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Page last updated at 11:36 GMT, Tuesday, 20 July 2010 12:36 UK
Walking through Romsey's Norman history

Romsey Abbey
Romsey Abbey dominates the skyline of the Hampshire market town

By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Romsey was an established market town with around 750 inhabitants.

It was governed by the nuns of the imposing Romsey Abbey.

This short walk takes you back nearly 1,000 years in history - to reveal the town's Norman past.

Walk Start - Romsey's Market Place on the island by the statue of Lord Palmerston.

In Norman times the Market Place was much bigger.

The timber-framed, thatched houses (alongside the present Conservative Club) would have been home to abbey servants, tradesmen, butchers and brewers.

Under your feet, the road surface was mud and gravel.

With horse-drawn carts and pack animals, it would be a stinking mix of manure and mud in the winter and attract flies in the summer - it was generally a rather filthy place.

Bell Street, which runs south from the town hall, led down to one of the town's watermills and then onto the main road to Southampton.

The mills were used to grind corn and wheat to make flour.

Stream in Romsey
Romsey's two streams were used to power watermills

Church Street led northwards from the Market Place. In wet weather would (and still may) make the road impassable so travellers would use a route along the eastern hill side above Romsey known as Cupernham.

The Market Place was bordered by two streams. One now runs through the cellars of shops on the west side, marking the edge of the abbey complex.

The other crosses the road at the entrance to the Hundred from Superdrug to Boots. There was a bridge over this stream.

On Sundays - market day - Romsey would have been bustling with people buying meat, vegetables, eggs and chickens, brought in by farmers in the surrounding countryside.

The gateway to the great Benedictine Abbey was across a bridge in the south-west corner of the Market Place. There is still an archway there - now part of the United Reformed Church.

Walk Direction 2 - Go across to the archway. On your left you will see the stream that went under the shops. Pass under the arch and a few metres further on, there is a gateway to the grounds of Romsey Abbey.

Romsey Abbey
Rounded windows are a feature of Norman architecture

The entrance to the abbey brings you to the outer court, where visitors and deliveries were received.

A gateway takes you into the inner part of the abbey which was reserved for the nuns and their servants.

This south exterior side of the abbey is classic Norman architecture with distinctive windows with rounded arches. The glass was added much later.

The nuns lived in buildings on the left, although none of the Norman structures have survived.

Although a harsh life with a heavy pattern of daily worship, the nuns were from wealthy, aristocratic families. They would have been educated and literate - able to write in Latin.

The original foundations of Romsey abbey
The original foundations of Romsey abbey can be clearly seen

There are some interesting small features near the top of the walls including one depicting the playing of stringed musical instrument, common in Norman times, called the 'rebec'.

On one side of this is a Saxon rood, a statue of Christ on the cross dating from the early 11th century. Notice the hand of God above Christ's head.

Walk Direction 3 - Walk towards the west end of the church. (You will pass the south door where there is a level entrance suitable for wheelchairs.) Walk round the west end of the church.

On your left, there are some modern buildings over the site of a medieval fish pond.

Fish was a staple food in Norman times when the Catholic faith dictated that meat could not be eaten on Fridays, saints' days or during Lent.

Walk Direction 3 - Continue round to the north side of the church, past the porch.

On the ground are the remains of the church that stood here in 1066. It was a smaller building than the present one, much of which was built in 1130.

The nuns ran a boarding school for girls and one of their pupils, Princess Matilda, was the daughter of Malcolm Clanmore of Scotland (who was murdered by Macbeth).

Constipated nun
The 'constipated nun' is on the south side of the abbey

The abbey witnessed historic moments - such as the arrival of William II (King Rufus) with his grand entourage to court Matilda.

However she turned him down and later married his brother Henry who became king after William died in mysterious circumstances while hunting in the New Forest.

If you look carefully on the north transept of the abbey (above the Saxon foundations) there is a small fertility symbol feature called the Sheila-na-Gig, otherwise known by locals as "the constipated nun".

Walk Direction 4 - Enter the church by the north door (a donation for upkeep of the building is appreciated but not essential). Walk ahead to the centre of the nave.

This twelfth-century building was constructed while the older building was still standing, so the present nave is the same width as that earlier nave.

The older church was gradually demolished and much of the stone reused either as rubble, or re-cut for facing stone.

The present church was enlarged in the 13th century. However the eastern four bays were constructed in the twelfth century. Rounded Norman arches can be seen in the crossing and eastwards to the altar.

Behind the altar are four little chapels. The one on the left (northern) is dedicated to St George. In front of the chapel is a pillar with a capital at the top depicting two kings fighting (appearing to be pulling each other's beard), but being restrained by angels.

Rounded Norman arches
Rounded Norman arches can be seen inside the abbey

It is thought that these two kings were Alfred the Great and Guthrum - the Danish king conquered by Alfred at the battle of Edington.

In St Anne's chapel, the southernmost of the four chapels behind the altar, is a depiction of Christ on the cross dating from around 960AD.

It shows two Roman soldiers, one with a spear but the other offering comfort with a sponge of vinegar. There are angels in attendance and the cross itself is sprouting leaves depicting the tree of life.

On the pillar near St Anne's chapel is another carved capital showing details of building tools and the words 'Robert me fecit' or 'Robert made me', - presumably the master-mason's mark.

Romsey Abbey church remained in the hands of Benedictine nuns until the convent was closed by Henry VIII in 1539.

Five years later the church was sold to the people of Romsey for £100 - it is now one of largest parish churches in England.

Walk researched by Phoebe Merrick, Lower Test Valley Archaeological Study Group.




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