The Knights Templars and a letter from Erasmus (was he gay???)

THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE is remarkably rich in mediaeval remains, many of them accessible to members of the public. Quite a few of these reminders of the past resulted from the mass closure of monasteries and nunneries by King Henry VIII during the 16th century. Denny Abbey between Ely and Cambridge is just one of many examples of the results of the king’s policy. We paid it a brief visit whilst driving between the two cities. We arrived there early in the morning before it was open to visitors, but without entering the compound, we were able to see most of what is on offer apart from the attached Farmland Museum, which we might visit in the future.

Farmhouse, formerly Denny Abbey

The abbey was founded by the Benedictine Order in 1159 (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/denny-abbey-and-the-farmland-museum/) and taken over by the Knights Templars in 1170. The Templars used the place to house old and infirm members of their order. Despite questioning the truth of the Pope’s suspicions about the Templars, King Edward II (reigned 1307-1327) yielded to Rome’s authority, suppressed the Templars in England in 1308-9, and confiscated their properties. In 1327, King Edward III gave the abbey to Marie de Châtillon, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377), the founder of Pembroke College in nearby Cambridge. She converted the abbey into a Franciscan nunnery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denny_Abbey).  The nunnery became home to members of The Order of Saint Clare, often known as ‘The Poor Clares’. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and it, like all the other ecclesiastical establishments closed by the king, became property of the Crown.

The last abbess at Denny was Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton (1467-1547), who headed the nunnery from 1512 until its dissolution. During her term as abbess, two of the nuns in her establishment were sisters of Sir Thomas Grey (Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset: 1477-1530), a student of the Dutch philosopher and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536). When Erasmus was in Basel in 1525, Grey persuaded him to write to the community at Denny. His letter was received, and in response the nuns sent him a gift, which was stolen before it reached him. When he learned what had happened, he wrote again. In his second letter, Erasmus wrote of:

“…the troubles of the time war everywhere, and wrath of princes, famine, and plague and divisions in the Church which tore families apart but comforted the ladies with the thought of the humility and strength of St. Francis and St. Clare and asked their prayers, not only for himself but for the conversion of the thief. He sent his greeting to the ‘most religious lady’ abbess, and begged her to greet Grey’s sisters for him by name.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp295-302).

According to one source, Erasmus was attracted to men. While serving as a canon in Stein (Holland), Erasmus:

“…supposedly fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, and wrote a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus “half my soul”, writing that “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly”” (www.hmoob.in/wiki/Desiderus_Erasmus)

Later, Erasmus, while teaching in Paris:

“… instructed a 21-year-old English-born student, Thomas Grey, who later became Marquis of Dorset. Erasmus was abruptly dismissed as Grey’s teacher, for making unwanted advances towards him.” (http://gayinfluence.blogspot.com/2012/04/erasmus.html)

Another source (“Erasmus” by Preserved Smith, publ. 1923) might well allude to this excessive friendship:

“…Thomas Grey, a young Englishman, of whom Erasmus was fond …”  

Erasmus was in Paris between 1495 and 1499, after which he lived and worked in England (Oxford, then Cambridge) for several periods over the next few years. Clearly, his abrupt dismissal did not deter Grey from writing to him about the nunnery at Denny Abbey. The presence of Grey’s sisters at Denny might have been a consequence of a possible Grey family connection with two other families that were intimately involved with it: the Coleviles and Massinghams.

After the closure of the nunnery, its refectory became used as a barn; the abbess’s lodge, originally built for the Countess of Clare, became used as a farmhouse; and its church, built in 1159, was demolished. Over the centuries, the farm on the former nunnery’s lands was privately owned. In 1928, Pembroke College (Cambridge) bought the plot, and it remained a farm until 1947, when it was leased to The Ministry of Public Works. It was later transferred into the care of English Heritage (founded in the 1980s).

We parked in a grassy field, watched by a small herd of cows, most of whom were seated on the ground, maybe anticipating a rain shower. The farmhouse, the building originally constructed for the Countess of Pembroke, still has doorways and windows in both the Norman and mediaeval gothic styles. A Norman archway was the entrance to the Templar’s church.  Some of these features, which must have once led into buildings now non-existent, have been bricked in. It has new roofing and some windows that were added long after it ceased to be part of the nunnery. Likewise with the large barn, once the refectory, it has two tall doors, which are later additions to the structure, as well as bricked in windows and archways that were used when the nunnery existed. Two lines of masonry almost flush with the ground mark the site of the nave of the now demolished church. Little else can be seen, although during the site’s opening times, visitors can see the remains of a mediaeval tiled floor.

