H.V. Morton explores the Nunnery at Romsey

From Chapter Two of  ‘In Search of England’ by Henry Vollam Morton.. originally published in 1927.

‘Romsey, in the magic county of Hampshire, is the ideal small market town. Lord Palmerston, with bronze hair turned green by rain, stands importantly on a plinth in the market-place; a policeman in an easier attitude stands near him; there is a full cake-shop opposite; everything is slowed down to a reasonable pace; men in leggings stand on the kerbstone with the expressions of deep thinkers; now and then a man and a cow cross the square.

A little distance from the road, standing back among trees in Broadlands, the big white house that once belonged to Palmerston; and over Romsey broods a mellow restfulness as if the place has done its bit in nineteenth-century politics and is now content to retire from all kind of passion.

Overshadowing all, as in so many similar little English towns, is the weathered bulk of the great grey nunnery built in Saxon times, destroyed by the Danes, rebuilt in 1130, and bought by the citizens of Romsey (good judges of a bargain) for £100 when Henry VIII collected the Dissolution windfall.

All typical of England, from Palmerston with his green head, the town constable, the cow, to the grey abbey with its feet in the Heptarchy.

I was sitting on the churchyard rails, looking through a feathery green screen of new elm leaves at the Norman clerestory windows, the squat grey tower, and the weathercock on which, says Romsey, a jackdaw perches whenever it is going to rain. (The bird must be tired out, for I looked in vain for it!)

Three small girls in white pinafores were nursing dolls in the graveyard; a butcher’s boy in a blue pinafore cycled past with mutton, and down the elm walk there came an elderly man holding a posy of wallflowers in his right hand. We talked together, first of history and then of life. He was a churchwarden. I was surprised to learn that he is seventy-six years of age. There was nothing to indicate it, and his pale blue eyes showed pleasure when I told him, quite sincerely, that I would have put him down as fifty-five.

‘And never a day’s illness in my life!’ he said. ‘I don’t feel seventy-six. I’m happy — perhaps that’s why! I think the secret of health, and of living as long as I have lived, is a contented mind.’

‘You have, of course,’ I said, ‘never had to run to catch a bus!’

He smiled:

‘It is quiet here,’ he replied. ‘Very peaceful! Nothing much ever happens. Come round to the church: it is shut really, but I can take you in.’

We went down the elm avenue together.

Here, in a grey light reflected from old stone, in the splendid strength of Norman pillar and rounded arch (if you love Norman architecture, see this abbey), in this cold hush, I met a lady, the Lady Ethelæda, third Abbess of Romsey. They tell beautiful stories about her. They say that she was so holy that clothed only in darkness she would steal out of the abbey to stand naked in a stream near by till she had recited the psalms of the day.

That, I think, is as pretty a story as the one Coventry tells about Lady Godiva.

She was rewarded as she deserved to be. One night as she was reading the lesson to the nuns in church, the candle flames shook and went out, but she continued to read by a pale, soft light that shone from the tips of her fingers. That, too, is a lovely picture. It is difficult to imagine this holy lady in the grip of a financial crisis, but legend says that once, having been entrusted with a large sum of money, she was suddenly filled with compassion for the poor and with brimming eyes gave it all away, although not hers to give. When the day of settlement arrived she fell to her knees in prayer and lo! the empty bags filled again . . .  fortunate, holy Ethelæda . . .

One night drama, very near to tragedy, came to Romsey.

William, the Red King, who, it is well known, was a most unpleasant person, knew that if he married Ædgyth, the beautiful Saxon princess then in the wardship of the abbess of Romsey, he would strengthen Norman rule in England by linking the new monarchy with the old. So one night there was a great waving of torches and a clatter of hooves on the cobbles; and up rode the Red King, ready to take the girl. The abbess, who had no intention of giving up her ward, hurriedly dressed the princess in a nun’s habit and told her to kneel at the altar.

The King was received. The abbess told him that the girl whom he wished to marry had taken vows of chastity and now belonged to Christ. Through the dim colonnade he walked, and we can imagine how the knees at the altar trembled as his steps came up to the nave! Pausing at the chapel, the Red King saw a young nun bent in prayer, and he walked out of the church and rode away.

There is in Romsey Abbey, in a locked box, a tress of auburn hair. It was found during excavations in the year 1839 in a leaden coffin of Saxon date under the floor of the south side aisle near the abbess’s door. The coffin was otherwise empty and the hair had been placed in a box of oak that rested upon a wooden stand. What, I wonder, is the story? How often a mystery like that hangs in the mind when the greatest monuments in a church have faded from remembrance.

 

The Norman stone still stands, grey and lovely, in Romsey Abbey. In the little whisperings and creakings that go on when an old church has shut its doors you can fancy old memories are stirring, so that you almost expect to meet  Ædgyth, pale and trembling, or holy Ethelæda, cloaked like Monna, going to her cold bath with a psalm book.

We came out, the old warden and I, into the Elm grove, very silent.’

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