A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

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