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Caveman drawingThe Ancient Origins of Romsey
A slightly individual view

Crossing the A31 Romsey Bypass over Middlebridge Dashing through modern Romsey in a car, it is difficult to appreciate that Romsey owes its existence to water. Travelling along the A31 Romsey by-pass one might just notice an innocuous hump-back bridge, this is Middlebridge a key crossing point of the river Test from before medieval times.

Leaving the wheels behind, and moving around on those strange dangly bits that normally push the accelerator and brake pedals, is to be recommended. Walking around Romsey one quickly finds lots of little streams and rivers many of which disappear into culverts re-emerging on the other side of town. The memorial park is bordered by a beautiful fast flowing offshoot of the river Test.

Intriguingly the centre of Romsey is about a quarter mile to the North East of Middlebridge. To understand this one must think of the lie of the land as it would have appeared in ancient times. The name "Romsey" itself gives something of a clue since the "ey" is derived from an old English word meaning island. The centre of the settlement was wisely situated on a raised flat area of gravel now dominated by the Norman Abbey (definitely worth a visit). This dry area was flanked to the East and West by the river Test and the many other streams and offshoots of the main river. The majority of the surrounding land was a marsh. The many campers amongst you will no doubt have discovered that attempting to pitch a wattle and daub hut in a marsh is not a good idea and anyway the wallpaper would keep peeling off. Consequently in the interests of good wallpapering the centre of Romsey is where it is today.

Side view of MiddlebridgeThe modern Middlebridge Street follows the line from the centre of town to Middlebridge. In ancient times this was a natural gravel bar offering a route through the marsh. The river Test at Middlebridge is reasonably wide but is shallow (it only comes half way up the ducks anyway). Originally it was probably the best fording point and later was the site of a bridge from medieval times.

All routes through this area would therefore have led through Romsey and some settlement no doubt existed into the dim and distant past. The first definite settlers were Saxon iron smelters who were here in the seventh century and probably supplied the great Saxon settlement of Hamwic. (now Southampton) It completely escapes me why Romsey would have been a good place to smelt iron (I bet the answer is water but I can't think why). If any seventh century Saxons read this please educate me.

Romsey's importance grew immensely with the foundation of the abbey. This was thought to be in the year 907AD but evidence seems to indicate an even earlier date. The abbey was in fact a nunnery and had considerable importance being associated with many high born or even royal ladies.

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Medieval history of Romsey

Romsey Abbey The Medieval Abbey

It would appear that the foundation of a religious site at Romsey is impossible to date accurately. The dark ages were after all - well pretty dark.

Certainly there was a religious order at Romsey well over 1,000 years ago, and both Saxon and early Norman Kings and their families were associated with it. In AD 907 Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, was taking an especial interest in Romsey and his daughter, Elfreda, is believed to have been the abbess in charge of a group of nuns there. She was buried at Romsey. Whether or not there were also monks at the settlement at this time is not known.

Under Edward's influence, a primitive church, probably of wood, was built.

As far as its known the nuns continued at Romsey. But the mid-tenth century was a difficult period for Christianity in England, particularly in the South where raiding parties of Danes were a constant menace. The old ideals of the monasteries deteriorated; education was low and so were the morals of some of the clergy.

It was not until Ethelwold was appointed Bishop of Winchester in 963 that the church at Romsey was reconstructed and once again the nunnery had a royal patron in King Edgar. Under Ethelwold's supervision 100 Benedictine nuns were installed under a lively Irish abbess, Morwenna.
About 1004 the Danes destroyed much of the tiny settlement.

A few years later the nuns returned to Romsey. Among them was Ethelflaeda who subsequently became the abbess and whose saintliness was held in such regard that various miracles were attributed to her. The re-building of the Abbey, this time with stone, required the generous donations of pilgrims who were no doubt attracted to the site by such happenings. Two stone crucifix in the walls of the present Abbey are believed to have come from this Saxon church.

Undoubtedly the Norman conquest had considerable impact on the Saxon community at Romsey. William the Conqueror and his occupying army had their headquarters at nearby Winchester and Romsey was on the edge of the New Forest that William had decreed should become his personal hunting "arena."

In 1086 Christine, sister of the Queen of Scotland, was in charge of the nuns. To this community came Princess Matilda and her sister, the daughters of the King and Queen of Scotland.

Matilda it would seem was an extremely attractive woman and attracted the unwanted attentions of the somewhat unpopular King William Rufus. Fortunately for Matilda, King William met with a rather unfortunate accident whilst out hunting in the New Forest. Regrettably for William he was mistaken for a deer by his myopic hunting companion Sir Walter Tyrel, who, following this accident took an extended holiday in France. William Rufus' body is said to have been found in the Forest by a charcoal-burner called Purkess who laid it on a cart and conveyed the royal body to Winchester via Romsey. A plaque in Bell Street commemorates this event.

Rufus was succeeded as King by his 32 year-old brother, Henry I. With Rufus no longer on the scene, Henry immediately was on his way to Romsey to woo Matilda who accepted him. The minor drawback of Matilda technically being a nun was soon overcome. Matilda married Henry in November 1100 and was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey. Thus uniting the Saxon and Norman royal lines.

Henry I, probably accompanied by his Queen, visited Romsey in 1105 and again some years later. He granted the abbess seven Charters, no doubt to show gratitude for the time his Queen had spent at the convent. Among the privileges granted by Henry was the right of the abbess to organise a fair extending over four days. In those days fairs produced important revenue for the organisers, which were mainly the church authorities. Some years later Henry II went even further, granting no fewer than 14 Charters to the Abbey, an indication of the esteem in which it was held by the nation's rulers.

Queen Matilda died in 1118, and there are suggestions that the construction of the present Romsey Abbey was commenced as a memorial to her.

The Abbey, now 263 ft. long and 131 ft. wide at the transept, is larger than four of the English cathedrals - Carlisle, Chester, Oxford and Rochester. Indeed the Abbey is one of the most interesting examples of Norman architecture in the country.

King John's Hunting Lodge

Next to the Abbey, Romsey's oldest building is the 13th century King John's Hunting Lodge which is situated near the Abbey and which has recently been restored. John visited Romsey on several occasions, in 1200, 1206 and twice in 1210.

Henry III presented the Hunting Lodge to the Abbey convent in 1221 and for many years the Lodge was used as overnight accommodation for important visitors to the convent.

See also King John's House

Over the succeeding centuries the abbey continued to have a rich history with considerable and frequent connection with the monarchy. There is far too much to include in this brief account so if you are interested find one of those old fashioned paper things and settle down for a long read.

Abbey Sold for £100

In the 16th century Henry Vlll's desperation to sire an heir to his throne, led to him wanting to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This led to a rather monumental bust up with the church of Rome. The result was the dissolution of the monasteries in Britain during which the assets of the church were seized and many of the most beautiful monasteries and abbeys were pillaged for anything of value, including the lead from their roofs.

The Abbey, another viewIn a bid to preserve their parish church, the townspeople of Romsey were successful in purchasing the abbey building for what must have been the huge sum of £100. Undoubtedly if this had not been done the great building would now lie in ruins.

The abbey is now the parish church of Romsey and plays a central role in many of the town's ceremonies and functions throughout the year. The building is also frequently used for musical recitals whereupon the atmosphere and acoustics of this tremendous building make a superb contribution to the overall experience.

Bill Gidley

See also Romsey Abbey

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