation was dated 1377CE.

Our researcher studied and photographed all the annotations written in the margins by Keynsham’s Abbot and Canons. This was then sent for further examination. Sadly, with the assistance of Exeter University, we were unable to find any reference of Bishop Heahmund, written in the margins. Although this finding was disappointing, given the period of time between the date of the annotations (latest being 1377CE) and the death of Bishop Heahmund (871CE), it is perhaps unsurprising.

The research continues to see if there are any further references to the warrior Bishop Heahmund. This is now focussed on the history of Keynsham Abbey from its foundation by William, Earl of Gloucester from 1166CE to its demise on 23rd January 1539 when it was handed over to John Tregonwell, principal commissioner for King Henry VIII.

……….Spoiler alert – we think we’ve uncovered the confirmation charter for Keynsham that dates the foundation of Keynsham Abbey as 1172-73CE…..more to follow in future blogs!!

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