The Oxford Companion to British History

By John Cannon | Go to book overview

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abbeys and priories. Both are titles of status applied to monasteries. An abbey is presided over by an abbot in the case of a male religious community (monks) or an abbess in the case of a female (nuns). A priory has no resident abbot or abbess. It may be the dependency of an abbey or a daughter house. Before the Reformation several English cathedrals (e.g. * Canterbury, * Durham, and * Winchester) had been served by monastic communities, and these too were designated as priories. Such communities were under the presidency of a prior.

Abbey' and 'priory' are titles most properly applied to religious communities during the fullest development of monasticism in the Middle Ages. They were the home of the men and women who could, in the apostle Paul's words, continue 'instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of the saints; given to hospitality'. A life dedicated to prayer and the worship of God, to hospitality and to almsgiving, as well as to work and study, lived as far as possible detached from the distractions and temptations of society, was the objective of these communities.

Benedict, who founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy in 529, compiled for his community a rule of life which was later to be the inspiration for much of monasticism in medieval Europe. Followers of Benedict's rule accompanied * Augustine's mission to England in 597. During the Middle Ages, many of the greater monasteries housed Benedictine communities, including all but one (* Carlisle) of the cathedral priories. Even today, 450 years after Henry VIII ( 1509-47) dissolved the monasteries, there are substantial remains of Benedictine churches, such as Glastonbury and Whitby. Several of the Benedictine abbeys, e.g. * Gloucester and -- briefly -- Westminster, became the cathedrals of new dioceses. Others (* Sherborne, * Tewkesbury, Romsey, Shrewsbury, and * Selby among them) became parish churches. Although now shorn of many of their conventual buildings, enough remains to remind us of the prestige and vigour of these communities in their heyday. However, not all abbeys and priories belonged to the Benedictine order. At the time of their dissolution in the late 1530s, ten other orders were represented in England and Wales, including the Bonshommes. Peculiar to Britain, these were priests who followed the rule of St Augustine and who possessed only two monasteries ( Ashridge, Herts., and Edington, Wilts.) in England. Next to the *Benedictines, it was perhaps the *Cistercians who made the most enduring impact, both spiritually and architecturally. Dissatisfied with the observance of the Benedictine rule at the monastery of Molesme in Burgundy, the abbot Robert with several monks left in 1098 and settled in Citeaux to follow a stricter way of life. His work was consolidated by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th cent. At the dissolution the order possessed some 80 houses in England and Wales. Often built in remote places, the ruins of their churches (e.g. *Fountains and *Rievaulx in Yorkshire, *Tintern in Gwent) are among the finest in the British Isles. JRG

Abbey theatre. First permanent home of the Irish National Theatre, founded by Lady * Gregory, Edward Martyn, and W. B. *Yeats to foster native drama. Yeats's verse play On Baile's Strand was the opening production in 1904 but more dramatic scenes came four years later with riots at the first night of J. M. *Synge The Playboy of the Western World. Controversy also surrounded the staging of plays by * Shaw and * O'Casey, though the latter's The Shadow of a Gunman marked a decisive shift from Celtic twilight to Dublin tenement. The original building, on the corner of Abbey Street, was destroyed by fire in 1951, JNRS

Abbot, George ( 1562-1633). Bishop of Lichfield ( 1609), London ( 1610), and archbishop of Canterbury ( 1611-33). Born in Guildford, Abbot was educated there and at Balliol College, Oxford. As a fellow of Balliol ( 1583) and master of University College ( 1597) he established a reputation as a preacher. His sermons are eloquent and reveal his Calvinist theology. In 1604 he was among those appointed to prepare a new translation of the Bible. His defence of hereditary monarchy and work in Scotland promoting episcopacy ( 1608) coupled with the support of the earl of Dunbar won him the favour of James I and the primacy. From 1621 his ministry was overshadowed by his accidental killing of one of his gamekeepers, and under Charles I his influence over the king's religious policy was eclipsed by that of William *Laud. He was pious and kindly, but a poor administrator. JRG

abdication crisis, 1936, A constitutional scandale stemming from the determination of King Edward VIII, who succeeded his father George V on 20 January 1936, to marry Mrs Wallis *Simpson, an American lady who had divorced her first husband and was about to divorce her second. At first Edward hoped that he might enter into morganatic marriage: Wallis would become his wife but not queen.

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