Sacred Staffordshire is an exploration of places of that have been sacred to people in the county for whatever reason - historical, legendary, or because of a special "Spirit of Place."
Notes by Michael Fisher:
Staffordshire has very few notable monastic remains. Most of its medieval monasteries, including the great pre-Conquest abbey of Burton, fell prey to those who robbed the sites for ready-dressed stone at various times after Henry VIII's suppression of monasticism in the 1530s. The great exception is Croxden. Depleted though it undoubtredly is, its comparatively remote location mid-way between Cheadle (5 miles) and Uttoxeter (5 miles) is probably the reason why so much of it has survived, making it the most spectacular abbey site in Staffordshire, set in a tranquil valley by a tributary of the River Dove.
Croxden Abbey owes its origin to Bertram de Verdun, of Alton Castle, who in 1176 made a grant of land at a place called Chotes to the Cistercian monks of Aunay-sur-Odon in Normandy, as the site for a new abbey. "Chotes" has been identified as Cotton, close to Alton. Site-changes were not unusual amongst theCistercians, and indeed three out of the four Cistercian communi ties of Staffordshire - Croxden, Dielacres and Radmore - were migrant, the monks of "Chotes" moving to Croxden in 1179. The monastery was styled as the Abbey of the Vale of St Mary of Croxden and was dedicated in 1181.
The building of the abbey took place principally under the first abbot, Thomas of Woodstock (1178-1229). More elaborate in plan than was usual amongst the English Cistercians, the church was copied from that of the mother-house at Aunay. The church was 240 feet long, with an eight-bay nave, transepts, and crossing tower. The most unusual feature lay at the east end: an apsidal presbytery with a chevet of five radiating chapels, as at Aunay, and unique in English Cistercian architecture. The Verdun family endowed the monks with lands and properties in the neighourhood of Croxden, and other benefactors included King John. The legend that John's heart was buried at the abbey following his death at Newark (Notts.) in October 1216 arose froma later confusion of Croxden with the abbey of Croxton on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border, whose abbot attended the king on his deathbed and arranged for the embalming of his body.
Like most other Cistercian abbeys, Croxden drew a large part of its revenues from sheep-farming, the monks supplying wool to Flemish and Florentine markeys. The 13th and early 14th centuries were the times of greatest prosperity, and this was reflected in substantial extensions to the church and conventual buildings carried out under abbots Walter London (1242-68) and William de Houton (1269-74).
Despite its impressive buildings and earlier prosperity, Croxden was classed among the smaller abbets having an income of less than £200 a year at the time of Henry VIII's Act for the suppression of the monasteries in 1536. On payment of a "continuance fine" of £100 it received a licence to continue, but such licences were merely a pretence. In August 1538 Abbot Thomas Chalner and his twelve monks surrendered the abbey to the royal commissioners. The buildings were stripped, and what was left fell steadily into ruin. The abbey site passed through the hands of various owners, including the Earl of Macclesfield, who in 1886 paid for the rebuilding of the medieval gate chapel which had, since the dissolution, served as the parish church for the local community. In 1911 the site was excavated by Staffordshire archaeologist and architect Charles Lynam, and further excavations took place in 1956-7. The most substantial parts of the abbey still standing are the west wall of the nave and the west and south walls of thesouth transept. Both have impressively tall lancets. There is also the southern range of the conventual buildings, notably the chapter-house with its richly-moulded doorway. Fragments of sculpture unearthed during the excavations - including roof-bosses and thefigure of a knight - are displayed under cover at the main entrance to the site. Sadly, a modern road runs diagonally across the nave and south transept, but to the north of it the foundations of the east end of the church, with its radiating chapels, can be seen, with the remains of four stone coffins nearby. Though still in private ownership, the site is well-maintained by English Heritage, who have installed attractive and informative interpretation panels to help visitors guide themselves around the ruins.
The plan and the overall style of Croxden abbey greatly influenced the design of St Barnabas' Cathedral, Nottingham, built between 1842-1844. The principal benefactor was John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who lived at Alton Towers, not far from the abbey site, and whose ancestry included the de Verdun family. Lord Shrewsbury told the architect A. W. N. Pugin that he wanted the new church to be a revival of Croxden, and so it was built on the Cistercian plan, with transepts, crossing-tower, an enclosed choir and ambulatories. The tall lancets in thegables of thr transepts and west front are clearly derived from Croxden.
Croxden Abbey (English Heritage site): http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.16846
The Gallery photographs were taken on 1st March 2010.