Although little survives of the former Denny Abbey, its ruins are worth a short visit. And, while you gaze at it, you can marvel at the thought that you are looking at the remains of the only abbey in England to have been home to not one religious order but three different ones (www.dennyfarmlandmuseum.org.uk/content/things-to-see/history-of-denny-abbey). When we stopped to look at the place on a grey Friday morning in August 2021, I had no inkling that the great Erasmus had taken an interest in it, nor had I any idea that the scholar has been suspected by some of being gay. An anonymous writer denies this rather vehemently (www.erasmatazz.com/library/erasmus-the-hero/erasmus-was-not-gay/the-thomas-grey-affair.html). Whether or not Erasmus’s advances to Thomas Grey were of a homosexual nature or simply expressions of deep friendship and admiration of his intellect, it is for others to decide. Deciding whether or not to explore the remains of Denny Abbey is far less difficult than judging Erasmus.

Lady with the lamp

ROMSEY IN HAMPSHIRE is a delightful small town with a spectacular parish church, Romsey Abbey, with many Norman and gothic architectural features. The edifice that stands today was originally part of a Benedictine nunnery and dates to the 10th century, but much of its structure is a bit younger. It rivals some of the best churches of this era that we have seen during travels in France. That it still stands today, is a testament to the good sense of former citizens of the town.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of The Monasteries in the 16th century, much of the nunnery was demolished. However, the establishment’s church was not solely for the use of the monastic order but also served as a parish church for the townsfolk. As Henry VIII was not against religion per se, and the need for a parish church was recognised, the townsfolk were offered the church for sale. In 1544, the town managed to collect the £100 needed to purchase the church and what remained of the abbey from The Crown. Thus, this precious example of church architecture was saved from the miserable fate that befell many other abbey churches all over England. However, what you see today was heavily restored in the 19th century, but this does not detract from its original glory.

The town of Romsey is 3.4 miles northeast of East Wellow, the burial place of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the social reformer and statistician as well as a founder of modern nursing. I had no idea that Florence was famous in the field of statistics. Her biographer Cecil Woodham Smith wrote:

“In 1859 each hospital followed its own method of naming and classifying diseases. Miss Nightingale embarked on a campaign for uniform hospital statistics … which would ‘enable us to ascertain the relevant mortality of different hospitals, as well as different diseases and injuries at the same and at different ages, the relative frequency of different diseases and injuries among the classes which enter hospitals in different countries, and in different districts of the same countries.’”

In 1858, she was elected a member of the recently formed Statistical Society. So, there was much more to Florence than the commonly held image of ‘the lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War.

Florence was christened with the name of the Italian city, where she was born. Part of her childhood was spent at the family home of Embley Park, which is 1.8 miles west of Romsey Abbey church and close to East Wellow. Now a school, it remained her home from 1825 until her death.

Broadlands, which was built on lands once owned by the nuns of Romsey Abbey, is a Georgian house on the southern edge of Romsey. It was home to Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who was Prime Minister in 1856 when the Crimean War came to an end. Broadlands was Palmerston’s country estate. It is maybe coincidental that both Palmerston and Nightingale were associated with both Romsey and the Crimean War.

Palmerston is celebrated in Romsey by a statue standing in front of the former Corn Exchange. Florence has a more discreet memorial in the town. It is a stained-glass window within the Abbey church. Placed in the church in 2020, it was formally dedicated in May 2020. It depicts a young lady seated by a tree, her face turned away from the onlooker. Created by Sophie Hacker, the image depicts Florence seated on bench beside a tree in Embley Park. The tree in the window, a cedar, still stands in Embley Park’s grounds. The image is supposed to recall the moment when, as a young girl, she received her calling. Woodham Smith wrote:

“Her experience was similar to that which came to Joan of Arc. In a private note she wrote: ‘On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service’”.

The window includes the following words above her head:

“Lo, it is I.”

And beneath her:

“Here am I Lord. Send me.”

There are a few other words on the window, some in English and others in Italian.

A visit to Romsey Abbey church is highly recommendable. We thought that we had visited it many years before 2021 and arrived expecting to see an abbey in ruins. We were delightfully surprised to realise that we had mistaken Romsey with some other place, whose name we have forgotten, and instead we had discovered a church that was new to us and unexpectedly wonderful both architecturally and otherwise. Anyone visiting nearby Winchester with its fine cathedral should save some time to come to see the magnificent ecclesiastical edifice in Romsey.